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Census Order (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 5th May 2020.

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Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 12:15 pm, 5th May 2020

I beg to move

That the draft Census Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 be approved.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on this debate.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The draft order before the House today forms part of the legislative process that is required to enable the next census. The census is the largest statistical exercise undertaken by government and is the most important source of information on the size and nature of our population. Central and local government, the health and education sectors, the academic community, businesses, professional organisations and the voluntary sector all need the reliable information on people and households that they get from the census. Billions of pounds of public money is allocated each year using census data. The data is also used to help plan public services in education, health and a host of other areas. The census provides the main source of comparable statistics for small areas and small population groups which are consistent across Northern Ireland, with the rest of the UK and across the island of Ireland.

For the first time, it is planned that the census will be carried out primarily online. That will make it easier for the majority of our population to fill in their returns. Around 80% of households will receive an initial invitation to take part online, with the remainder receiving a paper questionnaire. However, those households can also choose to take part online if they wish. Anyone who does not receive a paper questionnaire will be able to request one via a dedicated call centre. After census day, paper questionnaires will also be sent out to all households that have not yet made their return.

The primary legislation that provides for the taking of a census is the Census (Northern Ireland) Act 1969. This allows the First Minister and deputy First Minister to order that a census of population be taken. The order prescribes the date on which the next census is to be taken, the persons with respect to whom census returns are to be made, the persons required to make those returns, and the questions in each census return.

The order proposes that the next census be held on 21 March 2021, just under a year from now. A variety of factors influenced the choosing of the date, including the tradition of the census being conducted at 10-yearly intervals; the desire to maximise the number of people who will be present at their own home on or around census night; the desire to avoid elections, which could cause confusion for the public; and ensuring the health and safety of census field staff, particularly through there being enough daylight hours for them to undertake the completion of field duties.

Locally, the census is conducted in partnership with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which runs the census in England and Wales The date chosen therefore aligns Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK. That joint working gives rise to efficiency savings and allows publicity initiatives to be optimised. Joint working also reduces risk and the likelihood of public messages being confused.

A census is also planned for the Republic of Ireland in 2021 but on the slightly later date of Sunday 18 April. Officials in the census office in the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) already work closely with colleagues in the Central Statistics Office (CSO) in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that detailed statistics for the island of Ireland can be produced. Going forward, we will keep the timing of the census under review. If, because of coronavirus or, indeed, any other reason, a census cannot be taken, further legislation will be brought before the Assembly to amend the plans laid out here.

Secondly, the order details who is to be included in the census and who is responsible for making the return. The order prescribes that every individual who is usually resident at an address must be included in the census return. A subset of information will also be collected on visitors staying at an address on census night. That helps ensure that nobody is missed and that all are counted at their place of residence. To that end, every household and communal establishment will receive a census questionnaire, and special arrangements will also be in place to ensure that members of the Traveller community and people who are sleeping rough are included.

It will be the responsibility of householders to ensure that their census questionnaire is completed and returned. In communal establishments, the manager or person in charge will be responsible for completing an establishment-level census questionnaire and ensuring that individual questionnaires are completed for all usual residents of the establishment. The public will be able to get assistance with the completion of their questionnaire should that prove necessary. Special arrangements will be put in place to support vulnerable groups to ensure that the census is equally accessible to all.

The third aspect of the order relates to the questions to be included in the census return. The 2021 census consultation process began after the previous census. Two formal public consultations were held, in 2015 and 2018. To create the proposals, discussions were also held with experts from Departments and the main census users in the academic, business, statutory and voluntary sectors. That all led to the detailed proposals paper that was published in April 2019. Subsequently, public engagement events were held to explain and discuss the proposals. Finally, the Executive endorsed the proposals in March of this year.

The detailed programme of work to develop, test and evaluate the topics has also included a large-scale census rehearsal in autumn 2019. Such activities have helped ensure that the census will deliver consistent, high-quality information to meet user needs on topics that are acceptable. All of that work has drawn on the valuable experience and insight gained through previous censuses. The questions, or particulars, on census returns are outlined in schedule 2 to the draft order. Although most of the particulars have already been included in previous censuses, the consultation suggested the need to collect additional information on the nature of our population.

