HL Deb 21 December 1989 vol 514 cc369-79

12.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [3rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Government propose that a census of Great Britain should be taken on 21st April 1991. A census has been conducted in Britain every 10 years since 1801, except for 1941. A European Community directive adopted in 1987 called for member countries to hold a census between 1st March and 31st May 1991. That conveniently fits with our plans.

To make, manage and monitor policy, any government will need reliable up-to-date statistical information on a uniform basis about people and households for all parts of the country. Only a census can give us that. The census provides the starting point for annual estimates of district populations. It is essential for distribution of central grants and resource allocations to local and health authorities, which now amount to more than £34 billion a year. A wide range of users outside government also need census statistics.

The proposals were announced in our White Paper of July 1988, Cmnd. 430. The Order in Council, apart from directing that a census is to be taken on a particular date, needs to specify who is to be counted, who will be responsible for completing the returns, and what information is to be provided.

Article 4 of the draft order defines the people to be counted. The census is designed to include every person in Great Britain at midnight at the end of census day at the place where he or she spends census night. But we also need to count the usually resident population of each area by asking households about absent residents, so the draft order also covers people who may be abroad on census day.

As to the people responsible for making the returns, the only significant change from the 1981 census is a new paragraph, at Article 5(5), to let people sleeping rough authorise somebody else —perhaps the enumerator, or a representative of a voluntary organisation —to complete the return for them. The information requested in the returns is specified in Schedules 2 and 3.

The census offices —that is, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys for England and Wales, and the General Register Office (Scotland) —have conducted thorough consultations and field tests to ensure both that the questions will yield the statistical information needed and that the public will find them understandable and acceptable. Some items in the schedules are printed in italics. Under the terms of the Census Act 1920 these items are subject to approval by resolution.

The majority of the questions were asked in the 1981 census. I shall concentrate on the new items, the first of which appears as part of item 7 of Schedule 2. This provides for a question on the term-time address of students and schoolchildren who live away from home during term-time. The annual population estimates for local areas include students at their term-time address; and this question is needed so that those students not present at their term-time address on census night can be included in the correct areas in population estimates. On 21st April about half of all students are likely not to be present at their term-time address, presumably because that date falls in the Easter vacation.

Item 10 in Schedule 2 provides for a question on ethnic group. Census information on ethnic group will improve the allocation of resources to local and health authorities and will help them target their services. It will also provide a much improved factual basis for assessing and then tackling racial disadvantage; for example, in employment. In the 1988 White Paper we left the final decision on inclusion of this question until after the census test had been conducted this April. That test was the culmination of a process of testing and consultation to develop a workable question on ethnic group which began in the mid-1970s. The test showed that the proposed ethnic group question was sufficiently acceptable to the public for us to include it in the draft order. Less than one-half of 1 per cent. of the households included in the test refused to take part specifically on this account. The accuracy with which the question was answered would be acceptable in a full census.

We have also been asked fairly recently to include a separate Irish category. There would need to be wide consultation to establish a nation-wide need for such information, followed by further consultation and formal testing to design a question which the public will understand and accept. This cannot now be done in time for the 1991 census. To introduce an Irish category without that process would risk asking a question which just would not work. We have consequently been unable to include that category in the order.

Item 11 in Schedule 2 refers to long-term illness, or handicap. There is a need for a nationally consistent source of information for local areas to assist planning health and social services.

The last new item —at paragraph (b) of Item 18 in Schedule 2 —concerns central heating. That new amenity question will provide a more discriminating indicator of the variation in housing standards for local areas than the bath and WC questions alone.

Regulations governing the conduct of the enumeration and containing copies of the census forms will be laid before the House in the new year. Census Newsletter No. 11 shows how the questions might appear on the form. Copies of that newsletter are available from the Printed Paper Office.

The White Paper stated that if the census were to be used to select samples for more detailed voluntary surveys Parliament would be informed. Our plans include a voluntary sample survey following the census to check the accuracy of information. As happened after the 1981 census, a small check on the completeness of electoral registers will be carried out in conjunction with this survey. The census offices are also considering proposals that they should conduct small voluntary surveys on the following subjects: households in privately rented accommodation, and possibly other small tenure groups; households sharing accommodation; vacant accommodation in Scotland; and people with certain qualifications but not currently working in those specialisms; namely, school teaching, nursing, social work and paramedical qualifications. The data collected in any such surveys will be handled within the census offices and treated in strict confidence. No details about any identifiable individuals will be passed to anyone other than people employed by the registrars general.

