HC Deb 30 October 2000 vol 355 cc573-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—Mr. Touhig.]

7.13 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

First, let me assure the Minister and everyone else present that, after a marathon nine-hour journey from west Wales, I do not intend to delay the House too long. It is to be welcomed, however, that we have a little time to debate the issue.

I wish to discuss some aspects of the census to be undertaken in Wales next year, and particularly the lack of the Welsh tick box, as it is known, on the census forms. I wish to discuss also some issues that relate to the Welsh language aspect of the census, which are somewhat less important at present.

About two minutes ago I presented a petition on behalf of about 9,500 residents of Wales and of beyond Wales. These are all people who wished to state that they wanted a Welsh tick box on the census form next year. That demand became apparent over the summer months—perhaps the Government thought that it would be a summer flash flood or storm. However, since the emergence of unhappiness in Wales about the format of the census form, the campaign has grown in status as support has grown. It is an issue that many people in Wales are concerned about for the future.

It may be useful if I outline briefly how we got ourselves into this position. I understand that planning for the census began at least four years ago—it probably began much earlier than that. The White Paper that set out some of the Government's proposals for the census was published in March 1999. That was followed by an exercise in Wales at least, in parts of the counties of Ceredigion and Gwynedd in April 1999. That was before I became the Member for Ceredigion and before I had any representative role in the county.

It is important to emphasise that all those events took place before devolution and before the National Assembly for Wales was established. Most of the consultation on the census format was therefore undertaken with the Welsh Office rather than the Welsh Assembly. That might be one reason why some disquiet has arisen within Wales since then.

In 1991, basically the same question was asked throughout England, Scotland and Wales. At that time, many people thought that it was an adequate catch-all to cater for the situation within those countries. We did not have devolution. However, it is worth noting that in 1991, for the first time, the census form included a question about Irish people, and people of Irish descent within Wales. I have no doubt that that was an important step forward for the delivery of services to Irish people, particularly in some English cities. That begged the question of the position of Scottish people, Welsh people, or whatever.

I do not see this matter as an ethnic issue. It is one of national identity. I note that the National Statistician, Len Cook, has recognised the principle. In his statement last Wednesday, when he announced several concessions on this matter, he said: We are explicitly recognising the diversity of those who identify themselves as Welsh as having other ethnic backgrounds. That is important. I would like the census to discover how many of those in, for example, the Somali community in Cardiff or the Chinese community in Bangor feel themselves also to be Welsh. That sentiment is part of the emerging Welsh nation and part of the emerging pride, self-determination and self-confidence that is now abroad and burgeoning in Wales with the National Assembly for Wales. Some of that self-confidence has taken a knock with the announcement of the format of the census forms and the lack of ability for people in Wales to tick a simple box to say that they are Welsh. There is no provision either for a box that they can use to state what other background they may have. That has caused some concern.

In 1991, before devolution and before we started to discuss some of these matters, the term "British" may have seemed to be adequate. However, it is important that we recognise what the term means now. I think that it designates a mostly white ethnic background. Many people in the United Kingdom do not see it as a useful term. The Runnymede Trust report of about two weeks ago raised the question of how "British" is used as a term. What was tolerable 10 years ago may not suit as a catch-all now.

Once the Scottish Parliament decided that in Scotland the first question on the relevant part of the census would be, "Are you Scottish?", that begged the question what would happen in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be interesting if the Minister were to tell us—it would take a long history lesson and I am sure that we do not want that and do not have time for it—when Britain became England and Wales only. When was it that we could use the term "British" for the residents of England and Wales? That is de facto what we are doing now throughout the United Kingdom with the census. The residents of Scotland have the ability to describe themselves as Scottish and Irish people, wherever they are in the United Kingdom, have the ability to describe themselves as Irish. All other ethnic groups can use the term that they find most appropriate.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House. I think that on page 15 of the census form there is a question about place of birth. People can indicate whether it is England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. After that, there is a question about ethnicity—for example, whether one is British, Irish, white, black, African, Asian or whatever. There is also the facility to write Dutch, German, French, Welsh or whatever. The form does not deny anyone. A tick box is not required. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so unsure of his Welshness that he requires a tick box to affirm it.

