Cornish National Identity: 2021 Census

Women and Equalities Committee – in the House of Commons at 9:11 pm on 11th June 2018.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Order. If Members are leaving, I am sure they will do so quickly and quietly. I cannot believe that there will be hushed private conversations conducted by Members who do not wish to hear Steve Double dilate on the important matter of Cornish national identity in the 2021 census, to which I am sure everybody else wishes keenly to listen.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am deeply honoured to be able to make the case tonight for celebrating Cornish identity and to call for the inclusion of Cornish identity to be recognised in the next census in 2021. I am very grateful for the support of many of my Cornish colleagues here in the House this evening.

There is no doubt or debate over the fact that the Cornish are a proud people who share an extraordinary history that can be traced back thousands of years. In calling for this debate to make the case for a Cornish tick box for national identity in the next census, there is a risk that some may see this as some sort of gimmick designed simply to boost our tourist industry or play into a stereotype of Cornish country folk. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although it is true to say that many of us Cornish can be guilty of having a playful jibe at the English, especially those from Devon—after all they do put their jam and cream on the wrong way round on their scones—this is not a whim or some notion based on a romantic view of the past.

The Cornish have, along with our Welsh cousins, the longest history of any people in Britain, dating back 12,000 years. It is believed that these ancient people entered this isle after the Ice Age from the area now occupied by the Basques. Genetic codes indelibly mark the Cornish with the DNA of their ancient ancestors. It is believed that a staggering 80% of the Cornish retain this genetic marker. The Cornish language, which is seeing a revival in recent times, has a 5,000-year history. We in Cornwall have our own culture and our own ways. Cornwall even has its own patron saint, St Piran, whose life is celebrated on 5 March every year. We have our own flag and even our own tartan, which I am modelling so well with my tie this evening.

We are all but an island, with the sea surrounding us on three sides and the Tamar River on the fourth, which falls only four miles short of making us an island. There has been many a Cornishman who has been tempted to get his shovel out and dig those last four miles to finish the job, because in so many ways we have the culture, the identity and the attitudes of an island race.

The 80 miles of granite protruding into the Atlantic stubbornly rebel against the great ocean and yet have been shaped by it. The beauty and the desolation defy description and yet somehow portray the spirit of the people who call it their land. It is as if the people and the land are as one. This is not just an historic or romantic notion, but a serious issue that is very much based on current, clear facts.

In 2014, the Government announced that the Cornish would be classified under the Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities—a body that I have been honoured to be appointed to recently by the Prime Minister.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward and remind him that we all love our cultures, which, mixed together, represent the best of British. I certainly appreciate the richness of the Cornish culture. Does he agree that there is also something special about the Ulster Scots heritage, of which I am a part? It is these different branches that come from our Britishness that mean that we can all take pride in being Ulster Scots, Welsh or Cornish, and uniquely British.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I completely agree with him. One of the beauties of our islands is that we can celebrate both our diversity and the thing that unites us, which is our love for our nation, the United Kingdom, and being British. Like my Celtic cousin, I say that we Celtic fringe nations can bring a true sense of diversity and variety that enrich our British culture.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. For what it is worth, he can count on the support of Plaid Cymru—his cousins across St George’s channel—in getting this tick box for the Cornish identity. Does he agree that doing so is of not just symbolic, but practical, importance? It is symbolic in that the census would then acknowledge the Cornish nation, just as it does the other Celtic nations of the UK. It would also be of practical importance in allowing the UK Government better to prepare for issues such as the Cornish language.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and appreciate his support for my case. He makes the good point, which I will develop in just a moment, that this is not just a matter of Cornish identity and pride; it has a practical application to ensure that the Government can obtain accurate data through the census that can shape future policy. That is so important.

As I was saying, the Government recognised the Cornish as a national minority in 2014. It is worth recalling the words that the Government released in a statement at the time, saying:

“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”

As hon. Members can imagine, there was much celebration and dancing in the streets of Cornish towns and villages at this announcement. We may have even consumed a pasty or two to celebrate. At last—what every Cornish man and woman had known in their hearts for generations was now officially recognised and declared by the Government. However, we stand here today—more than four years later—and wonder what all the fuss was about. We ask ourselves, what did this mean?

It is worth noting at this point that the Government have in many ways been very supportive of Cornwall in recent times. We are seeing record levels of investment in our transport infrastructure, and Cornwall remains the only rural county to have been given a devolution deal by the Government. However, when it comes to the specific matter of recognition of the Cornish as a people, there is still a great deal to do. Sadly, despite the recognition afforded by the European framework convention and embraced in words by the UK Government, the Government have been criticised by the Council of Europe for not doing enough to address the cultural needs of communities in Cornwall. There have been warm words but little action.

The Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities visited the United Kingdom in March 2016 to assess how the UK Government and other public bodies were complying with the articles of the convention. It published an opinion document in early 2017 that was very critical of the UK Government and their failure to act on the articles of the convention. One of the key proposals in the report to address this shortcoming was the inclusion in the 2021 census of a Cornish tick box for national identity.

The purpose of the census is clear and in many ways simple; it is designed to give an accurate picture of the demographic and social changes within the UK. I celebrate with the Scottish who were identified on the census form in the 2001 census, along with the English and the Northern Irish, of course. The process was, however, flawed because there was no provision for the Welsh. The matter was corrected for Wales in 2011, when 66% of people in Wales chose to identity as Welsh. Imagine the outrage today if the Scottish or Welsh were omitted from the next census. As I highlighted earlier, the Government’s statement in 2014 said that the Cornish would now be afforded the same recognition as our Celtic cousins, yet on this simplest and most basic of things—the ability for people to declare themselves as Cornish in the census—the Government are falling short.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I am sitting not a million miles away from the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Baker, who is an exiled Cornishman. There are many people outside Cornwall who have moved away, but who were born in Cornwall and would probably like to be able to tick the box on the census. Has my hon. Friend Steve Double considered that?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful to my Cornish colleague for that intervention and for pointing out the hon. Member for Wycombe, who in fact attended the same school as me in Cornwall, so we have a great deal in common. He makes a very good point. This is not just about people currently living in Cornwall; it is about the right and opportunity for people across the country who count themselves Cornish—maybe by birth; maybe by ancestry—to identify themselves as Cornish.

The point has been made that there is the option under “Other” in the census to write “Cornish” as one’s nationality. In fact, in 2011 a staggering 73,000 Cornish men and women chose to do so. I should declare an interest in saying that I was one of those 73,000 people. An interesting comparison is worth noting. Those 73,000 people represent about 14% of the residents of Cornwall. That is the same percentage of Welsh residents who wrote “Welsh” under the “Other” option in the 2001 census. In 2001, the inclusion of a specific tick box for “Welsh” increased the percentage of people identifying as Welsh from 14% to 66%. I am convinced that if a tick box was provided, we would see a similar increase in the percentage of people choosing Cornish as their identity. A dropdown menu provision for “Other” is not good enough.

Recognition by way of a tick box will not only satisfy those of us in the far west but enhance the accuracy of the census by allowing the many thousands of Cornish men and women from across the UK—the Cornish diaspora—to know that they can declare their Cornish identity. Gleaning accurate data is surely what the census is all about. We need to know how each nationality within the UK is faring: it is a crucial part of the exercise. We need the census to throw up the relevant and accurate data that can shape future policy for every group identified within the UK.

This issue is not just about the current generation—it is about our future and the protection and nurturing of our unique Cornish identity, culture and heritage. As I highlighted, over 73,000 people registered as Cornish in 2011. Thousands more would have done so if the option had been as straightforward as it is for the other nationalities. What is so telling is that among the young people of Cornwall—our schoolchildren—a clear and rapidly growing number now identify themselves as Cornish. Any argument that there is no demand to identify as Cornish, or that it is a fad of a bygone era, is erroneous. Our young people are proud to be Cornish and deserve the right to be able to say so in future. In fact, there is a growing movement within Cornwall to celebrate our unique identity and culture that is the strongest it has been for many, many years.

I understand the concerns of the Office for National Statistics—and I suspect the Government also—that if it allows a tick box for the Cornish in the next census, it will be overwhelmed with hundreds of other groups calling for their identity to be formally recognised in this way. I appreciate that this is a genuine concern. However, there is a very simple answer. The Cornish are the only nationality recognised by the Government under the framework convention who do not have the option of a tick box in the census—who are not recognised in this way. No other group can make that claim. In that regard, the case for the Cornish is unique. No one else can make the case for inclusion in the way that the Cornish can.

I am very grateful to be backed in this call by all six of Cornwall’s MPs, by Cornwall Council, and by a whole raft of organisations from across Cornwall. I am calling on the Government to back our campaign for a Cornish tick box in the 2021 census and thereby take an important step towards fulfilling their responsibilities under the framework convention. In finishing, there is one simple thing left to be said: Kernow bys vyken—Cornwall forever.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 9:49 pm, 11th June 2018

I sincerely thank my hon. Friend Steve Double for securing this debate on Cornish national identity and the 2021 census. I am tempted to argue for a special Norfolk identity, but I will restrain myself, even though we have half an hour extra on the clock.