The census offices are determined to maintain their excellent record for preserving the confidentiality of census information. The principles were set out in the White Paper. When the forms are being collected people will be able, if they wish, to avoid revealing information about themselves to the other people in their household or establishment or to the local emunerator. The answers on the forms will be used solely to provide statistics. No names will be entered into the computer; neither will addresses, apart from postcodes which will be used only to produce statistics.

In England and Wales, it is proposed to use postcodes to build up special areas for which particular users want to obtain statistical abstracts under Section 4(2) of the Census Act 1920. That will be an alternative to the provision of the small area statistics based on enumeration districts: the areas which constitute an enumerator's workload, typically about 180 households or 400 people. Statistics relating to areas based on groupings of postcodes will give extra flexibility in meeting users' requests. In Scotland, statistics have already been produced from the 1981 census for areas defined in terms of groups of postcodes, and their use again will facilitate comparability between 1981 and 1991 output.

Great care will be taken to avoid any inadvertent disclosure of information about identifiable individuals through census statistics. So far as concerns the small area statistics, that will apply both to those based on enumeration districts and to those based on groups of postcodes. For areas with fewer than a certain number of people, all but the basic counts will be suppressed. Further protection will be given by slightly blurring figures in the tables for local areas.

Tables from the census will be produced to the speediest practicable timetable. Preliminary counts of local populations will be published within about two months of census day. The census offices have consulted widely on a set of local statistics to be produced in a standard form. The top priority will be to make key results available for all local authorities by May 1992 so that they can be taken into account in the calculation of central grants to local and health authorities for 1993–94. National reports on particular topics will then be produced as quickly as possible so that the main results are available within two years of the census and the publication programme completed by autumn 1993.

Consideration is currently being given to a request from the Economic and Social Research Council for abstracts in the form of samples of anonymous records for people and households, so that the users of abstracts can prepare their own tabulations. Meeting any such request would be subject to the overriding need to ensure the confidentiality of individual data.

The estimated cost of this census is just under £135 million over the 10-year period from 1986–87 to 1995–96 in Great Britain. At £2.50 per head of the population spread over 10 years, the census gives good value for money, as I trust your Lordships will agree.

The Government are confident that the census as proposed strikes the right balance between meeting the essential needs for statistics and minimising the burden on the public. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [3rd Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Baroness Hooper.)

1 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I am happy that in the last exchange that we shall have before Christmas there is no basis upon which the Minister and I will disagree. I warmly welcome the decisions that have been taken for the census, and the competent and clear way in which the Minister explained the order to the House.

It is interesting to note how attitudes have changed over the years. Even 10 years ago, when I was Secretary of State for Social Services and was preparing for the previous census, it was difficult to reach agreement on questions such as the ethnic question, to which I shall come in a moment. It was difficult to persuade the public that the information that it was going to give was needed or would be kept confidential. There was an enormous amount of correspondence in the newspapers and speeches were made suggesting that the questions were a gross intrusion into the privacy of the citizen. It required a great deal of explanation and advocacy to show the public that if a government, of whatever political persuasion, were to have policies, especially social policies, they needed to have the maximum amount of information about the nation's social problems so that they could address those problems.

The more information that can be gained—I will not say the better the legislation is likely to be because the quality of the legislation depends on the quality of the Government; and we have no reason to have any confidence in the quality of the legislation that the Government will produce from the census. The information is essential to enable a government to bring forward social legislation of a high quality.

I should like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to those who are involved in the work of the census and to the department which is responsible for it. As Secretary of State, I always felt that it was in a sense an offshoot of the DHSS, and that I never gave enough time to the staff, able and qualified as they were then and are now. So I should like to pay my tribute to the quality of the work done by the department in preparing, studying and testing material for the census before it goes before the public.

