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.