2011 Census (Southend)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:35 pm on 3rd February 2009.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office) (Third Sector) 10:35 pm, 3rd February 2009

I congratulate Mr. Amess on securing this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to respond, albeit in an arm's length capacity. I cannot do some of the things that James Duddridge might like me to do, as I would not want to interfere too much with the independence of the Office for National Statistics or the UK Statistics Authority. However, I support many of the points that he made about the need to improve the ability to use statistics from other sources in population estimates, and I look forward to his wholehearted support on each occasion when the Government introduce the measures necessary to enable the ONS to do just that.

I thank the hon. Member for Southend, West for highlighting the importance of the census, both in his contribution tonight and on the other occasions on which he has raised this issue in the House. I am pleased to hear about the work that is already going on in Southend, including what he is doing to highlight the importance of the census to the citizens, and the work that he is doing in conjunction with his local authority.

The UK Statistics Authority's proposals for the 2011 census in England and Wales were published in a White Paper on 11 December. In planning the design for the census, officials in the ONS have taken account of the recommendations made following the 2001 census by the Treasury Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office, the former Statistics Commission, other bodies such as the Local Government Association, and Members of Parliament, many of whom had representations to make.

In the time available, I shall seek to answer as many of the questions that the hon. Member for Southend, West raised as I can. He raised the issue of appeals. There is no appeals process planned for the census, but steps have been taken in the design of the 2011 census to giving the highest priority to getting the national and local population estimates right. The ONS will seek to maximise the overall response rate while reducing the differences in response rates between areas and among particular population sub-groups. Local authorities will be asked to provide data from alternative sources in order to assist the ONS with the quality assurance process. That will provide an opportunity for positive engagement before the population estimates are published.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of houses in multiple occupation. One aim of the local authority liaison programme is to identify those areas where there are likely to be high proportions of HMOs, because they do pose a particular problem in census enumeration. The ONS therefore plans to adopt a traditional approach to those areas, using the enumerator rather than the postal approach to identify addresses where additional forms to cover more than one household may be necessary.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of students, and particular attention will be paid to students in the census. In most areas—although I accept not in all—students will be at their term-time address at the time of the census. Others might be living at their home addresses or elsewhere at the time of the census, and students in Southend, as elsewhere, will be counted as resident at their term-time addresses, irrespective of where they are on census day. The census will include a question on term-time addresses for students.

On the rate support grant, the Government consulted local government in December 2004 about moving towards three-year settlements. The vast majority of responses favoured that approach, as it provides predictability and stability in funding from central Government. The calculation of formula grant that an authority receives will be based on the most up-to-date data available at the beginning of the three-year period. It is not possible to say when the 2011 census data will feed into the calculations, because it will depend on when the data become available and on where we are in the three-year cycle at that point.

Both hon. Gentlemen raised issues to do with the rehearsal for the census. That will take place on 11 October, covering 135,000 households in areas chosen to simulate census-type conditions. I will write to the hon. Member for Southend, West with details of why those areas have been chosen and with the criteria that were used. The rehearsal will include 61,000 households in Lancaster, or the whole of the local authority, 40,000 in Newham in London, or 40 per cent. of the borough, and the whole of the island of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn as it is known in this House. Although response to the rehearsal is voluntary, the same procedures will be adopted as in the census and the design of the rehearsal will enable valid statistical conclusions to be made on the effectiveness of the operation.

The hon. Member for Southend, West also asked what support will be in place for local authorities that see their numbers significantly reduced and, as a result, see their grants reduced. A floor damping procedure will be in place to ensure that all local authorities will receive a minimum percentage change in grants to provide stability from the effects of changes from updating data or changing methodology. That will be funded by scaling back the grant increases above the floor for other authorities. The decision on what those floor levels will be will, of course, be taken in due course. A balance will need to be struck between doing what is affordable while allowing some underlying change to come through in the funding of local authorities.

Some concern was expressed by both hon. Gentlemen about the post and the impact of using the post rather than hand-delivered surveys. In fact, in the 2001 census, even with hand delivery, enumerators failed to make doorstep contact with households at more than a third of the addresses that they visited and had to resort to delivering the form through the letterbox. The use of an established postal service will enable a more focused approach to the follow-up activities in order to improve response rates. The plan is for a post-back response of 60 to 70 per cent. The contract with the chosen postal service will demand the ability to cope with that level of response within the time frame allocated. A purpose-built address list and form-tracking system will enable the ONS to monitor and record the delivery of every form in the field, minimising the risk of forms going astray.

The hon. Member for Southend, West asked why it will take so long to release the data. The final results will be released in September 2012, which, he is right, is 18 months after 27 March 2011. The proposals for the 2011 census include an increased emphasis on quality assurance of the results during their preparation—I am sure that he would welcome that increased quality assurance—and cross-checks against other national and local data sources. The statisticians need enough time to conclude the complex task of processing the census data, to make the necessary adjustments for undercounts, and fully to quality-assure the results before they are released and used. A length of time is involved in doing that very complex work.

The hon. Member for Southend, West asked about the security of filling in forms online, and about how appropriate that system is. I think that it is appropriate for people to be able to return forms online, and we may find that the response rate to that is high. The ONS is committed to ensuring proper data security and confidentiality. Despite some of the complaints that are raised in this House, the ONS has a very good record on data assurance, but perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman further details of the plans in place when I write to him following the debate.

The hon. Gentleman talked about growing family sizes, and was concerned about the large size of the form and the additional forms that would be required in households. In fact, the average household size across the country is smaller than it was in 2001, but the form has been redesigned to accommodate space for an additional resident and up to three visitors in order to reduce the number of requests for additional forms. However, there will be clear instructions on the form and in accompanying publicity material on how to obtain additional forms for larger households.

A helpline will also be put in place. The hon. Gentleman was concerned that it would be open only from 8 am to 8 pm, but I can assure him that it will be possible for people to call outside those hours, leave a message and ask to be called back. I hope that that is a helpful observation.

Some concerns have been raised about whether the conduct of the census this time has been designed to make cost savings. In fact, the Government have allocated additional funds to allow for a number of improvements in the 2011 census. Those improvements include more questions, a national address register, an internet collection option, more resources to follow up non-response, and a questionnaire tracking system. Approximately three times the 2001 level of effort will be going into the follow-up operation, which will include helping people—such as the elderly—who have difficulty filling in the forms.

Time is running short, and the hon. Member for Southend, West was kind enough to tell me that he was interested in finding the answer to a number of other questions. He has pledged to write to me after the debate, and I shall be happy to write back to him with detailed responses to his questions.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

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