Mr. Thomas

I am well aware of what the form says: I have it in front of me. I shall deal with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's argument later, if he will be patience, as I am coming to that issue. However, I shall make a general point. The hon. Gentleman represents the constituency with the highest proportion of people born in Wales and still resident there—more than 95 per cent. I represent the constituency with the highest proportion of people born outside Wales but now resident there. Where people were born is no indication of where they identify with, and it is important to allow people to identify with Wales on the census form whether they were born outside or inside Wales, and whether they speak Welsh or not. The hon. Gentleman should realise that, but, in a second, I shall address the point about whether the tick box is the best way to do that.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas

No, I shall not take any further interventions for the moment, as I want to pursue my argument.

Following the discussions, and especially in the light of what occurred in Scotland, the Office for National Statistics should have realised what was happening and perhaps returned to the National Assembly to see whether it wanted to make a further amendment to the census form.

A cynical definition of "British" is that it is what those in England call people from Scotland and Wales when they win an Olympic gold medal.

Mr. Smith

You seem to be saying that Welshness is a question of identification. The logic of your argument is that, if someone from England comes to live in Wales and identifies with Wales, he may be regarded as Welsh. If that is your argument, it is against the whole history of your party, which has been based on an anti-English sentiment. I can give an example. During the second world war, child evacuees came to Wales. Your party opposed that on the basis that it would be one of the greatest threats—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should know the courtesies of the House. He is not referring to the Chair: he is referring to an hon. Member.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) does not half talk rubbish sometimes.

Mr. Smith


Mr. Thomas

If that is the quality of the hon. Gentleman's interventions, I do not want to give way to him.

I and many people in Wales cannot accept that, post the decision on the format of the census form, the term "British" can be used for Wales and England only. Many people accept that "British" refers to the people who live in all these islands.

Mr. Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas

No, I have already told the hon. Gentleman that I will not give way.

It is a moot point whether "British" can refer only to Wales and England given the way in which the census form has been put together. When the form appeared on the website back in July, it sparked a reaction in Wales and a little uproar began which, it would be fair to say, was led initially by the Western Mail. It gave this matter much attention, but pretty soon other parts of the media and Members of the House took it up. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), ran her own petition in her constituency asking for the census form to be amended. I launched the petition that I presented to the House tonight at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli. Within a week it had 5,000 signatures, and tonight it had almost 10,000.

I have also received letters of support from more than 100 community councils in Wales, which are the forum of local debate and democracy in Wales. As I was trying to make my way to the House tonight, I heard about the flood problems along the Usk, Wye and Severn valleys— all border areas with England. I was struck by how many of the community councils in those areas had written to say that they would like the census form to have a tick box to record whether people are Welsh or not.

Ten of the county councils in Wales have sent me letters of support. More importantly, the Welsh Local Government Association has said that the census form should be amended, as has the Commission for Racial Equality in Wales and the Welsh Language Board.

Mr. Smith

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas

Why not, if the hon. Gentleman would like to have another go.

Mr. Smith

I do not want to have another go. Through Mr. Deputy Speaker, I just want to ask whether you deny the history that I outlined. Secondly, what is your definition of Welshness?

Mr. Thomas

I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have a definition of Welshness. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent, my definition of Welshness is anyone who lives or works in Wales and who wants to be Welsh. It is as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman's other comments were not worthy of his so-called socialist background.

I shall press on, because I am sure that many hon. Members want to sleep after their hard work getting here today. I ask the Minister to consider the deep hurt that was felt by many in Wales because the Office for National Statistics had seemingly overlooked this aspect of Welsh public life. The Minister will note that I referred to the Welsh Local Government Association, the Commission for Racial Equality and the community councils and local authorities in Wales. They are the ones who will use the census forms, and they will evaluate the information gathered by the census to deliver better public services in Wales.

Usefully, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales made an announcement to the press today that every census form not filled in and returned from Wales would be a cost to Wales of £3,000 per person. That is a useful figure to play with, because, as the Economic Secretary to the Treasury may know, there is serious talk in Wales of a boycott of the census forms, and that still cannot be ruled out, despite the recent concessions.