I make my comments in the sure knowledge that my hon. Friend is a proud Cornishman and a strong campaigner for Cornwall and recognition of the Cornish identity. I thank him, his colleagues and those behind the campaign for the work they have done to bring this issue to the House, as well as the other hon. Members who made brief contributions this evening. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where I know he will make strong arguments.

I would like to start by discussing why the census is important and what we do with the data, which is the practicality that I think we all want to get to. The data collected by the census underpins decisions both locally and nationally. The earliest census that could be described as such in this country was the Domesday Book, which was to catalogue assets for taxation; I am sure that that is not what my hon. Friend is looking for. The first official census in 1801 was conducted to monitor population growth and resources. In modern times, the data that the census provides underpins planning and funding for the provision of key services used by everybody, such as education and healthcare. The data allows us to identify and address unfairness and inequality in society, with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. The census also provides detailed data on small groups at a very local level in a way that other sources do not, so I understand the importance of this opportunity to capture better data on the Cornish identity.

Responsibility for delivery of the census in England and Wales sits with the independent Office for National Statistics. Since the last census in 2011, the ONS has been thoroughly preparing for the 2021 census, to ensure that it is fit for purpose, reflects the modern digital society in which we live and ultimately provides the evidence needed for Government and others to identify any areas of inequality in our society and act on them. The ONS is now completing its programme of research, consultation and analysis on the census, and its recommendations will inform the Government’s census White Paper later this year.

I should stress that it is important that the ONS is given the time to get its recommendations right. It would not be appropriate for me or the Government to pre-empt its findings, but I know from meeting the ONS that it has listened broadly to stakeholders’ views on the topics and questions for the 2021 census. It carried out a topic consultation in 2015, with the response published in 2016, and it has undertaken a programme of research and engagement with communities on a range of issues that need further consideration.

On the need for a Cornish tick box in the next census, the ONS is working to ensure that those who identify as Cornish can and will do so in the 2021 census through a tick box or another means. It has committed to work with Cornwall Council to improve the available analysis on the Cornwall population from the 2021 census, building on feedback on what was provided in 2011. I know that the ONS has spoken with Cornwall Council and Cornish Members and continues to consider the evidence provided. I know that it will also engage with Cornish community groups and the council to tailor census communications and operations to the Cornish, to increase the response rate of self-identification. That is another point of practicality that I think we are all keen to see.

The consultative approach that the ONS has taken, and the fact that it continues to meet interested parties to reach a common view on the information that should be captured, is welcome. I understand from a recent meeting between the ONS and the council that there is a clear agreement that Cornwall needs better data on the Cornish population. I also know that the ONS is still deciding on, and open to arguments about, the best way to meet that need. It is excellent and timely for us to have this debate tonight, because it allows Cornish Members to bring forward their constituents’ arguments, which they have done eloquently, and for those arguments to be considered by the ONS before such decisions are finalised.

Let me acknowledge the important and proud history and unique culture of Cornwall, alongside its distinctive language; I will not try to respond to the saying that my hon. Friend’s mentioned. That is of course fully recognised under the framework convention for the protection of national minorities, and in 2014 the Government recognised the unique identity of the Cornish, which acknowledged the importance to people in Cornwall of their proud history, culture and heritage. Since then, the Government have supported the work of Cornwall Council and its partners in encouraging the further development of Cornish culture and heritage, including with support for the Cornish language and funding for Cornwall Council in recent years.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

We are not all from Cornwall, obviously, but those of us who are not—I am from Northern Ireland, from an Ulster Scots tradition, and my colleague from Wales, Ben Lake, is from a Welsh tradition—support recognising Cornish culture, language, history and traditions. There is support for the very same thing from other nations within the great big United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. I know from my meetings with him how proudly he, too, speaks up for his own culture and what it means for his community, and I respect that.

Let me turn to what we need to be able to do with census data. The crucial point is that we need to be able to understand the Cornish population, their circumstances and any issues specific to them. My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay has argued that the Cornish are uniquely disadvantaged because, as he puts it, they are the only ethnic minority in the UK protected under the framework convention who do not have a tick box in the census. Let me try to set out why this is not a case of disadvantage, and how we may be able to achieve the same goals through a choice of means.

