A London MP said she was concerned that the 2001 census would seriously undercount members of ethnic minorities and the poor.
Karen Buck, Labour MP for Regent's Park and Kensington North, who initiated the adjournment debate, said: 'The collection of accurate information about the population and their characteristics is of incalculable importance, not least because the data that are collected now will form the basis for most of the standard spending block calculations for the revenue support grant settlement in two years' time.
'The census statistics are the only source of much of the small area data that local authorities draw on, especially data relating to ethnicity. This is, therefore, an issue of considerable importance to every member of parliament, every councillor and many others.'
Replying, the economic secretary to the treasury, Ruth Kelly, said she believed the census had been successful. The return of census forms had been extremely high; the Office for National Statistics estimated that 95% had been returned and that the overall response would be as high, or higher, than that in 1991.
Ms Buck said she understood how difficult was the enumeration process. Dealing with inner-city constituencies involved assessing accomodation in multiple-occupation houses and in an increasing number of short-let tenancies, both of whose populations were hard to keep track of. The census also had huge problems in 1991, rooted in the effect of the poll tax.
This year, however, deliberate avoidance of being recorded in the census was negligible. In fact, members of ethnic minority communities had stressed how keen they were to participate.
'There is real awareness in those communities of the importance of their existence, extent and characteristics being recorded by the census, and they went out of their way to do eveything possible to ensure that enumeration levels were high. Despite all that, we had some serious problems in some areas,' said Ms Buck.
She had received dozens of complaints. Clusters of complaints suggested the possibility of a deeper problem. The director of Westminster Race Equality Council said scores of families from Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afro-Caribbean and other minority communities did not get forms.
Ms Buck said that when details were passed on, the ONS acted in the specific cases. She added that there were several complaints about accessing the census hotline and the lengthy delays in waiting for translation facilities on it.
Ms Kelly acknowleged that the size of some groups that are more difficult to count had increased, the number of people living alone and in properties with entry phone or other security controls had increased, which made establishing contact more difficult. Life styles had become more varied, which made it difficult to catch people at home.
The ONS adopted a variety of approaches to overcome specific difficulties. A major initiative was the local community liaison programme in which the ONS worked with minority groups, charities and local and health authorities to encourage participation. The questions and guidance on the census forms were translated into 24 languages. Census mateials were prepared in Braille, in large print and on audio tape.
Ms Kelly said finding the right number of census staff with the right qualities proved particularly tough in some inner-city areas. A number of local authorities, including Westminster City Council, gave the ONS a great deal of support to ensure that recruitment was effective.
She concluded: 'When the results of the census and census coverage survey have been analysed there will be a set of figures for each local authority area that will be comparable and consistent. Any under-counting of particular groups will have been kept as low as possible and, where it exists, will have been taken into account in the final results.
'Despite the best endeavours of all, some people will have been missed, but the strategy is designed to ensure they will not lose out in resource allocation'.
Hansard 12 July: Column 1038-1046