The next census is planned for 27 March 2011. There has already been formal consultation on the topic content, and users are being kept informed of current thinking through, for example, the Northern Ireland Statistic and Research Agency’s website and information days. The Office for National Statistics conducted a census test in 2007, and a rehearsal is planned for autumn 2009. Proposals for the 2011 census are expected to be published soon. Moreover, a census Order and census regulations will be laid in 2010 and will provide the opportunity for full legislative scrutiny.
The point is entirely valid. The preparations should progress as quickly as possible. As I have said in the House previously, given the new digital information age in which we live, there may come a day when some — or, perhaps, much — of the information can be obtained in other ways. However, that information can currently be obtained only through a census, which is mandated by a European regulation that imposes a duty on member states to provide census-type data in 2011.
As the Member said, that information is valuable and provides comprehensive and robust population statistics for Northern Ireland that are consistent for small areas and small population groups. The information is used extensively across the public, private and voluntary sectors and has many important applications. For example, it informs allocation of resources and policy development and monitoring; acts as a benchmark for demographic statistics; and provides the basis for population and housing projections.
The Department will introduce its proposals on the census. I assure the Member that the census is designed to meet specific policy needs. As the Member is aware, the census is conducted every 10 years, and the 2011 census will be closely based on previous models. Any adding or taking out of questions will be proposed soon, and will be subject to full discussion and full legislative scrutiny. Only questions that are required to acquire sensible and useful information should be asked. The questions will be in line with those that are asked elsewhere in the UK.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister has accepted that the 2011 census will inform the programme of spending and policy direction of the Executive and the Assembly for a subsequent 10-year period, will he consider the inclusion of a question that will ascertain the community’s views on constitutional matters? It is important that people have the opportunity to record their preference, whether it be for a united Ireland or for the continuation of the union with Britain.
The simple answer is no, I will not include such a question. It is not the purpose of a census to ask such a question, and, in any case, we know the answer. The people of Northern Ireland, overwhelmingly, want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Most people welcome the fact that our devolved Assembly is governing part of the United Kingdom.