We want to ensure that all minorities are effectively represented in the 2021 census. For that reason—this is a very important point—the 2021 census will for the first time be a predominantly online census. It will be the first time that that has occurred, and it will provide the opportunity for all respondents to express their right to self-identify either through a tick box or a write-in option. I hear my hon. Friend’s arguments about how a write-in option is not suitable, but let me try to put some of the points that the ONS feels are important and explain why we think the census will provide the data for which we are all looking as a common goal.

Historically, there has always been pressure to include more questions and response options in the census than can be accommodated without putting an unacceptable burden on members of the public in completing the form. This census is no exception, but because it will be primarily online, it will be quicker and easier for all respondents to identify themselves using free text. That will help us to produce richer and higher-quality analysis about communities without the need to include more and more tick boxes.

I understand the argument that a tick box has been seen as essential in getting to questions of cultural identity, such as ethnicity, national identity and language. However, the innovation of an online questionnaire means that we can add a drop-down box with a “search as you type” option. For example, if one of my hon. Friend’s constituents began to type the letter C, it would immediately offer “Cornish” as an option to choice. Along with local campaigns and community engagement, that will aid our ability to raise awareness of the option. With such techniques, it will be possible for respondents to identify themselves more quickly and easily, and they will have every encouragement and opportunity to do so. The ONS will offer comprehensive guidance to support self-identification, whether through a tick box or a “search as you type” function. Those are two ways to meet the same goal. I just wanted to set out for my hon. Friends the alternatives that are under consideration.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip 10:00 pm, 11th June 2018

To get back to the core point that my hon. Friends have put before the House tonight, we know that tick boxes can provide guidance and assistance to make responding easier, but many questions have too many response options to make a tick box the only solution. That is why I am telling my hon. Friends that it is not the only solution and there are other ways to achieve the same goal.

Online data gathering allows improved ways of enabling respondents to identify themselves as they wish, and for a better quality of statistic to be generated by analysis of the responses. The bottom line is that the ONS absolutely recognises the need for better data on Cornish communities.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, especially on the point about statistics. I am slightly worried about having “search as you type”, so that “Cornish” pops up in a box. Some people might put “Cornish” if there is a tick box, but would not necessarily start typing it—such as the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Baker, who grew up in Cornwall, has moved away and probably would tick Cornish if there were a tick box. The ONS will miss a trick with the statistics if “Cornish” is not written in a proper drop-down box.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I take that point. The ONS is listening carefully to this debate, which is timely because it gives us a further opportunity to hear and take into account the views of Cornish hon. Members and the constituents for whom they speak so well tonight.

As I say, the ONS will consider all the evidence to decide how best to gather the data. We are here in a common goal—to try to get to the root of any inequalities or unfairness in society, for which we need quality data. We generally expect better data now, and an online census will bring other benefits. If I may illustrate why I say that we will have a much greater online service this year than 10 years ago, in 2011, 17% of census returns were made online. In 2021, we will look to achieve a 75% online return rate. It should be easier and quicker for individuals, and is much more cost-effective than completion and return of a paper form. I hope that it will also serve to encourage more completion among my hon. Friends’ constituents. The ONS will provide detailed assistance to the public to encourage online completion, including a dedicated census contact centre, engagement with community groups, and work by census field staff on the doorstep.

Most importantly for Cornish national identity, the 2021 census will for the first time offer a bespoke analytical product to the Cornish. That really will be a step towards our shared goal of better data about the community, gathered in ways that may be new to those who have made this argument over the years. The core goal is to get the data and put it to use—the practicality that Ben Lake mentioned. That is what will, I hope, allow us to improve the measurement of the socioeconomic conditions and the educational, health and housing outcomes of those who have identified as Cornish and native Cornish speakers. As I outlined, that will be hugely supported by ongoing engagement to ensure that the analysis is helpful to the specific needs of Cornwall Council and that it offers a genuine improvement in our understanding of what it means to be Cornish. That will be provided regardless of whether there is a tick-box solution or a write-in and “search as you type” solution.

I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay for his campaigning ability in raising this matter. My hon. Friends, this team of six parliamentarians and local champions, have spoken for Cornwall loudly and clearly. They have come here tonight with a strong voice to express what it means to Cornwall for this data to come back from the census. I hope that in return I have been able to explain the position of the independent ONS, and to convey that the Government recognise and value Cornwall. I hope the 2021 census will allow the national identity to be fully expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.