I draw Members' attention to a number of new topics. There will be an extension to the question on long-term health conditions to include an option on autism and Asperger's syndrome. There will be a new household-level question on whether solar panels, wind turbines or other forms of renewable energy are used in the household. Lastly, following detailed public engagement, there will be an individual question for adults on sexual orientation. To address privacy concerns, and given that the census is statutory, there will be no penalty if members of the public do not answer this question.

A key principle was that the 2021 census should be no longer, in terms of the number of questions, than the 2011 census, and this has been achieved. While some topics are excluded because they could have had a negative impact on the census, alternative data sources such as social surveys and administrative data can be used instead. The topics proposed for inclusion strike the proper balance between meeting the requirements of census users and managing the burden on the public.

I emphasise to Members that the information provided by the public will be treated in the utmost confidence. The census office has a track record, and it will make data security and confidentiality its highest priority. The delivery, return and processing of each questionnaire will be tracked at key stages to ensure that every one is accounted for. All arrangements for handling census information were the subject of an independent security review, which has been published. All temporary field staff who help to undertake the enumeration process are civil servants and will be security vetted by Access NI. All staff working on the census will also be required to sign a confidentiality declaration to confirm their understanding of and commitment to the legal confidentiality undertakings. Disclosure of personal census information is a criminal offence. Names and addresses are retained purely for census purposes and will be removed from the information that is used to produce the aggregate outputs. Personal census information is kept secure and closed to public inspection. The finalised census data set will be registered under the Data Protection Act 2018.

Further information on the detailed operational aspects of the 2021 census, including the appointment of field staff and the creation of enumeration districts, will be brought forward through the planned census regulations. I commend this draft order to the Assembly.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the statement. I speak on behalf of the Committee, which, at its meeting on 25 March, considered a proposal for a statutory rule that directed that a census be held in 2021 and outlined, in broad terms, its content and coverage.

As already outlined, the Department of Finance has central authority for the conduct of the census, but, first, the First Minister and deputy First Minister must direct that the census take place. Given the involvement of the Department of Finance, the Committee for Finance considered the policy implications of the proposal at its meeting on 18 March. It wrote to the Committee for the Executive Office advising that it had no objections to the rule.

The draft statutory rule was laid on 9 April and considered by the Committee for the Executive Office at its meeting on 22 April. At the time of that consideration, the Examiner of Statutory Rules had not reported her findings on the technical elements of the rule. However, the Committee recommended that, subject to the Examiner of Statutory Rules's report, the draft rule be approved by the Assembly. The Examiner of Statutory Rules has now reported on the statutory rule and raised no issues. Therefore, the Committee's recommendation that the draft rule be approved stands.

Speaking as an MLA, I welcome the inclusion of some of the population who were previously excluded, especially those from the LGBT community. I also welcome that the issue of a penalty for those not answering questions on gender identity is addressed. The ability of people to exercise their identity is essential, and this inclusion is very welcome. As someone from the sector said:

"If you don't count, you don't count."

I also welcome the fact that the new process can be completed online.

It is 2020, and, as many people nowadays wholly use technology and online methods to conduct their business, even though this is a voluntary option, it is very welcome that the opportunity is there.

I also wish to recognise and welcome the fact that extensive stakeholder engagement took place. It is absolutely critical that such engagement continues and that the Executive reach out to as many people who are impacted by the new regulations as possible to hear their voice and have that voice included in the outcomes. We welcome these census regulations.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 12:30 pm, 5th May 2020

Before I call the next Member, I remind Members that I have the following names on my list: Mr Aiken, Mr Sheehan, Ms Armstrong, Mr Blair and Mr Allister. If your name is not there and you wish to participate in this discussion, please rise or try to catch my eye and I will add you to the list.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Census Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 is made under powers conferred by the Census Act, which specifies that the First Minister and deputy First Minister must direct the censuses taken. The Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office has summarised the anomaly that resulted in the scrutiny of the legislation falling on two Statutory Committees. The Committee for Finance was asked to scrutinise the general policy proposals and then write to the Committee for the Executive Office to advise whether it was content. It then fell to the latter to consider the draft order.

