HL Deb 24 February 1970 vol 308 cc21-37

3.28 p.m.

BARONESS SEROTA rose to move, That items 2, 7, 8, 10, the words in item 11(a) "and the month and the year of birth of each such child", 11(b) and (c), 12, 13, 14(a)(vii) and (viii), 15, 18 and 19 in the Second Schedule to the draft of the Order in Council, entitled the Census Order 1970, be approved. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Motion before the House is concerned with the draft Order in Council directing that a Census be taken in 1971. The proposal is for a full count of the population to be made to maintain the series of Censuses which have been taken in Great Britain every ten years since 1801, with the exception of the war year, 1941. Your Lordships will probably remember that a sample Census of 10 per cent. of the population was carried out in 1966 on account of the greater mobility of the population which nowadays renders figures—particularly of local area populations—out of date more rapidly than was the case in the past. The reasons which led to the decision to hold that sample Census also dictated the need for a Census in 1971—a further five years later. The Government's intention to hold a Census in that year was announced by my right honourable friend the then Minister of Health in December, 1967. It will form part of the round of Censuses that is being taken in most countries of the world either in 1970 or in 1971.

The date prescribed in the draft Order is April 25, and this, in common with previous Census days, is a Sunday. The reason for selecting this day of the week is that most people are to be found at home on a Sunday evening, and the date corresponds to the Sundays on which the previous Censuses were held. It falls at a time of the year which is clear of most holiday movement but which offers sufficient evening daylight to the enumerators.

In addition to prescribing the date of the Census, the Order specifies the persons by whom returns are to be made, and the persons to be included in the returns, and sets out the particulars to be given. The House will have noticed that it is proposed to ask all the relevant questions in respect of everyone, and not to restrict some questions to a sample only, as in 1961. This will enable us to produce basic figures relating to the entire population and to compile more detailed statistics for particular sections of the population, and indeed for particular areas of the country where special studies might be needed in the future. A Census based wholly or partly on a sample of the population would not, in the view of the Government, provide sufficiently accurate data for these detailed analyses.

The subjects of the proposed questions are set out in Schedule 2 to the draft Order, and your Lordships may wish me to say something about the way in which the proposals have been arrived at, in view of the comments of the Special Orders Committee on the increase by comparison with previous Censuses. The two General Register Offices—that is, for England and Scotland—have consulted closely with other Government Departments concerned with Census information, and there have also been very wide and detailed consultations with representatives of local government and with university research departments and other users outside Government. Many of the suggestions we received had to be resisted on the grounds that information could not satisfactorily be obtained without a good deal of guidance for the form-fillers, or that it was applicable to only a very small section of the population and could more suitably be obtained through some smaller-scale survey. The outcome of the consultations was a set of questions rather longer than that now proposed, and these were tried out in pre-tests, conducted with the co-operation of members of the public, in 1968 and 1969.

The present proposals, as some of your Lordships may be aware, were accepted in the recent debate on the draft Order in another place as striking just about the right balance. The proposals in Schedule 2 are concerned with the same broad subject fields as those in past Censuses; for example, housing, education, employment and fertility. Within those fields a number of the proposed questions are entirely new, but many of them are concerned with particulars which were obtained in either one or other, or in both, of the Censuses held in 1961 and 1966. Some of the questions asked previously have been omitted from the present proposals, and the resulting range of questions is only a little longer than in 1966 or in the longer of the two forms used in 1961. The questionnaire, we believe, should be of a size which our experience indicates to be within the capacity of those who have to fill it in. I should like to make it clear that the items in Schedule 2 are not worded in the same terms as the questions themselves will be on the day of the Census. They will appear on the Census forms in more everyday language, with guiding notes where necessary. The forms of return will be laid before the House, with the Census regulations, in a few months' time, when noble Lords will be able to see for themselves the exact form of questions that will be put to individual members of the public.