We have one chance in 10 years to get this right. We want to maximise the number of people who fill in the census forms and get them back so that the national statistics present the best argument for Wales. To get it right we need to design census forms that are easy to fill in and which do not put people off. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), that is why tick boxes were designed. Any statistician will tell him—he is a scientist, so I suspect he already knows—that it is easier and better to gather information through a simple tick box method. Each time we ask people to write something in, we put up a small barrier. People may note that they could write in Welsh, but may put the form on the kitchen table and the next day forget, make a few ticks and send it off. That is why the announcement of a publicity campaign to encourage people to write in Welsh is an important step forward, and I welcome that concession.

The response from the Office for National Statistics was not as welcome as the hon. Member for Rhondda may think. It first tried to ignore the campaign in Wales, and then tried to belittle it, saying that it was unimportant. It went down the road that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent wishes to go down. It then said that individuals could write "Welsh" in the "other" box if they so wished. Finally, last week, it accepted the point of principle. It accepted that it was wrong and that something needed to be done. So far, that something has been a local campaign in Wales to encourage people to write on the form that they are Welsh, and a second survey within the labour force survey that will be carried out at the same time.

Many people in Wales have told me that they told the Office for National Statistics, at least informally, that that amendment should have been made. I should like to bring a particular case to the Economic Secretary's attention. Following the exercise in Gwynedd, one of the people who was distributing the forms—an Englishman as it happens—told the local managers from the Office for National Statistics that people filling in the forms in Gwynedd had told him that they would like to see a "Welsh" tick box. Somehow that message did not get back. It got back much too late, possibly after the forms had been printed.

I believe that senior staff in Government organisations, such as the Welsh Language Board, may also have mentioned this matter informally, but it is not the board's role to deal with the ethnic question: it is concerned with the provision of the forms in both Welsh and English.

The whole business has added insult to injury in Wales. In response to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I would argue that the tick box, which is designed to achieve complete and accurate reporting, symbolically has equal status with the tick box in Scotland. Many people have a gut reaction to this issue. It is important that we recognise that statistics are not politically neutral: they are politically loaded. The unemployment statistics in the 1980s were massaged by the Conservative Government, and the present Labour Government want to change them. That is a clear sign of how statistics are used for political purposes. If we look at the history of European funding in Wales, it took the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales to get to the bottom of the statistical mess of that funding. In time, that led to the concession on the comprehensive spending review that was announced in the summer.

Without a proper set of statistics that everyone in Wales can use and be confident about, we are in danger of losing the political gain. This debate raged in Wales until last Wednesday when, in advance of my question to the Prime Minister, the subject of which was clear, a £1 million campaign in Wales was announced. There will be £0.5 million for publicity, which I welcome, as it will be the first time that any Government have encouraged people in Wales to write in to say that they are Welsh. There will also be £0.5 million for an identity survey in Wales, which can be taken as an extension of the labour force survey. Will the Minister confirm that my interpretation of the details is correct?

I understand that the survey will look at 3,000 households and will ask further questions about Welsh identity. I welcome the first concession, but have serious doubts about the second, which involves the problem of which figures we now believe. Some people will write on census forms in Welsh, some will follow the labour force survey and respond that they are Welsh. If they are asked that question, they may respond more easily. However, I am concerned that we will not get accurate figures and that we may get conflicting evidence. As a result, we will not know where we are or be sure about national identity in Wales for the next 10 years.

No doubt the Minister will say that I should welcome £1 million being spent in Wales on those matters. However, that money could have been saved if the census forms had been correct in the first place. We have to shout all the time in Wales for our voice to be heard. Last week, the BSE inquiry showed that the views of the Wales Office were ignored because its civil servants were junior to those in London. It seems as if we always have to shout to make a louder noise before we are heard. When we are heard, as we have been in the past few weeks, it is too late to make a fundamental change.