The Committee for Finance received oral evidence from the register general on the statutory rule on 18 March 2020 at the SL1 stage. Members were informed that the legislation would establish the date of census, the area to be covered, the persons who have to complete returns, the persons who should be included in those returns and the questions that should be asked. It also proposed that the census should be, as has already been briefed, held on 21 March. Obviously, that will be subject to any potential COVID restrictions that may then occur.

Members then questioned officials and received assurances on the steps that had been taken to ensure the accuracy of the register on which the census is based. The census will include a number of new topics, including a household question on renewable heat systems, an adult question on apprenticeships completed and an adult question on sexual orientation, which will not be compulsory. Some questions have been omitted from the 2011 census where there are other sources of data available.

Officials outlined the extensive consultation that has taken place since 2014 on the questions to be asked. That included a dry run of the census in west Fermanagh, Belfast and Craigavon, which was to ensure consistency of data and to test systems and services. The dry run also included an online census to ensure adequacy of connectivity in rural and border regions. In response to a question from the Committee, officials revealed that, in the dry run, two thirds of households completed the census online, and that, although the percentage was higher in Belfast, more than 50% of households in west Fermanagh completed the census online. Obviously, that was those who managed to find that their broadband worked.

Having considered the oral evidence from the register general, the Committee for Finance was content with the policy implications of the legislation.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Census is of great importance in gathering the necessary information to understand the needs of the population living in this part of the island. Understanding need is vital to us as political representatives in developing policy and in planning and delivering public services for society. The North of Ireland is becoming more and more diverse, and, as a society, it is important to understand and respond to the changing needs of the whole community. How the census is conducted and the information that it seeks to gather indicates just how diverse our society has become. I welcome the fact that translated booklets on how to complete the census will be provided in many different languages. Of course, the option to complete the census in Irish, as well as Ulster Scots, is an important recognition of the communities who live and work through their own language.

I welcome the inclusion of a number of new questions in the census. The question on long-term health conditions will now include an option on autism and Asperger's syndrome, allowing the needs of those with autism and Asperger's syndrome to be better identified and to provide more planned support and interventions. The need to establish the uptake of renewable energy sources is also helpful in our contributions to addressing the existential climate crisis facing the planet. I also welcome the question for adults on sexual orientation. That question, unlike others, will not be mandatory, but it will help to improve the visibility, recognition and rights of those in our society who have suffered so much neglect, discrimination and prejudice in the past.

Census 2021 will not just be important for measuring the change that has already occurred, but as a benchmark for the change that we will see in the decade ahead. We are facing significant changes in the immediate and short term, in the context of Brexit, the global pandemic that is COVID-19, and the global climate crisis, all of which pose serious risks and challenges that will change society. Significantly, it is getting increasingly difficult to ignore the reality that those challenges require all-Ireland solutions and approaches. Whether health, economic or environmental, these crises will impact everyone on this island and they are best addressed together. It is important, therefore, that NISRA works closely with colleagues in the South in the Central Statistics Office to ensure that detailed statistics for the island of Ireland can be produced as the outworking of each census, on either side of the border, in 2021.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the independent collection of data through the census. However, and I have to say this to the junior Minister and the Finance Minister, whom I see in the Chamber, I have reasonable concerns about this order.