The Census Act 1920 specifically authorises certain topics to be included in a Census, and many of the proposed questions in the Order fall within this range. Others may be included only if sanctioned by Affirmative Resolution, and these have been, for the sake of clarity, printed in italics in Schedule 2 of the draft Order. Nearly all the items which are new are among those shown in italics. But there is also just one group of items printed in normal type to which perhaps I should refer briefly, as they represent an extension of previous Census questions. Your Lordships—and, I am sure, some of them with pleasure—will have seen that it is planned to ask questions about the speaking of Welsh in Wales and Gaelic in Scotland, as in 1961, and this time we intend to extend the questionnaire to find out also about people's ability to read and write these languages.

To turn, then, to the italicised items, I do not I think need to take up your Lordships' time with explanations of those such as the relationship (that is item 2), previous address (item 10), transport to work (item 14), which have been included before; but I should like to explain just briefly the reasons for introducing the new ones. The first of these, item 7, has not been included in any previous Census, and, taken in conjunction with information about country of birth, will enable studies to be made of the rate at which immigrants from different countries achieve the general national standards in employment and housing. Another new item—item 8— concerns the countries of birth of the person's parents; and this information, again, will allow similar studies to be made about those sections of the population born in this country of immigrant parents.

Information relating to fertility, in item 11 of the Schedule, is required of married women, or women who were formerly married, and will be restricted to women aged under 60 years. Questions about date of marriage and date when the first or only marriage ended have been included before, but the proposal to include the month and the year of birth of the children is new. This information will be restricted to details about children born alive in marriage, and therefore will exclude illegitimate births, as some people, we believe, would be unwilling to record details about these. Statistics derived from the proposed questions on fertility will show the average sizes of families in different sections of the population, the spacing of children in families of different sizes, and the changes in the way families have been built up in different generations. Statistics of this kind are, we believe, the essential foundation for understanding population trends, and therefore for estimating the future growth of the population. The limitation of the information to legitimate births and to women under 60 will not, in our view, seriously detract from the value of the information obtained.

Among the items concerned with education there is one which I think calls for special comment. The question on the educational attainments of the standard of the G.C.E. "A" levels, and its Scottish equivalents, will extend our information of the kind given in item 13 on higher qualifications to that large group of the population who reach "A" level standard but do not continue to higher levels. The information, we believe, will be useful in the planning of educational facilities in the future and in the examination of the return on investment in education.

In the series of proposed questions in the Schedule concerned with employment, the new item relating to occupation one year before the Census will, when combined with the information on present occupation, permit analyses of the pattern of movement between occupations. The last three italicised items in the Order relate to questions to be answered by heads of households and concern housing tenure, the use of certain household amenities and the number of cars. None of these is new.

I think the House would also wish at this stage to know of our intention to conduct a voluntary sample survey on the subject of income immediately after the Census has been taken. Almost all the users of Census information have emphasised the need for statistics on this subject, in most cases in a form in which it can be correlated with other characteristics featured in the Census, and in particular data on the relative wealth of different areas is required for the planning of services and for the formulation of economic policy. For these reasons, a question on income was pretested, but as one might have expected, it was found that the space available on a Census form does not permit the question to be worded suitably, and some public opposition was also encountered. Our proposal, therefore, is to send questionnaires by post to a sample of 1 per cent. of householders. There will be a separate form for each person, and those who are willing to respond—and I would stress that this is voluntary participation—will post them direct to the Census office. This voluntary survey, of course, does not require legislation.

I would like now to say a word on the question of confidentiality in respect of the completed Census returns, as I am sure this must be a matter which is in the forefront of your Lordships' minds when we are considering this particular kind of national Census. The public, quite rightly, having given information about themselves, will wish to know what will happen to the forms and will clearly require safeguards against the disclosure of the information to anyone outside the Census organisation. These safeguards are partly provided by the Census Act itself and partly by the now well-established policy of the Registrars-General. The Census Act prescribes a fine and/or imprisonment for up to two years for anyone employed in taking the Census who discloses or uses the information obtained for any but its proper purpose.

No information about identifiable individuals or households is released from the General Register Offices to other Departments of Government or to anybody else. When the Order was debated in another place the question was raised as to the possible dangers in the sale to a commercial organisation of what are described as ward library data—that is, statistical information about relatively small areas. I must explain that the size of population involved in the areas to which these relate, taken in conjunction with the very broad classifications used, make it impossible to identify data about any individual household or person. There is practically no cross-classification in the ward library data, which means that if one knows one fact about a person and looks for him in the ward library it will not reveal any other characteristics of that person. The forms themselves of course are not available for public inspection while they are at the General Register Office. When processing is completed they are despatched to the Public Records Office, where again they are not accessible to members of the public until a period of 100 years has elapsed. I have given the House some detail on this particular aspect of the Census because I am sure that noble Lords would wish to have these assurances from me.