I shall conclude with one or two small points about the Welsh language aspect of the census. It may be too late this year, but certainly for 10 years' time and the future, will the Minister look again at why the census cannot measure the number of Welsh speakers outside Wales? A simple question could be put on the census form in England, Wales and Scotland.

In the days of digital television, when our Welsh language television channel S4C is no longer terrestrially bound to Wales, but is available in the House of Commons and throughout England, it would be useful if that television channel could know the extent of the market of Welsh speakers or Welsh learners outside Wales. On a practical front, that would be good for advertising and for initiatives such as the Welsh language school in London, which could make its case on the basis of firm statistical information. It would not be hard to add such a question to a census form in England and many people feel that, as the Welsh Language Act 1993 gives equal status to Welsh and English, it is a natural progression to ask people in England, many of whom have moved out of Wales, whether or not they speak Welsh, so that we could tailor and deliver some element of services in England to Welsh speakers, especially, for example, the Welsh language school in London.

May I put some direct questions to the Minister. On what date did the printing of the census forms begin? We are told that the forms cannot be amended as it would cost£2 million to pulp and reprint them which, I agree, would be a waste of paper. We are told that that cannot be done as the forms have already been printed. I have been unable to find out when printing began, but wonder whether it was after concerns were first raised and whether, therefore, a mistake was made.

Will the Minister confirm that the different treatment of Wales and Scotland meets the terms of the Human Rights Act 1998? That question has been asked an awful lot in Wales, so the Minister's confirmation would be useful. Will she outline the concessions announced last week by the Office for National Statistics, especially the meaning of the survey that is going to be carried out? Where and how will the survey be carried out and how will it identify Welsh identity? How will the Office for National Statistics treat the National Assembly for Wales as an independent body?

An alternative form is now available in Wales that can be downloaded from the internet and is exactly the same as the official form. It probably breaks all the copyright rules, but has been slightly amended to include a Welsh tick box. Will the Minister tell me and others in Wales whether that form would be ruled admissible if people were to choose to fill it in and send it back? Does she accept that the results of that question in the census will be flawed, however we look at it, as the question was not asked in quite the right way? What will happen in 2011? What are the Government's plans to ensure that this never happens again? Will the identity survey that will be carried out as part of the labour force survey next year be carried out again in future to measure progress?

About 150 years ago, as many Members will know, the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" said "For Wales, see England". There is a danger of the National Office for Statistics saying "For Welsh, see British (other)". Many people in Wales think that that is not good enough, and I would welcome an explanation from the Minister about how the Government will undertake to remedy the situation.

7.36 pm
Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on seeking and securing this important Adjournment debate, which addresses questions that need to be asked about the relationship of nations in the United Kingdom to devolution. He is right to say that Welsh identity is sometimes overlooked both in this country and abroad, and that we are lumped together with the English, the British or whoever.

Our debate is a useful step forward in helping to raise the concept of the identity of Welshness, which needs to be done, given general geo-political forces in this country. The Government did not make a mistake, as they did not draw up the census form. The Office for National Statistics did make a mistake—there are no ifs or buts about that. However, the hon. Gentleman and I differ over the way in which the situation was then tackled.

I sat with my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) on the Committee that dealt with the census, but this issue never came up, as one can see from Hansard and the general forms that were put on the Table in Committee— [Interruption.] I do not know why my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) is laughing. Perhaps he should serve in Committee, then he would know a little about what we do.

The issue never came before the Committee. The Economic Secretary told us what the census involved, explained its general progress and so on. An issue arose concerning the development of health statistics, to which I shall return later. I made only a suggestion about the definition of illness in the form and the English-speaking areas of the south Wales valleys, where the hon. Member for Ceredigion and I come from—indeed, we are from the same valley. I said that definitions of illness as being sick, very sick and so on had no validity in the south Wales valleys. The way we measure states of health is that one is bad, or bad in bed, or bad in bed under the doctor. I said that the idea of being sick, very sick or terribly sick had no relevance, which illustrates a difference in vernacular speech and our general attitude.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion is right and his argument about a tick box is irrefutable. A mistake was made, but what do we do about that now? I do not like the way that mistake is being used as a political football.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that I am a scientist. As I understand it, censuses create a framework for the development and administration of future policies, so it is necessary to get matters right. We want to know who is sick, what needs exist, who speaks Welsh, who does not speak Welsh, whether there is a reason for putting more money into the Welsh language or whether we are wasting money by throwing money at it, and whether it is declining in the population.