The proposed census contains a question that is outdated and insulting to many people who do not wish to be identified by their religious background. Mr Sheehan rightly talked about a diverse society, and it looks as if this census is doing that, but, unfortunately, it is a bit backward looking as well. As the Chair of the Committee mentioned, basically, if you are not in the census, you do not count. We are allowing a census to go through in which you have to note down the perceived religion that you were brought up in. So, in this census, the diverse society counts only if you are Catholic or Protestant. The unwillingness to remove that outdated question means that the census in 2021 will deliver information that perpetuates a Catholic or Protestant headcount; data that is not relevant and that is quite disrespectful to the growing number of people who no longer wish to be defined by a specific religion or who do not have a religion.

I want it put on record that if we are considering Northern Ireland only in terms of Catholics or Protestants, or as a special case, how can we move forward in our peace process to what should be a normal future? The outdated language and the use of a question about the religious body that people were brought up in is not helpful in planning for a truly shared and inclusive society and future.

The Northern Ireland census asks, under the demographic particular of question 17, for the:

Religion, religious denomination or body belonged to, or if none (selecting all that apply).

It then goes on to ask:

For those indicating none to the above; Religion, religious denomination or body brought up in, or if none (selecting all that apply).

Why ask that question? The 2021 census and the Executive Office are asking people who are not involved in a religion to be defined by that religion, and to state the religion that they may have been perceived to have been brought up in or that their grandparents were brought up in. That is quite insulting and it does not recognise religious diversity. It is all religions, and none, that we are supposed to be respecting. It is like the old thing that I grew up with, "Aye, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Muslim?". It is ridiculous. Is this the way that the Executive Office still considers Northern Ireland? Instead of using the factual data that is already provided through the question, "What religion do you belong to?", the question undermines a respondent who chooses to answer no by requiring them to confirm the religion that they were brought up in. What use is that data?

Instead of looking forward, this census will again collate data that is irrelevant. Surely the priority in our diverse society is to ensure that we capture data to measure equality for all, not just those who have defined themselves as Catholic or Protestant. Persisting in asking a population to define itself in this way means that society here will always be held back by people who are determined only to recognise division and not the inclusive nature of our much more diverse society.

I am extremely concerned by the second religion question. When I met NISRA as part of the ongoing consultation, it confirmed that the question would be optional. Really? It is not in the order as being optional. Under 3.9 of the explanatory notes, it confirms that the question on sexual orientation:

"will have no penalty for non-response."

I was told that there was no penalty for not answering the second religion question, so I am going to ask the junior Minister whether he can confirm when summarising that the public will not be fined if they choose not to answer that irrelevant question. If you do not have a legal obligation to answer the second religion question, why is it asked and deemed necessary?

Just when I mention not having to answer that question, when I met NISRA and it mentioned to me how the question was not going to be compulsory, I asked it to ensure that a pop-up would appear when people get to that question — question 17 — to explain to them that they do not have to answer it, and NISRA absolutely refused to consider that. If the census is going online, why not make it easier for people to use and enable pop-ups that can give instructions? I was told, "No. People have to have a printed copy sitting beside them to refer to for every question that they answer". Why? Why not use technology to let the public know that they can ignore that question and will not face a fine? The census places unreasonable respondent burden on the person. Respondents would have to print and keep referring to the completion guidance just to know that they do not have to answer that question. That is not fair.

I could understand the refusal if there were a financial reason for not using the technology to its full extent. Adding a pop-up, I accept, could cost money. However, NISRA already confirmed for me that there is no cost to removing the second religion question from the system. That means that there is no financial concern with making a proactive and positive change.

The second religion question is not asked in England and Wales. Scotland decided that 2011 would be the last time that it would ever be asked because when they examined it, they saw that there was the same limited interest in looking backwards to what someone once was or could be perceived to have been. The public acceptability of the question has gone. The census should be there to provide evidence about who our population is, not what it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. In the South, the Irish census tested different versions of their religion question. In the 2016 census, they found that the people who selected no religion represented the second-biggest group. They changed how they asked the question and have come up with, "Do you have a religion?" rather than, "Do you belong to a religion?" People then respond yes or no. If you say no, you move onto the next question. You are not then asked, "What religion were you brought up in?" If you mark yes, you say what religion you are. They decided to remove the second religion question as it was less about religion and more about finding out the cultural background of the person. It was decided that it was not correct to use the data in that way, and they, rightly, removed it.