Finally, my Lords, there is the cost. The estimated total cost of the Census for Great Britain is approximately £10 million. About half this amount is to meet the pay of the field staff and over-heads associated with their employment. Almost one-third is for the cost of the staff at the two General Register Offices, while the balance is mainly for the computer, the building works and the printing charges. This estimate amounts to about twice the cost of the 1961 Census, as adjusted to take account of the increased prices and the growth of the population actually to be enumerated. The increase is due to the greater scope of the proposed Census, the introduction of the new procedures to give more speed and flexibility in the production of results, and the modification of the field organisation to secure more effective control over the enumeration and thereby to improve the quality of the information obtained. My Lords, I hope that with that explanation the House will agree that the proposals for the 1971 Census are sound, and in particular that the items of information to which my Motion refers should have their place in the range of data to be collected. I beg to move.

Moved, That items 2, 7, 8, 10, the words in item ll(a) "and the month and the year of birth of each such child", 11(b) and (c), 12, 13, 14(a)(vii) and (viii), 15, 18, and 19 in the Second Schedule to the draft of the Order in Council, entitled the Census Order 1970, be approved.—(Baroness Serota.)

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all most grateful to the noble Baroness, not only for the clarity with which she has explained a somewhat complicated matter but even more for the brevity, considering that it is a large subject. I will keep your Lordships for only a minute or two, because we on these Benches think the Government are right to have a Census now. On looking at the Schedule, we think that the balance of questions to be asked is about right. There were originally certain suggestions for additional questions, some of which we thought wrong, and I am glad that the Government have also thought them wrong.

The noble Baroness did not say anything today about something that was mentioned in the other place; namely, the question of publicity before the Census. In my view, this is of the utmost importance. Some people are always frightened about privacy in a Census. The noble Baroness has told us that the information will not be available to anyone outside the people to whom it should be available, except statistically, and I hope that this point will be stressed in the publicity that will be put out before the Census. In this connection I wonder whether the noble Baroness could tell us why, once the information has been extracted, the forms have to be kept for a hundred years. It may be necessary, but I have an idea that the public would rather that they were absolutely destroyed. I should myself. I simply do not know why it is necessary to keep them, but perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us.

There are two other matters I should like to talk about. The first is the notes on the actual Census form. I did not quite understand what the noble Baroness said about the Census form being shown to the House in advance. If that is to be done, will it be possible, if we do not understand one or two of the questions, to have the Census form altered before it is distributed to the public? People who compile forms find them perfectly clear, but those who fill them in are sometimes in some doubt about them. Here, again, I hope the notes on the Census form will be abundantly clear, because some people have an absolute terror of forms. They find them extremely difficult to fill in, and unless they have explanations in words of one syllable they simply cannot tackle them. So I hope that the notes will be very clear indeed. Apart from that one question and two or three comments, we, on these Benches, welcome this Order and hope your Lordships will approve it.

3.49 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, if I may, to raise three points. The noble Baroness referred to the importance of confidentiality of these Census returns, and, of course, if house-holders are to be encouraged to make accurate returns the important thing is to convince them that these returns will be treated in a completely confidential manner. I should have thought that it was of great importance to be able to say to householders: "You are being required on these forms to give information only about the particular people who are being counted and no other person need be referred to by name by you on the Census form".

My Lords, that principle, which I should have thought was a sound one, is breached, so far as I can see, in two rather unimportant particulars in Schedule 2. Thus, in item 13, where the academic qualifications of people over 18 are to be given, it is not only the qualifications that are to be stated but the names of the institutions which awarded them. Is this really necessary? In any event, would not a rather more accurate answer be obtained by applying to the institutions themselves for the particulars of the awards which they have awarded?