For those of us who want to save the Welsh language and who have been working for that for most of our political lives in various ways, particularly in local government, it is important to try and measure such things. However, people are running around for political and extreme nationalist reasons—I do not call the hon. Member for Ceredigion an extreme nationalist, but perhaps extreme bonkers—saying, "Don't fill the form in. There is no tick box. It is a flawed census." Even the hon. Gentleman used the expression.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is going off at a tangent. May I make it clear to him and to the House that I have never called for anyone not to till in the census form?

Mr. Rogers

I did not say that; I said that there were extreme people saying so. I would not call the hon. Gentleman extreme. I would not call his party particularly extreme. It was not concerned about the tick box until another fringe party picked it up, forcing the hon. Gentleman and his party into a corner. It realised that somebody had taken its clothes, so it had to respond by developing the campaign.

I understand all that. It is no good being a Welsh nationalist party and suddenly finding that one's nationalist clothes have been taken, but that is the way of the world. The trouble is that the Western Mail, which calls itself the national newspaper of Wales, is backing the campaign in its editorials and its coverage of the matter.

The biggest problem of all is what will happen if people do not fill in the census form. In that case, it will indeed be a flawed census. People may put a line through whatever the hon. Gentleman and his friends object to, but for God's sake let them fill in the rest of the form. To create the idea that there is something wrong with the census is a ghastly mistake which could have profound consequences. I want to find out how many people speak Welsh, how many do not, and where the need is. If people flaw even that one page, it will be counter-productive.

I am very proud of being Welsh, as are other hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies. We do not run around waving the dragon all the time, but in our own way all of us have worked for the benefit of our communities—the people who elect us and whom we represent. However, our patriotism is not based on resentment against another nation. That is the divide between those on the Government Benches, who love Wales and things Welsh, and certain members of the hon. Gentleman's party, who seem to have a resentment against the English—why, I do not know. Perhaps it is a personality disorder of his party, which is unfortunate. Some of my very best friends are members of his party—

Mr. Llew Smith

My hon. Friend should not stretch the case.

Mr. Rogers

I will not stretch it too far. I mentioned that the hon. Gentleman's party had been pushed into a corner. I understand, and perhaps the Minister can confirm, that the chairman of the Welsh Language Board when it was consulted about the document was the former Member of Parliament for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is now Lord Elis-Thomas and who presides over the Welsh Assembly. The ex-president of the hon. Gentleman's party—the big wheel in the party—was consulted, yet he is not the focus of any attack for not doing his job at that time.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. I know that he listened carefully to what I said, but he may have missed the part in which I stated clearly that the Welsh Language Board was consulted as a statutory consultee on the running of the census in both languages and on the question relating to the use of Welsh in Wales. The board did not see it as its job to comment on any other aspects. Nevertheless, I said that members of the board have told me informally that they told the Office for National Statistics that that should have been done.

Mr. Rogers

If that is the case, perhaps we are both right. That is a good way to conduct such a debate, in which we agree on so many points.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned that people should be able to state on the census form that they are Welsh, and that they should know where they come from and where they are going, which is a bigger problem. As I understand it, on the front of the form is a space for the address, so people can state where they live.

Mr. Thomas


Mr. Rogers

No, I shall not give way again.

For the first time, a census form in Welsh and English will be delivered to every household. That has never happened before. Previously, if one wanted to fill in a form in Welsh, one had to ask for it. That is no longer the case, and I congratulate the Office for National Statistics on that. That is the first point. Let us be generous in our praise, as well as in our accusations.

Secondly, on the form people will fill in the address at which they live, so it will be possible to identify all those who live in Wales. The problem arises in respect of Welsh people who live in England, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That is not covered by the address, but a little further on in the form, there is a category dealing with place of birth. There are tick boxes for England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and "other". Those are in the bottom left-hand corner on page 15, as I recall. People can indicate, for example, that they are Welsh-born and live in Newcastle or London. That is no problem.

