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Wednesday, 19 February, 2003, 10:47 GMT
Census results: Ask an expert
2001 census logo

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  • Click here to read the transcript

    The number of households with married couples has fallen significantly over the last decade.

    The newly released results of the Census 2001 show that homes with married couples have fallen from 55% in 1991 to 45% now.

    Statistics from the 2001 census, also show that for the first time two areas of Britain have more black and Asian people than white people.

    They are Newham in east London, and Brent in north-west London. Overall the ethnic minority population of England and Wales rose from 6% in 1991 to 9% in 2001.

    Other findings confirm that the population is still heading from north to south, there are more single parents and more people live alone.

    How accurate are the figures? What do they reveal about Britain today?

    Len Cook, national statistician at the Office for National Statistics, answered your questions.


  • Transcript:


    Newshost:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Interactive forum. I'm Andrew Simmons.

    Now statistics - you either love them or you hate them and today you can feast on them because the 2001 census has been published. Before we take your questions, here are just a couple of highlights.

    In 1981 64% of the population were married couples - in 1991 it was down to 55% - now it's 45%. Nearly 1 in 10 people in England and Wales are in poor health. There are a similar number of people working as unpaid carers - 1 million doing more than 50 hours a week in that role.

    The number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has fallen by more than 7,000 over the past 10 years. And ethnic minorities now make up 9% of the population, compared to 6%, 10 years ago.

    So what does this all mean? Here's the man with the answers - Len Cook from the Office for National Statistics - Registrar General of England Wales.

    Thanks for joining us. Let's get straight to the questions. The first question is from Maria Wilkins, Lincolnshire, UK: What faith can have in the statistics?


    Len Cook:

    Firstly, we've been carrying out censuses since 1801 - this is the 20th - so this census's results are part of a pattern that we've had 200 years to see how it evolves.

    Secondly, a large part of the information from this census gives us knowledge about how the population's changing in the next decade, so we can often predict a lot of information - we can see the consistency.

    Thirdly, we put a huge effort into doing it well. We get to every household. In this census, for the first time, we carried out a special survey of each local authority, with 300,000 people to validate the census results and for those areas with poorer responses than we expected, we were able to get a picture of what the total population was so we could then actually fit the responses we had to that population.


    Newshost:

    Martyn, Ashford, England: Given that we are told that this information is used by government to be better able to provide for future need, what future needs did this census identify?


    Len Cook:

    First the ethnic communities were an important part of the Government's social exclusion and community development programmes. So the ethnic and religious question came in.

    Secondly, health. A huge interest in health policy. So that question on health status and how do people judge their health was important.

    Thirdly, just a huge regional development agenda that came through and meant that, for example, this census, all the information we have is coded for every area in Britain. It's all available from each census form for all small parts.


    Newshost:

    Now while you've been answering that point, Jason Pollard from London has just e-mailed in and he asks: I understand that by 2011, Leicester will be the first city to have a minority white population. Are there any figures in the 2001 that support this claim?


    Len Cook:

    Leicester is the city with the largest proportion of Hindu people in Britain - I think it's around 30%. Already Newham has 40% of its population as white-British or white other category. And Brent has 45%. So both Brent and Newham already in this census have a majority of people from various ethnic communities.


    Newshost:

    Rachel Harding, Nottingham: Will the information be used to help tackle discrimination, and in particular to promote the positives of ethnic diversity?


    Len Cook:

    This is the best source of information that we have in Britain and that we'll have for another 10 years to do that. In fact, much of the development of the ethnic questions and the content was asked for and sought by the different ethnic communities in Britain. This is really the basic platform for understanding the effectiveness of programmes to do that.


    Newshost:

    But how successful are you in getting people to actually fill in these forms? D. Allen, Germany asks: How many people didn't complete the census?

    I don't suppose you'd know that would you?


    Len Cook:

    Well, no. From our census coverage survey, where we went back afterwards and persisted to find out what 300,000 households actually did, we believe that 94% of the population completed a census form. We picked up another 2% of households where we weren't able to actually identify who was there. And then of course, we had 2% of households that just simply we missed for various reasons. And the last 2% are generally missed from all censuses.


    Newshost:

    Mars Kestrel, London, UK: Does the new census information indicate any change in people's feelings of belonging to and caring for their local community?


    Len Cook:

    It's very difficult to get that information directly. No, I can't tell you that.


    Newshost:

    Just on that point - on the issue of community care. There's a surprisingly large number of people who are in fact carers - unpaid carers - is there not in this census?


    Len Cook:

    Yes, some 5 million and in addition to that of course, 20% of those people who are carers, work 50 or more hours a week. It's a huge number and of course what the census tells us is the type of people they are - are they older people caring for even older people, are they from the traditional caring group of women. What we've been able to see in this census is how has that changed.