All the information is vital. I am looking at question 4 in Schedule 2, which relates to whether a person is single, married, widowed or divorced, and if married whether it is the first or subsequent subsisting marriage. From all that information, we begin to realise the tremendous changes that are taking place in our society and the extraordinary increase in the numer of marriages that break down, the fascinating number of second marriages and the large increase in one-parent families. A great degree of responsibility is shown by many of those one-parent families when looking after the children within those families.

I wish to obtain a little more information on one group of people touched upon by the Minister under question 7: Usual residence, and, in respect of any student or schoolchild who does not reside at that usual residence during term time, the current or most recent term time address". We live in a society in which many people have no usual residence at all. It seems to me that there are probably 100,000—I believe that is a fair estimate—who live nowhere. They live in shop entrances or over heating vents in restaurants and hotels in London. They manage to find a place to live in empty properties. People are to be found in cardboard boxes, wrapped up under stations and other such places. This is one of the terrible facts of society today.

When the Minister replies, will she tell us a little more about how we shall obtain the information for this group of people? They are probably the most needy group in our society and for them social legislation and social understanding are essential. I did not quite catch the words of the Minister but clearly she was suggesting that some other member of the family would be expected to give information about where such a person might be found. My impression from working, as I have done over many years, with some of the voluntary organisations concerned with the homeless and particularly single homeless people is that most of them have no families which they recognise and there are no families which recognise them. There are no people who will say, "Well, you are likely to find Jim sleeping in front of the Civil Service Stores in the Strand". This is a very difficult group to get hold of. Perhaps the Minister will tell me a little more about how the information will be collected, as it is absolutely vital.

The noble Baroness quite rightly touched on question 10, regarding the ethnic group, with the series of questions. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, is taking part in this debate. It used to be the case—I hope it is not so now—that this was the most difficult one of all because of all the sensitivities. Often one argued as a Minister that it was essential for us to know the proportion of people of mixed race, where they lived and what was the size of their families in order to make proper provision to help them to live the fullest life in society. It often used to be the case that many of them felt almost inevitably that somehow we were trying to get at them and that there would be discrimination against them. They did not wish to provide that information.

I do not know to what extent we have got over that problem but I was impressed when the Minister said that in the test census only half of 1 per cent. refused to answer those questions. I do not know whether they refused to answer all the questions under question 10. Perhaps the Minister could be a little more precise about that.

There are some other difficult points which perhaps I may put to her. If she does not have the answer now then perhaps she could write to me. What is "white"? Who is white? Are we white because we think we are white or because someone else thinks we are white? If you are in South Africa you can be absolutely white but if someone can prove that four generations back there was a relationship that leads to your not being totally white, then you are not white. Is it what you think you are? What is "black"? That is the same problem. Who is black?

It is refreshing that now people are much more prepared to say "I am black" and be rather proud of it. But does "black" include brown? Many people who today say, "I am black", are not black at all; they are brown, but they have associated themselves with that group in society which society broadly thinks is black. What advice is given to people when they come to fill in the form about what "white" and "black" are?

Perhaps I may add another point as regards (h), "Chinese". What is "Chinese"? Is "Chinese" Hong Kong Chinese? Who knows what will have happened by April 1991 and whether there will have been a great increase in the number of people coming from Hong Kong. Are Chinese those people who come from China or also those who come from Hong Kong? I need not go any further into that matter.

Perhaps I may turn to disabled people. Question 11 says, Whether suffering from any long-term illness, health problem or handicap which limits his daily activities or the work he can do". Presumably that includes people not just in the list of accommodation, which is very long and which almost includes canal barges and various other categories. I imagine that it includes hospices. I should like to know and if there is a straight answer perhaps the Minister will give it to me: when someone is dying in a hospice, who decides for them whether they are suffering from a long-term illness or whether it is a short-term illness? Do they have to go through the misery of having to answer such a question for themselves?

Question 12 says, In respect of any person aged 18 years or over, the academic, professional or vocational qualifications", Is this a new question? It seems to me to be new compared with 10 years ago. It is very welcome that we are now ascertaining the academic training and thus the skills of those who will be filling in the census.

