Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 2:53 pm, 17th July 2019

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I welcome the introduction of the Bill to ensure that the census is up to date and accurately reflects the country as we go to seek its views.

There was another census that took place about 2,000 years ago, possibly the most famous and most significant census ever undertaken. It was a census where people returned to their homeland, to the place they were from, to register. There was a recently married couple at this time who left the town of Nazareth and undertook an arduous journey of about 100 miles on foot—maybe with a donkey, but probably on foot—to their home town of Bethlehem to register that this was the place that they belonged to, that this was their homeland. The journey was particularly gruelling because the wife was heavily pregnant. As is well known to us all now, when they got to Bethlehem the woman gave birth to a son, the most famous human to have ever lived and the founder of the Christian faith. I am sure Sir Cliff Richard is eternally grateful that they made it to Bethlehem, because “O Little Town of Nazareth” does not have quite the same ring to it and he would probably have been one Christmas No. 1 short.

Why did they make that journey? Because they had a strong connection with a place and its people. They wanted to demonstrate that this was the place that was bound up in their identity. This was the place that they were from; this was their homeland. That desire to identify with a place and its people remains as strong in many people today as it did 2,000 years ago. In fact, I would argue that in recent times there is a growing sense, with a more mobile population and globalisation impacting on communities, that the desire to have a strong connection and identity with a place is stronger today than it has been. Today, thankfully, we do not need to travel to our homelands to be able to identify where we are from. Modern census methods allow us to do that by way of a simple tick—well, that is true of almost everyone, as I will come on to explain.

The right to demonstrate which of the national identities within the UK we choose to identify with is not currently protected by legislation. Currently, it is down to the ONS to recommend to the Minister which national identities should be included in any census. I find it quite astonishing that it was only in the most recent 2011 census that the Welsh were given the opportunity to identify their national identity by way of a tick-box, and only in 2001 that the Scottish were given a tick-box. I find it incredible that those developments took place so recently. There is nothing that currently protects that status, and it could be removed in subsequent censuses by a recommendation from the ONS. I am sure many Members of this House would find that completely unacceptable.

Let me say that I have a great deal of respect for the officers and staff of the ONS, who provide a very important service to our nation. I do not believe, however, that it should be down to the ONS, using statistics and data, to decide which national identities should and should not be included in any given census every 10 years. The right to demonstrate one’s UK national identity should not be a matter of data or statistics. I believe it should be a right established in legislation. That right should also be a matter of equality across the whole UK. No one national identity should be considered more important or be recognised more than any other. All the national identities in the UK should be given equal status and equality of opportunity to be recognised as such within any census. We could never countenance one UK nationality being given less status in a census.

I, along with a number of my colleagues, will be looking to add a clause to the Bill to establish in legislation the right for all UK national identities to be treated equally in all future censuses. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster is well aware of this issue. I want to put on record my thanks to him, and to the Minister he is currently filling in for, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, for their positive and constructive engagement on this issue.

The Minister is aware that there is a particular matter in this regard that I want to address. As matters currently stand, there is one UK national identity that is not being given equal status in the census. In 2014, the Cornish were recognised by the Council of Europe under the framework convention for national minorities. That status was not just accepted but enthusiastically embraced by the UK Government, who declared that this would now gave the Cornish equality of status with the other Celtic nations within the UK, the Scottish, the Irish and the Welsh. The ONS, however, does not recognise that status. It is treating the Cornish as a minor local difficulty restricted purely to Cornwall. We are being told that we can have a write-in option for our Cornishness and that there will be an advertising campaign in Cornwall to make people aware of it, but that misses the point that there are many thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of proud Cornish men and women across the UK who would like to identify as Cornish, if they were given the same opportunity to do so as the other Celtic parts of the UK.