In item 14, not only are hours and conditions of employment to be given, but also the name of the employer. However much it is said that this information is to be confidential, I feel quite sure that there are people who will say: "If I have to give particulars of my conditions of work and the name of my employer, then I dare say my employer is going to be tackled about some of the answers which I may have given about some of my conditions of work". Is it really necessary on this form for the name of the employer to be given?

My next point is a very small one. In item 11 on fertility, the information about marriages which have been terminated is to include not only the year but even the month of termination. Granted that it is necessary for statistical purposes to know the fact that a marriage has been terminated; granted even that it is necessary to know the year, is it really necessary to know the very month? It occurs to me that some divorced persons are going to have difficulty in trying to remember the month and also to understand the difference between the decree nisi and the decree absolute. I should think that in a good many cases the wrong month will be given and, therefore, that that piece of information probably will not be very accurate when it is entered on the return form.

Finally, items 23, 24 and 25 on the speaking and understanding of the Welsh language. These items are not ones which your Lordships are being asked to consider today, and I suppose that strictly speaking I am out of order in mentioning them. I can only say that when an honourable friend of mine in another place raised this point Mr. Speaker did not call him to order, so I hope that perhaps your Lordships will bear with me for a moment or two. The information about Welsh speaking is to be included only on the Census forms in Wales itself, including Monmouthshire. There must, I think, on any given day of the year be quite a large number of Welsh-speaking people who are earning their living in other parts of the United. Kingdom. They will be people who maintain their ties with Wales, probably go home to Wales for their holidays and intend to return to Wales to live when they retire. If this statistical information is to be used, for instance, by the B.B.C. in order to discover how many people are going to be interested in broadcasting in the Welsh language, these expatriate Welsh-speaking people ought to be taken into account. Of course, to include these questions in every Census form in the whole of the United Kingdom does lengthen it a little, but on the other hand I should imagine that any given householder is not going to have to think for more than two seconds whether any member of his household does or does not understand the Welsh language. Possibly the Registrar General has a formula whereby he takes into account the percentage of Welsh-speaking people outside Wales at a particular time, and if we could be assured that this formula was satisfactory then perhaps that would be a reasonable solution. I should have thought that it was not much of a burden for every householder in the United Kingdom to have to tackle these last three questions —whether any member of his house-hold speaks or understands the Welsh language—for the sake of getting a. really accurate return about these people.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I think that a Census form requires a balance of considerations. There is, first, a balance between the statistican's avid wish for every bit of knowledge which can be gained and, on the other hand, the encroachment by the Executive upon the personal privacy of citizens; and secondly, a balance between the statistician's needs and common sense. My few remarks are based upon those two considerations, those two balances.

I would refer particularly to Group II, under which the manager or chief of any hotel or lodging house will be responsible for preparing the form. I think that the question included in item 11 (c), is a borderline one: when a marriage has been terminated, the month and year of termination. I think it is just acceptable, but I would support what the noble Lord, Lord Airedale has said. Is it really necessary to ask for the month when the marriage was terminated?

I next turn to Schedule 2, Nos. 12 and 13, which are requirements from any person over the age of 15 of information about his educational past. Surely there could be some limitation to the age limit —say, aged 15 years up to 30—because I do not imagine that an old lady of 80 will be able to say that in the following term she will be a student attending full-time at an educational establishment. Equally, I think it would tax some of your Lordships' memories to say whether you obtained the General Certificate of Education at Advanced Level, or Higher Schools Certificate, or Scottish Certificate of Education, or Scottish Leaving Certificate at the Higher Grade, or an Ordinary National Certificate, or an Ordinary National Diploma. When I look around your Lordships' House I have grave suspicions that many noble Lords would not be able to answer that question with great accuracy. I suggest that in the interest of common sense there should be some age limit to govern the answer to that particular question.

I turn to Schedule 2, Question 15(iii): Whether the living accommodation to which the return relates is owned by any person usually resident therein and, if not, whether it is— otherwise occupied, and if so, stating the terms on which it is occupied. I have in mind still Group II, the hotel or boarding-house and the manager or chief who will be responsible for preparing the form for all those within that hotel or lodging house. Does "the terms on which it is occupied" mean in money, or in rental, or in respect of whether it is furnished or unfurnished, short lease or long lease? I think we should be careful in that question not to press citizens to disclose, if they do not wish so to do, the financial terms under which they are living.