When statisticians here use the information gleaned from the religion question, they mash together the factual answer to the question, "What religion do you belong to?" with the answer to the second religion question, which is a presumption that is based on background. When a person answers a census question, they are asked to do so honestly, so why, then, ignore the answer that they have given honestly to the question of the religion that they belong to by forcing those who say none to say what community background they were brought up in? Unfortunately, it is the same with the Equality Commission, which is still using data that is provided by employers, who are told by law to guess someone's religious background rather than use the facts that the employee has provided.

As background, public bodies and businesses are required to monitor equality of employment under the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998. Those duties are part of the Good Friday Agreement. As part of the monitoring process, employees and job applicants are asked to answer a question on a monitoring form stating whether they are part of the Catholic or Protestant community or neither. Sadly, the Equality Commission, the equality regulator, supports the production of religion and religious upbringing census outputs to help inform whether an affirmative action programme is needed, even though it has already written to signify that race should be considered in that employment piece. There is no such affirmative action being considered for people who, like me, have disabilities, and gender, age and race are not considered. All we are doing is using this information on religion. The system is enabling an unfair society because the census is asking backward-facing questions.

In consultations for the 2021 census, there appears to have been support for maintaining the census as was, but, given that so few actually responded, I find it difficult to understand why the then Ministers accepted the results: 1,400 consultations were sent out and 50 were received back.

I think that keeping the second religious question in the 2021 census is a very flawed measurement; it is one that is outdated and backward. What the census is doing is saying that we must consider you as you have always been with regard to what you once were and where you once lived — no such thing as a shared society.

The Education Authority uses the census to track demographic shifts and patterns, but the school census should be able to provide that information. The root-and-branch reform of our education system is defined in 'New Decade, New Approach' as child in education centred and not along the lines of segregation. Therefore, why when planning for a shared future, would any Minister allow outdated and backward-looking information to guide them? We should be looking to build local inclusive schools that work for the whole community. We should stop enabling division by using presumptions that no other country in the British Isles recognises as being fit for purpose.

I have not tabled an amendment to the order because I was told that it was a waste of my breath to even try, "The deal is done; they are the questions that are being asked. Go away, Kellie". I am saying to the Executive Office that it has the last chance to bring this census up to date by removing an unnecessary question that harks back to a segregated past that we are all working so hard to move on from. Junior Ministers, I ask you to consider what I have said. Do you think that it is right to not accept what people have said about their faith, or no faith? Should we not actually be accepting their honesty? Thank you.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 12:45 pm, 5th May 2020

My colleague has most ably just reflected on the difficulties for many of us on the religious question in the census 2021 questionnaire. I fully concur with her comments regarding that matter and I want to take the opportunity to make clear my feelings.

In many ways, you could say that this is a personal comment and I think that is understandable in the circumstances because, just like everyone else in the House, and the many millions outside of it, I am an individual. Therefore, I am entitled to decide whether I have a religion or not and I should also be able to decide whether or not I leave it up to others to decide that for me. I should never be put in a position where I am expected to declare the expected perception of others on an identity that I do not believe that I have. However, I know that as soon as I say that that I am going beyond the personal, because I know, and it has been widely analysed and reported, that a substantial and growing number of people in Northern Ireland take that position and make that choice. The reality is that some of us consciously decide not to be defined in that way. You might expect that we would have the right to do so. The core issue here is the right to be who we are irrespective of perceptions. I hope that the Ministers present will take that on board when they are making their reflections at a later stage.

To go further on the issue of identity, and in staying on the theme of being who we are and allowing others to do likewise, I will address the inclusion in this census of a question relating to sexual orientation. I am perfectly happy that the question is there, although I am less happy that it will be posed as an optional question, rather than a compulsory one with a very clear option of, "prefer not to say".

