HL Deb 01 May 1991 vol 528 cc748-9

2.47 p.m.

Lord Monson asked Her Majesty's Government:

What ethnological qualifications were held by those who devised the question on ethnic identity contained in this year's census form.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, in 1983 the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee made recommendations on ethnic and racial questions in the census. In response, the Government asked the Registrars General to carry out field tests to develop a form of question that could be included in the 1991 census if required. The resulting question was included in the final census test made in April 1989. It was concluded that the question was sufficiently acceptable to the public to be included in the census and that it could be expected to yield reliable statistics. The Commission for Racial Equality was consulted throughout the testing programme and extensive consultations were held with the community relations officers and represen-tatives of ethnic minority organisations.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Nevertheless, does she not agree that it is strange that what purports to be a scientific survey should speak of a Bangladeshi ethnic group although Bengalis in Bangladesh are identical ethnically to their cousins in Calcutta, and also speak of a single Indian ethnic group although Indians can come from a wide range of strikingly different ethnic groups?

As to the alleged justification for what many people consider to be an impertinent question on the census form, does the Minister agree that it is somewhat insulting and patronising for a Singapore-Chinese merchant banker or aircraft designer resident in this country to be told in so many words that he is innately incapable of coping with life on account of his ethnic origins and therefore needs taxpayers' money thrown at him, whereas a barely literate Kurdish refugee peasant farmer who, like most of us, is Caucasian, is by definition deemed not to be in need of any such subsidy?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, the noble Lord has shown how complicated an issue this can be. When one is dealing with a census to be responded to by some 25 million households the effort is all behind getting the questions as simple and as answerable as possible. The definition was required to meet the objective of the question, which was to identify wherever possible social disadvantage so that the Government could do something about it. Clearly, the definition of what is an ethnic group will vary. However, the basic premise behind the Government's definition was "a socially distinct group of people who share a common history or culture".

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as the Secretary of State who had to delete the ethnic question from the 1981 census, I very much welcome the decision to ask the questions in the form in which they were asked this time round? Is she also aware—here I recognise that I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Monson—that there are a great many reasons, in all sorts of walks of life, why it is highly desirable that when one is counting the population one should try to count as accurately as possible the different elements that make up that population?

Baroness Hooper

Yes, indeed, my Lords. The question was tested very thoroughly and as a result of consultation some of the questions were changed to meet the needs of the census.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, has there been a significant number of complaints about the question? Is the Minister aware that I was involved in discussions about the questions for the 1971 and 1981 censuses? It seems to me—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding—that the Government got it just about right. What is important is that the information gleaned from the census should be used to ensure that local authorities and other authorities make facilities available to people whatever their ethnic origin, so that they have the best possible equality in their rights and services?

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am once again grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals. He put forward his views when we discussed the regulations at an earlier stage in the proceedings of the House. There has been no substantial reaction or organised protest. Some individuals contacted the OPCS or the media but most of those objecting appeared to be white people. It is too soon to say whether the form has been properly completed. However, it is true that the preface to the questions on the census form indicated that the questions were to help the Government, local authorities, employers and other organisations to identify racial discrimination and disadvantage, to develop more effective policies against them and to monitor the progress of these policies. I think most people agree that that is an important objective.

Lord Monson

My Lords, how is it that the questions identify racial discrimination? I do not see the connection.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, that will be considered when the replies come to be evaluated.