My final question is on Question 18: Whether the persons in a private house-hold occupying the dwelling or the part of a dwelling to which the return relates have exclusive use or shared use of a water closet with entrance inside or outside the dwelling ". What does that mean—a shared or exclusive use of a water closet? In a house the lavatory is, broadly speaking, used by all the persons in the house. I do not see how anyone can say that he has exclusive use. If what is meant is whether the lavatory is shared with another premises, another flat or some other office outside, then I can understand it, but as it is at present, the question is extraordinarily badly drafted.


My Lords, does the noble Lord think that it perhaps refers to the old family "two-holer" which they used to have in farmhouses?


My Lords, I put down recently to the Government a Written Question on this Census form, and the Answer says that if these regulations are approved by your Lordships today the actual wording of the questions to be asked in the Census will be laid before Parliament in the next few months. That means that the position is still wide open for consideration by the Government, and I hope that they will take into consideration what I have tried to put forward as commonsense points before the actual words are brought forward.

4 p.m.


My Lords, may I say just a few words about this matter, because, as the noble Baroness thought people might be, I am a little worried about the secrecy aspect of the Census. This problem has come more and more into our lives. It was brought home particularly by a Bill introduced in another place but subsequently withdrawn, which in fact would not have covered questions of this sort because it did not cover Government forms. None the less, I think that many of us suspect that Government forms are not so secret as one would imagine them to be.

The noble Baroness explained the penalties for people who gave away unauthorised information to anyone outside the Census organisation. The Census organisation is going to be a vast one. To take a census of 55 million people, or however many people there are in this country, will require a number of enumerators. Are those enumerators going to be local people who know the households from whom they are collecting the forms, who know the people themselves; or are they going to be brought in from outside areas? In the latter case it is going to be much more difficult for them, from the practical point of view, but I think that the secrecy aspect will probably be rather better. Secondly, is it really necessary to put one's name on these forms? If they are to be secret, obviously if we do not have to put our names on the forms they are much more likely to remain secret. I do not imagine that the Census is used for finding out the number of people in this country having the Christian name "Michael", or, to take the noble Baroness as an example, the surname "Serota". Therefore I cannot see that it is necessary to put one's name on the form. One can fill in a form without one's name, in which event secrecy is more likely to be maintained.

Turning to Schedule 2, to which this Order relates, I find Question 8 rather offensive. I know why the answer to this question is required. Many local authorities wish to have more details about where immigrants have come from. But when we are trying to integrate the immigrant population, I think that Question 8 relating to the country of birth of the father and mother is somewhat offensive and a rather retrogressive move. If I were an immigrant I am confident that I should resent that question. I should like the Government to give consideration to that point. Is it worth while getting this information? Although it may be of help to local authorities in planning schools and so on, it will possibly upset immigrants to this country.

I turn next to Question 13. I imagine that in the notes to the Census form "vocational qualifications" will be explained in detail. It gives rise to difficulties. I remember feeling that some questions in the last Census form were extremely difficult to answer. With the best will in the world one was not sure whether one had answered them correctly. What exactly is a "vocational qualification"? If, for instance, you have a certificate for lifesaving, is that a vocational qualification or not? Is it or is it not covered by Question 13? Question 18 is obviously extremely important. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has drawn attention to this question. We have all recently had to fill up for the rating authorities a form which covered this aspect in far more detail. I should have thought that this information could have been obtained more accurately through the local authorities and the rating authorities, who have accurate records of the state of each house and whether the water closet has an entrance which is outside or inside, or whether there is a fixed bath in the house. Now they even wish to know whether or not there is central heating in the house. Therefore, is it really necessary to have this somewhat lengthy question in the Census form when we have just had a similar and much more detailed question to answer for the local authorities?

Finally, Question 19 seems to me to have little to do with the Census. It has to do with the number of motor cars and vans. Again, I should think that the licensing authorities were the people to whom one could go for information on this subject. It is also an extremely difficult question to answer. Many of your Lordships have registered in your names innumerable vans and cars which you have to buy for your employees. If they are yours, presumably they are available to you; but normally they would not be sitting immediately outside your door. This is a difficult question to answer from that point of view, and also it is not the kind of question that should be contained in a Census form.

