It’s becoming almost impossible to keep up with the announcements of spending cuts from the new Government, and no doubt that is their intention, so that they’re subjected to as little scrutiny as possible. Things which affect Bristol include the scrapping of the Prevent agenda, which had problems in some areas but in Bristol was seen as a shining example of how this type of community engagement should be done.
Another thing is the scrapping of the census, although thankfully that’s not going to happen until after the 2011 one is carried out. I say thankfully because time and time again in my work as an MP I come across instances where, for example, funding allocations or decisions about public service provision, are based on the 2001 census figures.
In parts of Bristol this is close to meaningless. Lawrence Hill and Easton wards, which formed part of my old constituency, were very different places, demographically speaking, in 1999 when the fieldwork for the 2001 census started. The Somali population, for example, was miniscule by comparison.
As a result I’ve constantly had to argue this case, that Bristol should not be judged on an out-of-date snapshot, and in the absence of census data have had to cite things like school rolls, or GPs’ registrations. It’s very difficult to plan services for a locality if you don’t know who’s living there.
The Government intends to replace the census with a cut-price version using “existing public and private databases, including credit reference agencies”. The BBC says this will include post office records and local government records too, and will enable the information to be kept more regularly up to date (which is a good thing, a kind of rolling census?)
However, I have my doubts. Not only is this information likely to be highly inaccurate, and difficult to collate if various, potentially overlapping databases are to be used, it may also end up excluding exactly those people who are deemed ‘hard to reach’ by the official census. And I wonder what those people who were so vociferous in arguing against ‘the database state’ would have to say about it?
As an interim measure I’ve tabled a parliamentary question, asking the Cabinet Office minister what plans he has to review the Census Act 1920. That’s the Act which makes it an offence not to co-operate with the census. I don’t see how there can be an equivalent measure if the new proposals are implemented, although it’s rarely enforced. This is just a way of trying to see how much thought they’ve given to the issue. I’ve also asked “what reassurances he can give as to whether the alternative methods of measuring the population which are currently under consideration as part of plans to scrap the national census will ensure that transient communities, people who have newly arrived in Britain and other hard to reach groups are accurately recorded?” And “If he will publish details of the advice he received on the accuracy, cost and practicalities of using alternative methods of measuring the UK’s population before any decision was taken on the future of the national census?” And also for a general statement of intent regarding his plans to scrap the census. I don’t hold out much hope of illuminating answers, but it’s worth a try. It might sound like a relatively small matter, but it does have big consequences.
* Have decided to use ridiculous Beck titles today. And there are plenty to choose from. I am sure you can imagine how much I wrestled with this… do I go with the American spelling and have people think I’m illiterate? Or do I throw artistic authenticity out of the window and add a ‘u’?