    Newshost:

    David, Doha, Qatar/UK: I live and work overseas at present. I am still British and will return to UK one day. There must be a lot of people like me. Are we included anywhere in the census estimates?


    Len Cook:

    No. This is a census of the usually resident population in the United Kingdom, so he's not.


    Newshost:

    R Sohan, London, UK: I often hear the net migration rate out of the country is more than into the country. Is this true?


    Len Cook:

    No, it's not. For example, in the last 10 years, we had a net gain from migration of 400,000 over the ten year period. We overestimated that in our population estimates, but that's what the final figure has been. And that's half the natural increase over the 10 year period - births exceeded deaths by 900,000.


    Newshost:

    This is a question just in from Greg, UK: Does this census confirm the drop in the birth rate and hence future pension problems?


    Len Cook:

    What this census shows is that we're already a little closer to the older age distribution that we expected to get at in 2030. So we're a little older already and closer to what that total is. So if we're surviving now, then we're closer to it. In fact, we know that by 2030, we'll reach the long-term age distribution of the ratio of old to young.


    Newshost:

    Richard Simpson, Farnborough, Hants: I understand that many thousands of census forms were not returned despite the potential 1000 fine. How many people have been successfully prosecuted for failing to return a census form?


    Len Cook:

    Forty - in fact it could be 39 - but yes, just under 40.


    Newshost:

    So not exactly pro-active on that one then?


    Len Cook:

    We try very hard. We had to prosecutions where we know that we're going to succeed and where we actually have a proper basis of evidence. That's quite a difficult thing to obtain when people are explicitly evading dealing with us. I'm afraid they don't come forth.


    Newshost:

    So that's a question of resources is it?


    Len Cook:

    And just the ability to prosecute yes.


    Newshost:

    Rachael Pullen, Sheffield: Why does it take so long for the data to be processed?


    Len Cook:

    I'd like it to come out earlier. In fact of course we process 24 million household forms. I think if you put all the forms in a line, they'd go to Beijing in terms of the volume of them. They had to be scanned, validated, coded - where people put their occupation in, we had to code it so we could process it - and then there's a huge amount of work once we've produced the statistics to validate them against other information.

    So it does take a long time. But there's a huge amount of information that's now available for the next decade. I'd like to be able to do it quicker. But we certainly would have taken longer if we hadn't used the methods that we did in this census.


    Newshost:

    Gareth Lewis, Swansea, Wales: How much did the 2001 census cost? Are there any financial benefits to the country from the census?


    Len Cook:

    In England and Wales, it cost 207 million and 250 million for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the financial benefits of course are huge because government every year it allocates money to local authorities - 40 billion. We spend billions on pension payments per year - we have to plan for that. We spend billions on schools, we build hospitals where we believe people that are more likely to need hospital care are going to be. We even put fire stations where people need to be.

    Also if you look out where Sainsbury or Tesco is building a new supermarket, one of the key drivers for the construction of commercial activity which services the basic households is of course the census. So without a census it would probably cost the country billions in poorly allocated decisions and investment misspent.


    Newshost:

    Andrew Reed, Southampton: How many people indicated that they had a disability and what proportion is this of the population?


    Len Cook:

    Of the top of my head - about 10% I think - it's quite a high percentage.


    Newshost:

    What sort of numbers were you talking about with 10%?


    Len Cook:

    That would about 5 million. And of course when you talk about that, you're talking about older people who may well themselves be quite active and able to get out but they might need some support to do so. It could be someone with asthma, so there's quite a huge variety of disability, if you think about it. We know that increases proportionately with age quite significantly.


    Newshost:

    I'm moving on here to a slightly lighter area and something that I'm sure many of our viewers want to know about and they're the Jedi questions I have here.

    Roy White, England: How many people entered their Religion as being a "Jedi" or "Jedi knight"?

    Alan Paton, Edinburgh: Is it true that Jedi is now officially a "religion"?

    Anthony Baldwin, Fareham, England: Is Jedi now a recognised religion based on the number of people stating that it is their religion?

    Just to explain here, that Jedi, for viewers who don't know, is something out of Star Wars from years ago - a bit of a cult following.

    What exactly has happened here was that there was some internet campaign to try and get Jedi registered as a religion. Perhaps you could explain what happened here.


    Len Cook:

    What's worse Andrew, it came from New Zealand where I came from.

    Firstly, 309,000 people in the religion question stated that they were Jedi. It is not a religion. It's a good humoured answer and a wonderfully enthusiastic campaign that I'm sure helped quite a lot of people be encouraged to complete a census form, so I've no trouble with it at all. It's not a religion. We've coded those people in the no religion category.