Perhaps the noble Baroness will say another word about question 13 which touches on young people. As a result of government legislation and changes in social security benefits, there are many young people who might have been living at home but who for some reason are not doing so and many young people who move back and forth between living at home and living somewhere else, sometimes for financial advantage. I wonder who has the responsibility—whether it is the parents who may conceivably not want their youngsters to live at home; that is quite often the case—or perhaps it may be the youngsters who have to decide whether they are living at home.

My last query relates to question 15 on page 7: Number of rooms occupied by the private household to which the return relates excluding any kitchen which is less than 2 metres wide and excluding any bathroom and water closet". I notice that in question 18 we have some queries about baths, showers and water closets. But why in question 15 do we exclude bathrooms and water closets? I should have thought it was extremely important to know how many people were dependent upon one water closet or upon one shower. We could then see the quality of life or the hardship of life which people have to face.

That covers the questions which I wanted to raise. I was going to ask what was the cost, but in her reply the Minister said that it was £135 million. Perhaps she could now say how many staff are involved in this major and extremely important operation.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the Minister for introducing this order so clearly and for pre-empting many of the questions which some of us wanted to raise. I wish to say a few words about the ethnic question, number 10. I am delighted to see it. It is an absolutely essential matter and seems to have been reasonably drafted.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said, this matter was in the past extremely delicate. It gave rise to quite violent controversy. I, like the noble Lord, was impressed by the statistic which the noble Baroness produced of those willing to fill in a questionnaire in such detail. I was impressed because I have always regarded the response to an ethnic questionnaire as, in some respects, a test of the confidence of the people being questioned in the intentions of the Government. I say that because if, for example, I were asked to fill in an ethnic questionnaire in South Africa, I would be reluctant to do so. If I were a black South African I would assume that the information collected would be used against rather than in favour of my interests. Statistics are in themselves neutral. What matters is the use to which they are put. Therefore, if the minorities in this country live up to the test figure given by the Minister, that will be an encouraging sign.

Taking up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, I understand that the questionnaire depends on self-perception. We want to know what people consider themselves to be. It does not matter whether the census is 100 per cent. accurate. What we want to know are rough figures. Figures accurate within a margin of 5 per cent. are good enough for most uses. We want to be able to compare, decade by decade, the changes which take place. That is why it is so essential that the census should not be dropped but should be continued.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept, with his greater knowledge, that nowadays people are more willing to admit they are black, even if their pigmentation is not very dark, than was the case in the past? Is there not some difficulty in being able to make comparisons when the politics of the situation mean that one may be more willing to admit to being black now, whereas 10 years ago one would have said one was dark pink, or whatever?

1.15 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. This matter poses a sophisticated problem. I should not like to give an absolute answer. However, I think that people's self-perceptions are significant of something. That something, as it changes, is in itself significant. The black issue, for example, is a highly political one. The slogan "black is beautiful" of the 1950s took on a highly political connotation within ethnic groups. It has, in particular, had reverberations in the relations between the Asian and the West Indian communities in this country. I am glad to see in the order the categories, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, because often there were moves to persuade all Asians to call themselves black. If they did not, they were made to feel they were not showing solidarity with other minorities. That always caused dispute and disarray and took the focus off the real questions which should have been addressed.

I do not think I have much more to add, except to say that I welcome the measure and I look forward to seeing its results. It is an extremely significant measure. The fact that the ethnic matter is contained within the census should encourage employers and others also to keep ethnic records. It is only by keeping proper ethnic records that one can determine whether quality of treatment is a reality or a fiction.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I hate to cast a stone into the tranquil pond of seasonal goodwill, but I for one do not welcome the ethnic questions in the draft census form. Classifying people by race is part of the tradition of a number of countries, for example the Republic of South Africa, the Soviet Union, Malaysia and a few others. It is not part of our traditions. The idea that a person could be fined £2.000 for misdescribing his race seems to me quite shocking. Incidentally, the Daily Telegraph pointed out a few weeks ago that there is no such thing as an Indian or Pakistani race. There are Kashmiris, Pathans, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Tamils and others. There is no such thing as an Indian, Pakistani or, strictly speaking Bangladeshi race. There are of course Bengalis but that is by the by.