The third question is about ethnicity. I suppose that that is where the tick box causing all the concern might have appeared. I am happy to say that I was born in Wales, I live in Wales, I represent Wales, but I am also British. I see no problem with that, but I accept that if people have a problem with it, they will feel aggrieved about the tick box.

Mr. Smith


Mr. Rogers

I do not know why. As I said earlier, I do not require a tick box to affirm my Welshness, but people can write that they are Welsh. They can tick "British" or not tick it, tick "Irish" or not tick it, and write in "Welsh" if they want to. There is a space to write it.

In the next column on page 15 there are important questions relating to the Welsh language. From the provision of the forms and throughout the questions on address, place of birth and ethnicity, there is every opportunity for people to affirm their Welshness, but such a fuss is being made about the fact that there is no specific little box in which to do so.

I accept the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Ceredigion that it was a mistake on the part of the Office for National Statistics not to have recognised the very fine sensitivity that exists in some Welsh people. I do not need a census form to affirm that I am Welsh, and I am sorry that the issue is being made such a political football. Next time around, there will be a box. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Office for National Statistics will not make the same mistake again.

7.49 pm
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

My mother explained to me many years ago about our ethnicity—a difficult problem for one brought up in an Irish Catholic family in Grangetown, Cardiff. We did not speak Welsh—or English very well-and most people spoke with Irish accents. We had friends carrying splendid, traditional Welsh names such as Salvatore, Elgezebal and Marina. My mother explained that we were Welsh just as they were Welsh, but some other people were "real" Welsh and others "proper" Welsh. If my mother were still alive to design the form, she would include three tick boxes. We are all Welsh, just as the splendid Newport rugby team is. One might be surprised at the names of the players, but they feel Welsh when they play Bath, as they recently did, winning by a happy margin.

All of us were Welsh who felt Welsh, no matter our background or ancestry. The real Welsh were those from the valleys of south Wales who did not speak Welsh but had the shadow, the pattern and the music of the Welsh language in their English speech. The idioms and the cadence of the Welsh language was in them. The proper Welsh were those who had the great good fortune to be born speaking Welsh.

I agree with almost all that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas). This sensitive issue has stirred emotions, and my hon. Friend was right to say that it was brought to our attention by a party whose leader is domiciled in Newport, West. If the matter is a political football, it is not one that Plaid Cymru kicked off. It may seem minor, but it has touched a raw nerve. People have become concerned that their Welshness, their nationality and their love of Wales were being downgraded, given that Scotland is in the census.

When the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned something that happened 150 years ago, I thought that he was going to talk about the chartist riots in Newport, West, which we are celebrating this week. Some 21 martyrs gave their lives for what they called a noble cause, and people are proud that Welsh women and men, living in terrible conditions of cruelty and unfairness, rose against their oppressors—not, in the main, Welsh—knowing that they were likely to die in the cause. We want to mark that history, nobility and Welshness on the census form.

7.53 pm
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) on securing the debate and—like several of my hon. Friends—on making a long journey to the House today.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the format and content of the form for the 2001 census in Wales were the product of detailed consultation over several years. The subject of tonight's debate was not raised until a fairly—indeed, very—late moment in that process. Not until the beginning of July was there any indication—despite informal indications referred to by the hon. Gentleman of which I am not aware—from the extensive consultation of any demand for the Welsh tick box as an option for answer to what is, in fact, an ethnicity question. The hon. Gentleman spent some time saying that he felt that this was less a matter of ethnicity than of nationality, and that is one of the several difficulties surrounding questions of this type.

We must be clear— the hon. Gentleman has made it clear in this debate, if not outside the House—that it is wrong to say that anyone who wishes to record himself or herself as Welsh cannot do so. On the contrary, anyone can write "Welsh" against the last category specified in the question.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The hon. Lady is correct, but when the issue was first raised in July, the Office for National Statistics was not clear as to whether it would count everyone who wrote that he or she was Welsh. As a result, a bone of contention has arisen.