    Newshost:

    But technically, it should have been registered as a religion because more than 10,000 actually put down that as a religion. So you took an executive decision here, did you?


    Len Cook:

    I did. It takes more than me, I think, to decide that a group of people form a religion in the United Kingdom.


    Newshost:

    So what have they been registered as then?


    Len Cook:

    They're not registered - they're just there. We've counted them, we can say how many there are. We can even tell you about their characteristics.


    Newshost:

    Will Collins, Hampshire has just e-mailed in. He asks: Are there no safety nets within the procedures to prevent Jedi knight being added to final census information? Providing a report with this type of information renders most of the information unreliable?


    Len Cook:

    The most important safety net is me and they're not being added - we just know how many there are. People ticked the box and they completed their census genuinely and we've given them some information back genuinely, but they are not counted as a religion.


    Newshost:

    Aileen McCrath has also just e-mailed in from Scotland: How many people speak Scots Gaelic?

    Now that's another area of concern isn't it because there's a big decline in the number of people speaking Gallic?


    Len Cook:

    I apologise, I can't answer that. That's released by the census in Scotland today and I have not caught up with that.


    Newshost:

    I'm just going off the top of my head here - the numbers have declined by 6,000, I think. I'm sorry Aileen, we can't answer that one in any detail.


    Len Cook:

    Can I add the comment which will also be true in Wales. It's also important that the fact that the number is down, it may mean that the older speakers have died off and the number who are younger who have been learning is not the same number.

    In Wales, for example, where we're seeing the use of the Welsh language - in the age distribution, it's the older people and the very young who have the familiarity with the language - it's the ages in the middle that do not. So you can see that you could still have a growth in the number of people acquiring new knowledge of the language. But simply because those who have traditionally had the knowledge are older and dying off, they may be dying off quicker and that really just reflects their age.


    Newshost:

    Tim, Manchester: Manchester is worried that many people were missing. How does the census cope with this?

    Maybe this is a local story issue - do you know anything of this?


    Len Cook:

    Yes, I do. In fact the population estimate made based on the 1991 census and adjusted for births, deaths and migration flows into Manchester, ended up being nearly 10% higher than the population count that we produced from the census. And the Manchester Council lose, I think, some 20 million because of that in the local authority settlement, so they've expressed a great deal of concern and we're working with them to demonstrate the reliability of the census as opposed to the estimate which is considerably less reliable and also matching with some of Manchester's rating lists for example.

    Obviously a rate in property and the census household can be quite different, so we have to have quite a meticulous comparison for that which we're going to do. In between time, I'm afraid Manchester politicians have been making a lot of statements that are not really true with regard to this and I think that's just something that one has to bear until we as statisticians have completely a thoughtful analysis.


    Newshost:

    Leah, Harlow: With a fast and moving population, shouldn't we be considering a more frequent census, for example, every five years?


    Len Cook:

    We did look at that and concluded that the 250 million cost of a census meant that if we had them every five years, the benefit wouldn't justify the cost. However, what we are looking to now is finding better ways of measuring the actual level of the population in between census instead of just finding ways of measuring change through births and deaths and migration. So we may, for example, carry out another census survey in some of the large cities such as London, to help get an independent check of our estimates.


    Newshost:

    Richard Barley, Grimsby, UK: Are there any plans to allow the census form to be filled in electronically in the future?


    Len Cook:

    We looked last time and we weren't really able to do that in such a way where you could guarantee the authenticity of the person completing the form or guarantee electronically the absolute security of the information. We would certainly look to do that and we're doing a lot of work alongside other countries to see whether we can learn from each other in what we can do there. I would very much like to and it's really just a matter of - have we got the technology, have we got digital signatures or some way of guaranteeing that people actually are who they say they are.


    Newshost:

    So that's really a question of technology moving on a bit?


    Len Cook:

    When it's there and if there is, for example, a government authorisation process, then we would be very enthusiastic users of it.


    Newshost:

    Mark Blud, Sheffield, UK: Is there a website where I can find the published results of the census?


    Len Cook:

    Yes, its called www.statistics.gov.uk. And what's more on that website you'll find more published results from the census now than you've ever been able to buy in books before in all the censuses put together. You've got a huge amount of information available, online, extracted out from each 376 local authorities in our neighbourhood statistic section - a huge amount along with other information not from the census and it's all free.


    Newshost:

    For our viewers on the internet watching now there is a link on the forum page.

    Thanks very much Len. We've got to leave it there. Thank you out there for your questions. From me, Andrew Simmons and the rest of the Interactive team here at BBC TVC in London, goodbye.


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