We are told that the order is necessary so that help can be channelled into immigrant areas. Why is that so? Previous waves of immigrants such as the Flemings in the Middle Ages, the Huguenots in the middle of the 16th and the end of the 17th centuries, the Jews in the 1880s, the early 20th century and the late 1930s, the Italians, the Chinese, the Irish, the Poles and the Hungarians, managed perfectly well without special funds being channelled in their direction. Most of them were just as poor on average as Commonwealth immigrants and most of them spoke English far less well on average than the average Commonwealth immigrant. Many were also discriminated against, in particular the Jews and the Irish. Indeed, the Dutch who came to drain the fens were frequently murdered by locals and their bodies thrown into ditches.

With minor exceptions such as language coaching for the Vietnamese, who seem to have particular problems in learning foreign languages, it seems patronising and even insulting to later waves of immigrants to suggest that they are innately incapable of pulling themselves up by their own efforts in the way that all previous waves of immigrants have managed to do. That is one more reason for believing that we should not start now to classify people by race, even less to fine people who get their racial category wrong.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Ennals and Lord Bonham-Carter, for their welcome of this order. I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, on behalf of the census staff for his kind tribute, which I fully endorse, both as regards their quality and efficacy. As regards the question of numbers of staff involved at this point, in addition to several hundred permanent staff in the census offices we shall be employing about 130,000 temporary field staff. I understand that about 118,000 of those will be enumerators who will be responsible for the delivery of over 20 million forms. There will also be about 1,500 temporary processing staff.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, also asked about paragraph 5(5) which concerns usual residence. He asked for a supplement of my comments on people sleeping rough. Special efforts will be made to enumerate people who are sleeping rough, as I mentioned in my opening comments. This will be done through, for example, voluntary bodies with whom we have had and are continuing to have discussions, although the exercise will be managed by the census offices. The enumerators will have a certain responsibility in this respect. That is the purpose of the new provision in the order. It enables arrangements to be made wherever possible—that always has to be done in the light of possibility—to have someone else complete a return for a person who is not available.

I am grateful for the welcome which has been expressed regarding the question of the definition of "white", "black" or ethnic origin. It is a difficult problem and that accounts for the length of time that we have taken, through testing and consultation, to arrive at what we hope will be the most effective question. I was most interested to hear the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, in that respect and by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, from his different point of view.

The answer wanted to the question about ethnic group is the answer which the person himself or herself thinks is the correct one—whether it is "white" or "Chinese". For those who find difficulty in agreeing to any of the categories listed from (a) to (i) there is provision for writing in an alternative.

When we discussed the matter with representatives of the black community they considered that people would be more willing to answer a question which distinguished the main sub-groups of the black category and that is one of the reasons for enumerating so many categories. It was also felt—and this accounts for the difference between this question and the 1979 test version—that the use of the terms "white" and "black" were acceptable now although they were not in 1979.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, asked me about the results of the ethnic questions. There is a summary in Census Newsletter No. 11 and a fuller report will be published in Population Trends in spring 1990.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, also asked about question 12 relating to educational qualifications. That is not a new question although it has been slightly restructured.

As regards question 11 and who decides what is a long-term illness, people who are able to fill in their own details will do so. For others the details will be completed by the head of the institution concerned, whether that is a hospice or other type of institution.

Regarding who has responsibility for including children living at home for part of the time, it is the responsibility of each person over 16 to complete the form or to ensure that it is completed. For those under 16 it is the responsibility of the parent, guardian or other adult in charge.

Turning to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, on question 15 about the exclusion of the bathroom and WC, if the noble Lord looks at question 16(d)(iii) he will see that there is a separate question on whether a household has the exclusive use of a bath or shower and WC or whether the amenity is shared with other households.

I trust that that answers the various questions that were raised. I am most grateful to all those noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. Perhaps I could add a supplementary point in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked on the ethnic question. He referred to a maximum fine of £2,000. That is incorrect. The maximum fine is £400. The United States of America, Canada and Australia all have ethnic questions in their census forms. Most ethnic minority organisations have agreed that they want such a question. It is perhaps appropriate to end my remarks on the ethnic question since it is clearly one that is of considerable interest.

As I said, I am most grateful to those noble Lords who have participated in the discussion and for their general welcome of the order, which I commend to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.