Miss Johnson

Matters are now clear: the National Statistician has made it plain that anyone who writes that he or she is Welsh will be counted as such in analyses of the census in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman was fully briefed on the consultation exercise. The census questions in Wales have been subject to comprehensive public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. Let me loiter for a moment over some of the dates contained within the consultation period. Consultation began in June 1998 when the United Kingdom census committee considered a paper including recommendations on the content of the 2001 census. The draft White Paper was published on 18 December 1998, but work was done before that. On 30 March 1999, the Welsh census user network group met, and that meeting was attended by representatives of the ONS, 22 Welsh local authorities, health authorities, national park authorities and other public sector services such as the police. The White Paper proposals were discussed, but issues were raised only in relation to the religion and income questions.

Several public roadshows were held. At a meeting in Cardiff, 46 representatives of the census user community included those from the councils of Caerphilly, Carmarthen, City of Swansea and Neath Port Talbot. The issue of ethnic group categories was not raised. On 22 April, a public roadshow meeting held at Mold was attended by a further 34 representatives, including those from Gwynedd council. On 25 April, a census rehearsal was held at 15,000 households. The hon. Gentleman smiles, having realised that that took place not just in Gwynedd but in Ceredigion. Contrary to what he said, the ONS was not made aware of any evidence of concern about the wording relating to ethnic group. If the matter was contentious in any way, it was not raised as a result of the extensive census rehearsal. We are not, I know, concerned only with the hon. Gentleman's constituency tonight, but about 25 per cent. of the total households there were involved in that exercise.

A further meeting was held last July with the National Assembly for Wales to discuss the output requirements. Again, the question was not raised. On 26 July 1999, there were discussions between several parties, including the Welsh Language Board, which was also involved in discussions held in January 2000. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman was not yet a Member of Parliament at that point, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said, a notable member of the hon. Gentleman's party was then president of the Welsh Language Board, and, although his concentration may well have been focused on the Welsh language, he was in an ideal position to make any representations had this been a burning topic. So far as I am aware, no such representations were made.

The hon. Gentleman was elected to the House in February 2000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda made clear, census regulations were laid before Parliament several months later—in June. The hon. Member for Ceredigion observed that, because people did not shout about these matters from Wales, the situation did not reflect what might be a sensitive issue for some there. I do not think that it would be regarded as such by all on the same basis; but let us assume that some Welsh representatives might well have wanted to shout about it—including, I have to say, the hon. Gentleman, who did not shout on 6 June when the census regulations were laid before the House.

Mr. Rogers

In fairness to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), and as a member of the Committee involved, let me say that two members of that Committee never saw the census form. We never saw that there was no tick box. We looked carefully at the Hansard, and at the documents submitted to the Committee. However, I support everything that the Minister has said so far.

Miss Johnson

I accept that that may well be so, although someone was clearly concerned about the need to find out what was there.

We must, I think, conclude that regular liaison meetings were indeed held with the Welsh Language Board, and that the statistical directorate of the National Assembly has been involved at all stages of the planning process. There was extensive local authority engagement with the Welsh census user network, which was consulted a number of times before the questions were finalised. As I have said, there were rehearsals.

Mr. Thomas

I appreciate what the Minister has said about the census consultee group, on which local authorities were represented, but why have local authorities suddenly woken up to the issue since then—so much so that their own body, the Welsh Local Government Association, has said that it wants the census forms to be changed? We should not accept, "Something went wrong in the consultation process."

Miss Johnson

I really cannot comment. We have undertaken an extensive consultation, and the fact is that the issue was not raised.

Options for answering the ethnicity question include a write-in box in which people can identify themselves as Welsh if they wish to do so. As the National Statistician announced last week, the Office for National Statistics has undertaken to organise a significant advertising campaign to publicise that option.

The National Statistician also announced a new study of Welsh identity. That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's point about the separate survey now being planned for 2001—the Welsh labour force survey. A survey is already in progress, but will be expanded following the Assembly's request for a "booster." The aim is to obtain additional data on Welsh identity, and the results will be used to refine and expand information gathered in the census from the write-in option.