I have been giving some thought to the question of secrecy. Presumably, the Censuses will all be processed by computer. People who feel strongly about it might be happier if they could punch their own cards and feed them into the computer, thereby making sure that the information does not fall into unauthorised hands. That is something that I fear we may not be sufficiently advanced to achieve in 1971; but possibly by 1981 it might be a way of conducting a Census which would get over the difficulty in regard to those parts of the Census form which we want to keep secret but which some of us feel may not be kept entirely secret.

4.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful for the way in which the House has received this Order, and particularly for the interesting suggestion made by the noble Duke that this should be a "do-it-yourself" Census. I doubt whether that would commend itself immediately to the Registrars-General, but I can assure your Lordships that all the points that have been made in this debate have been carefully noted and will be considered by the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, reminded us, the problem of designing a Census which will be answered by every member of the nation is to strike the right balance between the statistician's dream and common sense. Especially for those of us who always have great personal difficulties in filling in forms there is a special need to keep the form as sensible, as simple and as practical as possible.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, who asked at the outset for a further explanation of what stage the process of designing the Census had reached. If the Order is approved by the House today, as I hope it will be, it will then be for the Secretary of State to make the Regulations, which will be subject to the Negative Resolution procedure of both Houses. They must lie before Parliament for 40 days; and until that period has expired, I can assure your Lordships that the printing of the 28 million Census forms cannot be started. It is in that context of timing that we shall be considering the various suggestions that have been made today.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I am not quite clear on one point. When that moment arrives will it be possible for the House at any period to ask for the Census form to be amended? If it is a Regulation it can only be rejected completely; it cannot be amended.


My Lords, it cannot be amended, because it is under the Negative Resolution procedure. But it would be open, presumably—I hardly dare think that this would happen—for both Houses to reject the Regulations laid before them.


My Lords, is there any method by which they can be amended? Once the Order is laid, I quite see that they cannot be. Are we going to see a draft of the form on which we can then raise questions?


My Lords, I do not think it would be open to the House to amend the Regulations when laid; but through this debate we are, I think, expressing views to the Government on the form of the questions.

The first point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, is one with which I wholeheartedly agree; namely, this very important question of pre-Census publicity. Clearly it will be essential for the Government to take every possible measure to make the population fully aware of the purpose of the Census, of the range of questions in the Census, and the reasons for them, and also to secure their active co-operation in the collection of the Census. No final decisions have been taken on this question. We take the point fully, and I can assure the House that these matters are very much in the forefront of our minds. The noble Lord also asked why we have to keep this information for 100 years. I gather that this is historical and that the data is needed for research purposes. But I take the noble Lord's point and I have no doubt that it will be noted.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, raised a number of points in relation to three specific questions. All three are designed to give much more accurate information. As I have said, it is a matter of opinion and of balance, and, on the question of the month, we are advised that this should be included in the form in an attempt to get our information as clear and as precise as possible, particularly in relation to education and the housing situation. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, about the name of the employer is one that I cannot answer off the cuff. I am sure there is a good statistical reason for this, but I will get the answer for the noble Lord and let him have it privately.

On the question of the date of marriage, again this will enable us to be much more accurate in our calculations on the duration of marriage and of fertility. I hope the House will agree that we should have the best possible basis for the very necessary work that has to be done in connection with population forecasting. That is the reason for the inclusion of these particular pieces of material. With regard to the point about the Welsh and the Gaelic languages, and the fact that it is intended to ask these questions only of householders in Wales and in Scotland, I can only say again that one is faced with this problem of balance: is it right to ask additional questions of millions of people where only a very few thousand would be involved? After full consultation and discussion the Government decided to ask only the questions enumerated in the proposed form.

I hope I have dealt both broadly and in particular with the issues and questions raised. I can assure the House once again that the comments of noble Lords will be noted and borne in mind as we move further forward with what is an immensely important operation. I am glad that the House and the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, feel that in the main we have got the balance right, and I hope the House will now agree to approve the Order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.