Census Order (Northern Ireland) 2020

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:01 pm on 5 May 2020.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Comhaltaí sin a chuidigh le díospóireacht an lae inniu ar an dréacht-Ordú Daonáirimh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh a gcuid tuairimí agus barúlacha. I thank the Members who contributed to today's debate on the draft Census Order and welcome their comments.

The census is subject to many competing demands. The consultations identified more demands per census question than it would be possible to accommodate in a questionnaire that households could reasonably be expected to complete. In coming to a final selection of questions, some difficult decisions had to be made. Those decisions balanced the requirements for information with the burden placed on the public. The topics outlined in schedule 2 to the order are judged to have the greatest demonstrated need, not to be available from other sources, not to place an excessive burden on the public and to be obtained through easy-to-answer questions.

Ba mhaith liom léirmheas a dhéanamh ar an díospóireacht anois. I will now deal with a number of the observations and contributions that Members made during today's debate and do my best to respond to them as fully as possible.

Colin McGrath, Chairperson of the Committee for the Executive Office, noted that the Committee approved the regulations. He welcomed the fact that the census reflects the diversity of our society and made the telling point that, sadly, if you do not count, you do not count. He commended the level of stakeholder engagement as a positive development.

Steve Aiken, Chair of the Finance Committee, noted the anomaly that the order was processed between his Committee and that of the Executive Office, and he outlined the scrutiny process that was undertaken by his Committee. He reflected on the dry-run process undertaken by the census office and on the fact that that extended to urban and rural areas. He noted that 50% of recipients in Fermanagh responded online to the dry run, and he advised that he and his Committee were content for the regulations to proceed.

Pat Sheehan underscored the importance of the census. He said that it took account of diversity in society. He welcomed the facility to respond in Gaeilge and Ulster Scots and endorsed the additional question to include those in society with autism and Asperger's syndrome — an issue very close to my heart. I, too, am delighted to see that those members of our community will be properly recognised and identified as we move forward in our census data. Pat Sheehan also welcomed the addition of the question on sexual orientation. He encouraged closer collaboration between NISRA and the Central Statistics Office in the South as another practical way to develop closer all-island working.

Kellie Armstrong made a forceful argument that the inclusion of questions on religious and community background is backward-looking, outmoded and counter to a shared society. The Member expressed serious concern at the second question that is posed. She feels that public acceptability for the inclusion of such questions in our census has disappeared. Kellie Armstrong asked whether citizens would be fined for not answering those questions and whether it was obligatory to answer them. I assure Kellie Armstrong and the House that failure to answer those questions carries no penalties. The two religion questions were first included in the 2001 census following the creation of new legal obligations under the Fair Employment and Treatment Order 1998, which the Member mentioned. That legislation requires employers to establish the community background of their employees and, in turn, for that to be compared with the eligible population. The religion and community background questions, therefore, produce a composite census output based on the answers to the two religion questions that is essential for those purposes. The public consultation also identified continued support for the questions to be included from Departments and the Equality Commission. However, I assert and assure the Member that citizens are not required to answer the questions. The online system will allow you to bypass the question, and citizens will be given advance notice by the Registrar General to that effect in the lead-up to the census.

John Blair agreed with Kellie Armstrong that it is unfair to have to define oneself according to a religious or community background. He asked why identifying sexual orientation was optional and not compulsory. He reflected a concern that there is a lack of consideration of the social reality of our very diverse LGBTQ community and said that that must be recognised in wider society. I agree with the Member that the identity rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be affirmed and can confirm that it is acceptable and is an available option for those to write their sexual orientation over and above a sexual identity of gay, lesbian, bisexual and so on.

Jim Allister began by speaking of the tragic killing of the census enumerator Ms Joanne Mathers in 1981. That was indeed a terrible act that caused deep hurt and suffering to her family and scarred our society. Her death is another heart-wrenching reason that it is so important to ensure that our peace process guarantees a better future for us all and for all of our children. As a Minister and a public representative, I assure the House that I am absolutely committed to securing a better, shared future for everyone in our society.

The Member also questioned the accuracy of the census.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

No, Mr Allister, I will not give way.

Ag tiontú ar an cheist i dtaobh na Gaeilge de, proficiency in Irish has been a census question since 1981. A question is also included in the 2021 census that determines the frequency of the use of the Irish language. This question has, in fact, been fully tested in voluntary household surveys run by NISRA, and the figures are accurate. NISRA will, in turn, run a follow-up survey to assess and test the accuracy of the census. I mo mheas féin, a LeasCheann Comhairle, léiríonn an daonáireamh, leis na blianta anuas, go bhfuil líofacht na Gaeilge ag gabháil ó neart go neart sa tsochaí seo. I am delighted that our society is becoming increasingly culturally diverse and that we hear many other languages spoken in this society here in this region above and beyond the use of Gaeilge and Ulster Scots.

In conclusion, I thank Members for their interest in the draft census order and for contributing to the debate. Tá mé fíor-shásta go soláthróidh tosú an ordaithe seo bunchloch reachtach don daonáireamh a bhéas ann sa bhliain 2021. I am satisfied that the commencement of the order will provide the legislative foundation for a successful census in 2021.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

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