Let me reassure the hon. Member for Ceredigion. The labour force survey is a large and well-established Government survey, providing key information on labour market and related topics. The expanded and enhanced version that will be carried out at about the time of the census is designed to provide additional estimates of aggregate labour market statistics for unitary authorities in Wales.

The extra information will consist of questions about Welsh identity and a range of other variables, and will be brought together with the census information at local level. The result will be an unprecedented amount of detail about Welsh identity in every part of Wales, and the National Statistician has undertaken to publish a special report based on the information. The Office for National Statistics responded properly to issues that emerged from the census rehearsal.

There was a demand for the census form to be made available in both Welsh and English to people throughout Wales. As a result, the form will for the first time be available in both languages to every household in Wales. It will be the biggest-ever print run of an official document in Welsh. There was a demand for a question asking respondents whether they could understand, speak, read or write the Welsh language. Such a question has been included in the census form.

Other measures have been taken to ensure the success of the census in Wales. A question on the country of birth will provide a tick box enabling people to indicate that they were born in Wales; my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned that issue. For the first time, a census manager has been appointed specifically for Wales, and is a Welsh speaker. Efforts are being made to recruit bilingual field staff in Welsh-speaking areas, and the public inquiry line will offer full support in the Welsh language. We have tried to accommodate the points made during the extensive consultation period and reflect them in a census that will, in many respects, be well-tailored to Wales.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion asked about the parliamentary process. The census is a devolved matter in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the respective Registrars-General are responsible for holding the census. The Registrar-General for England and Wales, who wears another hat as the National Statistician, has responsibility for the census in those countries. The census is governed by the Census Act 1920, which requires draft Orders in Council to be laid before both Houses. Those orders were approved in the Commons on 2 February, and in the Lords on 16 February, after which the census regulations were laid. The lead time is long and the period from the start of the parliamentary process to the holding of the census also needs to be long because of the scale of the logistical exercise to be undertaken.

The time scales allow the Registrar-General to recruit census field staff, prescribe the detailed arrangements for the delivery and collection of forms and set out the actual questions to be asked on facsimile copies of the census forms. The regulations were laid before both Houses on 6 June, and came into force on 27 June. Both those statutory instruments could have been objected to by Members of Parliament or peers at any time, but such objections did not arise.

In Scotland, a parallel process was conducted through the Scottish Parliament. The census regulations in Scotland were made on 15 June—a couple of weeks before ours came into force—and the regulations were laid before the Scottish Parliament the following day. The decision to include a "Scottish" category in the census in Scotland was taken by the Scottish Executive. The demand for a Welsh tick box had still not arisen.

The census is the biggest peacetime civilian operation affecting the whole population. Years of planning are required. The process includes not only the forms, but the preparation of the systems for their scanning, processing and analysis; in addition, there are logistical issues and contracts for the haulage company to deliver millions of forms. A lengthy time scale is required for the whole process.

To make a considered change to the census form would require testing and an assessment of the effect on the choices open to all the major communities. The addition of a Welsh tick box now would require additional legislation and parliamentary time, and technical and logistical operations that have been in train for months could not be changed now without considerable disruption and expense. We have now entered the phase where even minor changes in any aspect could disrupt the process and jeopardise the census as a whole—something I am sure the hon. Member for Ceredigion does not want.

The National Statistician has promised that the possibility of a Welsh tick box will be considered during the consultation process for any future census. In the meantime, I urge the people of Wales to complete their census forms in April 2001—if they wish, using the write-in option to register their Welsh identity. The census informs £3 billion of public spending in Wales each year and I do not believe the people of Wales will want to see any part of that substantial sum put at risk. Those who fail to participate in the census increase the possibility that Welsh people will lose out on resource allocation and, consequently, on the provision of community services. It is in the interests of all the people of Wales to fill in their census forms and to ensure that Wales counts.

For those concerned about the lack of a tick box, the message is a simple one: "Tell us that you're Welsh and we'll count you as Welsh." As I am sure the House agrees, that is the best course of action for the people of Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eight o'clock.