HL Deb 20 June 1974 vol 352 cc1034-6

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have decided to hold a population census in 1976.


My Lords, the Government are considering both the need for up-to-date census statistics and the cost of holding a population census in 1976. They expect to reach a decision before the Summer Recess.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for his apparently sympathetic Answer, may I ask him whether he is aware that the planning authorities—that is, the reformed local authorities—are mainly dependent on the data coming from the censuses for their demographic housing and employment data, and that it is impossible for them to draw up their structural, development, and local plans without up-to-date material? It is just like looking up a train in a timetable ten years old and the result is usually wrong. So would the noble Lord be good enough to take into account these substantial arguments for holding an interim census in 1976, which is still under discussion?


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the Government agree entirely with everything he has said. We are aware that local authorities and Government Departments are dependent upon accurate information from the census of the population because of housing, economic and transport aspects, et cetera—in fact, all the aspects that the noble Lord has mentioned. The Government will not need any persuasion on that side.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that errors of the kind which crept into the 1966 sample census could be avoided if a similar sample census were taken in 1976? Furthermore, may I ask whether he considers that part of the effort should go into ensuring that results from these censuses are available more promptly—and, in particular, that the ten-year statistics from the 1971 Census should be made available to your Lordships for consideration during the proceedings on the Rent Bill?


My Lords, the noble Lord may know that at the present moment certain pilot schemes are in operation, having been undertaken by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. These schemes cover something like 100,000 householders in, I believe—and here I am speaking entirely from memory—about five areas of England. The whole purpose is to see whether it is possible to undertake a census of the normal kind in a much simplified way, where the results can be collated much more speedily and where it will be less difficult for the persons involved in the census to complete the forms.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is extremely difficult for any authorities, either in the Department of the Environment or at the local level, to take correct planning decisions in the absence of the up-to-date and accurate raw material that a census provides? May I further ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that in the absence of this basic material it is only too easy to make very costly mistakes, involving a waste of public expenditure, out of all proportion to the cost of conducting a census?


My Lords, I have conceded that in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, and that is why I say the Government expect to make an announcement upon this matter before the Summer Recess.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that the improvement in the quality and amplitude of social statistics in this country is the admiration of professional statisticians throughout the world? It is to be hoped that in regard to the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, there will be no falling away in that respect.


My Lords, if we are to have a census, may I ask whether the Government—if they still are the Government at the time—will take into consideration the events of the last census, when great resentment was expressed at the many personal (and, as it subsequently turned out, unneces- sary) questions which were asked of citizens, male and female? May I further ask the noble Lord whether he will attempt to ensure that the public have full knowledge in advance of what the census paper proposes to ask, in order that public protests or representations may be made in good time?


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for what he has said. The matter which he has raised is at present being looked at and perhaps he will allow me to say that, for the benefit of the country, I hope a majority of the people will have the good sense to ensure that we do still have the same Government when the census is taken.


My Lords, if the Minister is telling us that questions will again be asked of the kind to which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, referred, may I ask my noble friend whether he will take pains to ensure that the real usefulness of the questions which will be asked is fully explained to the public beforehand? This might obviate a number of the protests that were made last time.


My Lords, this Government and, it would be fair to say, the previous Government took very accurate note of the many objections raised after the last census. These are matters which are being looked into, and I can assure my noble friend that I shall certainly convey what she has said to my right honourable friend.