HL Deb 14 October 1997 vol 582 cc137-8WA
Lord Teviot

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What decisions have been or are to be taken by the Public Record Office, in conjunction with the Office for National Statistics, to decide the form in which the census returns for the 20th Century are to be preserved as public records; and where they will be retained.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The information requested falls within the responsibility of the Chief Executive of the Office of National Statistics. I have asked him to arrange for a reply to be given.

Letter to Lord Teviot from the Chief Executive of the Office for National Statistics, Dr. Tim Holt, dated 12 August 1997.

I have been asked to reply, as Director of the Office for National Statistics, to your recent question concerning the form in which census returns for the 20th century are to be preserved and retained.

Census records are subject to two main pieces of legislation. The first is the Census Act 1920, as amended by the Census (Confidentiality) Act 1991, which gives protection to personal information given by the public at the time of the census. The second is the Public Records Act 1958. Lord Chancellor's Instrument No. 12 of 1966, made under Section 5(1) of the Act, closes census returns for 100 years, because the information they contain is given under a pledge of confidentiality.

The census returns for England and Wales for the years 1901 and 1911 are in the custody of the Public Record Office. The 1901 census returns are being microfilmed to enable researchers to have available the same facility as for the censuses of 1841–1891.

The Public Records Act 1958 Section 3(4) permits the retention by the person responsible for them, of those public records selected for permanent preservation after they are 30 years old, if the Lord Chancellor gives his approval. In the case of census returns, I am the person responsible as Registrar General, and permission is sought from the Lord Chancellor for the retention of census records by my departmental records office every 10 years. The census returns for 1921, 1951 and 1961 are retained under this provision. There are currently no plans to deposit records from these censuses with the Public Record Office by a specified date. The returns for 1931 were destroyed by fire during the Second World War and there was no census in 1941. The returns for the later censuses of 1971, 1981 and 1991 are of course not yet 30 years old and are held in my custody.

Discussions are currently taking place between the Office for National Statistics and the Public Record Office on the issue of how census returns will be preserved but no decisions have yet been made.