In the interests of gathering full, or as full as possible, data, we should proactively seek information that is truly reflective of our entire community. That is vital in the need to shape policy that is representative and meets the needs of all in society, especially in trying to address bias, discrimination and hate crime. It is also important that any question on sexual orientation allows the respondent to identify who they are beyond the rigid categories of gay, bi or straight. I hope that too will be addressed in the reflections made by Ministers.

Even at this stage, I am hopeful that the Ministers can reflect on those points and take action in the interests of true fairness and representativeness.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I cannot and will not take part in a debate on the census without reflecting on the fact that, in a past census, one of the most brutal and callous acts of the Provisional IRA was the cold-blooded murder of a census collector, Mrs Joanne Mathers, as she did her public duty in the city of Londonderry. In the annals of all murders, that murder stands out for its particular cruelty and utter lack of anything that could ever be dressed up as justification. Of course, it came at a time when the republican movement sought to thwart the taking of a census. It went to the lengths of that brutal murder, and then, of course, tried to cover it up and deny that it was a murder by the Provisional IRA. Of course, at that time, the commander of the IRA in that city was, we are told, one Martin McGuinness, who, sadly, took to his grave such knowledge as he had of that fiendish murder. I do not think that any of us, when we hear the word "census", should do other than reflect upon the awfulness, cruelty and vileness of that hideous murder.

The junior Minister who will respond to the debate has always been very upfront as a propagandist for the republican movement, both in his speeches and in his writings. I trust that he will take the opportunity, without weasel words, to apologise unambiguously, on behalf of the republican movement, for that hideous murder. There must be no more equivocation but a facing up to the fact that it was wrong in all its dimensions and robbed a family of a young mother who was going about a public duty. I will listen, more in hope, maybe, than in expectation, for the junior Minister to step up to the plate on behalf of his republican movement and face the facts of that awful, cruel murder.

I will turn to the content of the census order. When he introduced the order, the other junior Minister underscored the significance and importance of the census in obtaining reliable information, which is then utilised to shape Government policy and funding. It is fundamental to the whole process of governing. Given its fundamental nature, therefore, it is critical that it is made foolproof in order to be reliable. We need to know that the information that is given by the population is accurate, yet I heard nothing from the junior Minister about how the information will be checked for its accuracy or how that will be made foolproof.

I do not think that any of us in the Chamber should be so naïve as to think that there are not people out there with various agendas who are willing to give their pet cause a leg-up in a census, particularly in circumstances where they can now do it online and no one will come to collect the information.

I will take the issue of language fluency. We all know that, in this Province, there is a politically-driven campaign to big-up the needs of the Irish language sector. We are going to have a census that asks a question about capacity in Irish, for example, fluency, ability to understand, ability to write and ability to speak. What is in the process to stop anyone who is so minded — whose knowledge of Irish might be no greater than Gregory Campbell's — to write on the census form that they are fluent in Irish and that they can speak it, understand it and write it, for the purpose of demonstrating a phantom rise in the number of Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. There is nothing in this census which protects against that. I, for one, am not foolish enough to think that that would not happen, given the political nature of the campaign that drives much of that contention.

I challenge the Ministers on what protections are in place, or will be put in place, to proof the answers that are given. I see nothing in the legislation that adequately provides for that. Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, that is a particular flaw in this matter.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Can I ask the Member to resume his seat, briefly?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

It is now 12.57 pm and the Business Committee has agreed to meet at 1.00 pm. Therefore, I propose by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Mr Allister resuming his contribution.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I can conclude very quickly. I have two issues. One is that pertaining to the unrequited apology, unfulfilled apology, of Sinn Féin for the murder of a census worker. The other is how we are going to check against abuse of this census process. I would like to hear the junior Minister step up to the plate on both issues.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I apologise to the Member for interrupting. I did not realise that he was coming to his conclusion.

The Business Committee are meeting at 1.00 pm. The next item of business, when we return, will be junior Minister Kearney making his winding-up speech on the motion.

The debate stood suspended. The sitting was suspended at 12.58 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair) —