HC Deb 16 December 1963 vol 686 cc850-3
The Minister of Health (Mr. Anthony Barber)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I would like to make a statement.

With one exception during the last war, a census of population has been taken every tenth year since 1801. The Government have decided that for the effective implementation of their policies there is a need for another census in 1966, after a period of only five years since the last one. At a time of rapid change and development, the traditional 10 years is too long to wait for the hard figures which only a census gives, and the Census Act, 1920, contains express powers to hold a census every five years, subject to the authority of Parliament.

The effective use of manpower, and the planning of land use, of housing, and of environmental, health and social services—all these must begin with the latest figures about the population both as it is now and as it will be in the future. A relatively small percentage migration into a populous area or a relatively small change in the make-up of its population may seriously affect the amount of land and the amount of money required for housing, schools, hospitals and other services.

The census will also be of value to users outside government—to those engaged in research in the social sciences, economics and medicine and to industry and trade. Account will be taken, as in the past, of these needs in deciding on the topics to be covered.

The Government have considered whether the census in 1966 need, for the purposes for which it is wanted, involve full coverage of every household in the country. They have concluded that it need not and that, with the exception of certain "special study" areas, a 10 per cent. sample census will suffice, and they have authorised the necessary preparations to be made. As a sample enumeration is novel to the United Kingdom there will be a test of the sampling procedures in the spring of next year. This will involve approaches to a few thousand householders will to co-operate.

A draft Order in Council directing that the census be taken and prescribing the particulars to be required from householders will be laid before the House in due course.

Mr. K. Robinson

May I welcome on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends what we think is probably a wise decision in the circumstances? Is it the view of those who advise the Minister that we shall now be likely to need an interim census every other five-year period, or is it thought that this may be a kind of once-and-for-all operation? Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the value of the information derived from the census is proportional to the speed with which it can be made available? Whilst one realises that the processing of this information is necessarily a complex operation, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will do everything he can to expedite the analysis and publication of the results, which seem to have been rather sluggish on recent occasions?

Mr. Barber

Yes, Sir. I will try to answer the two points which the hon. Gentleman has raised. It is not for me to commit any future Government, but I should have thought it was likely that the experiment we are making now, which I feel confident will prove successful, will be adopted in the future. It is a remarkable fact that something like 10 per cent. of the whole population in this country moves to new addresses each year, and the basic reason why a ten-year period is too long is that information about occupations becomes hopelessly out of date and local population estimates made by Registrars-General become increasingly unreliable.

As for the second question, I hope that in this case we will be able to speed up somewhat the processing of the information. Last time was the first occasion on which we used an electronic computer for processing the data. We have now had that experience, and I hope that part of the information will be forthcoming a few months after the census is taken and that all the processing will be completed within two years.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

While agreeing with my right hon. Friend that it is an excellent thing to have a fresh census, may I ask whether he will see that the arrangements for the census this time are carried out rather more satisfactorily than they were on the last occasion? Can we be certain that householders will be given adequate notice before they are approached and that, unlike the last occasion, it is not left to the milkman to find out who is living in a house?

Mr. Barber

I will take note of the first point. On the latter point, I am informed that when the last census was taken in 1961 some people complained that they knew the enumerator and others complained that the enumerator was a stranger.

Dr. Bray

Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that, in the design of the census, results are so presented that it is possible to take samples quicker than once every five years in order to answer new problems which may arise for the Government with much less notice? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that by taking into account and designating subject groups with large families or households containing only old people in the original design of the census it would be possible to answer problems in small groups of the community much more quickly?

Mr. Barber

I will bear that in mind.

Mr. Lubbock

While welcoming the announcement that this census will be undertaken, with the Minister's assurance that the results will be made available more quickly this time, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can tell us anything of the steps he is taking to ensure that the processing is faster than it has been in the past? What are the criteria to be used for the selection of the areas in which a 100 per cent. census will be taken? Could the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the largest changes in population are taking place on the periphery of Greater London where the strains on resources in respect of land, school building, and the other factors which he mentioned in his statement, are greatest?

Mr. Barber

With regard to the question of speed, we will get out the information as quickly as we can, but I am afraid that we cannot be very much quicker than on the previous occasion, because the really time-consuming jobs are the manual tasks of getting the data about people's occupations and where they work into a form which is suitable for the computer. We did that to only 10 per cent. of the people in 1961, so there will be no change there.

As to the question of special study areas, I am at present considering with my right hon. Friends which areas should be selected for 100 per cent. census, and I would rather wait until a little later to discuss the type of exceptional characteristics which we have in mind.