Westminster’s Population Estimates

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con):

The City of Westminster is one of the most complex and diverse districts in the United Kingdom. As the cultural and political hub of our capital city, it attracts a vast number of people each and every day, on top of the residential population, who either come to work in Westminster or to visit its wealth of attractions. Unsurprisingly, it is also a destination of choice for people arriving in the United Kingdom for the first time. Many plan to work for a short period before returning home, and others hope to make new, permanent lives here, but the true extent of that population is unknown. Hidden from official statistics are the asylum seekers awaiting a decision from the Home Office, countless migrant workers from the European Union who are often willing to sleep in crowded rooms, illegal immigrants working in the black economy, and of course those whose application for leave to remain has been rejected but who are yet to be removed. At 24 per cent., Westminster has had the greatest proportionate increase in population since 2001, the time of the last census, of any local authority in the United Kingdom. That tide of humanity must be catered for, but in this unique area of hyperdiversity and hypermobility it is uniquely difficult to assess its extent. That is a problem because population figures form a key part of the Government's calculations to distribute grants to local councils, as the Minister knows. 

Westminster city council has repeatedly warned the Government that current methods of counting migration are simply not keeping pace with modern patterns of population movement. Consequently, the council and many other areas where migration is high are locked into a three-year grant settlement, which leaves Westminster paying £6 million every year for those unaccounted-for people living within its boundaries. No doubt migration will always be a sensitive issue, but the failure of the Office for National Statistics properly to measure its extent will mean London council tax payers shouldering the burden without the benefit. Unless the Government address the problem urgently, they risk losing public good will with serious consequences for the cohesion of our communities. I should point out at this stage that this is not a narrow, partisan, party political issue. I share representation of the City of Westminster with the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) who sits on the Labour Benches, and we work hard together on this and a number of other local issues. It has often been at the hon. Lady's behest that we have had meetings with Ministers in years gone by. 

Many of the problems with population figures are attributable to the lack of a single, all-inclusive system to measure the movement of people into and out of the UK, and the absence of such a system to allocate those migrants to the place where they reside. Westminster city council's grave concern is that the population figures used by the ONS in the calculation of Westminster's grant allocation are incorrect and significantly underestimate the area's population. Consequently, the council encounters difficulties in providing the full complement of services for its residents, both permanent and temporary. 

No one disputes that Westminster is a particularly attractive place for migrants to work, especially as they can avoid London's travel costs and often find employment easily in the capital's service sector. Research commissioned by Westminster city council found that many choose to live in crowded accommodation, and are often classed as mid-term migrants, staying for between three and 12 months. Yet the methodology adopted by the ONS does not include in its population figures migrants who say that they intend to stay for fewer than 12 months. That omission is significant in an area such as central London, but I appreciate that it applies not only to Westminster but to one or two other local authorities. Independent research has shown that Westminster has more than 13,000 illegal migrants within its boundaries at any one time and, in addition, around 11,000 short-term migrants who are not registered in the official statistics for the reasons that I have set out. 

The Government are not unaware of the problem.Westminster city council has campaigned on the issue ever since the ONS was found to have missed more than 22,000 people from the 2001 census count of the borough's population.Westminster's specific case was investigated by the Statistics Commission before the UK Statistics Authority replaced it. Recommendations were made for migrant data to be improved urgently after the quality was found to be presently wholly inadequate. I am afraid that no action was taken, and in May 2006 the commission had to write again to the Home Office. It concluded: Work by the Statistics Commission three years ago indicated that there was very wide agreement across Whitehall that statistics relating to migration, both internationally and within the UK, need urgently to be improved. But thus far we have seen little evidence of real progress being made?. 

More worryingly, the Commission gave its original warning before the European Union's enlargement in 2004, which took in the A8 accession countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The Government’s colossal underestimation of the number of people arriving from those countries has been well documented, and the issue did not affect only Westminster. 

Local authorities have borne the brunt of service provision for the countless hundreds of thousands who came to our shores without adequate support as a result of the Government’s failure to prepare. Another two countries have since been added to the EU, the A2 nations of Bulgaria and Romania acceded on 1 January 2007, and the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs acknowledged last year that ?there is currently no satisfactory source which can provide the raw information, at national and local levels, that is required for statistical purposes. 

The ONS has recognised the difficulty of measuring Westminster‘s population and has expressly excluded it as a field test authority for the forthcoming 2011 census on the grounds that ?our methods might be sufficiently good enough for more typical cities.? The understandable fear, which the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington and I share, is that the council could again face problems at the next census and beyond, given the importance of the census figures for the calculation of grant in the decade to come. 

The volatility and confusion in population estimates make it almost impossible for local authorities to plan ahead with certainty. While the Government reap the rewards of migration through increased income tax and value added tax, and the higher productivity of British business, local authorities are trapped with the costs of an increased population without being given a fair share of funding. The impact on services and quality of life in areas of high migration is significant in terms of housing, community protection, schooling and adult services. In 2006-07 alone, the council incurred costs of more than £1 million just for supporting people who do not even have any recourse to public funds. That represented only a fairly small proportion of the migratory flow. 

Many A8 migrants choose to live in private sector housing, and that has increased rents, applying further pressure to an already oversubscribed social housing market. Westminster‘s 2006 housing needs survey identified that increased overcrowding and household size was linked in part to a growth in houses in multiple occupation. That adds further to the acute pressures on affordable housing in an area where 44 per cent. of children already live in overcrowded accommodation. As the local Member of Parliament, I can testify to that. 

The two most common issues in my constituency postbag are immigration and housing, and I reckon that I receive between 10 and 20 letters a week from families either struggling to obtain council or housing association property or hoping desperately for a transfer to a larger home. Westminster city council understands their frustration, but in a high-density, urban area the supply of affordable homes simply cannot keep up with the colossal demand. The average wait for a permanent home for someone accepted on to the list today is likely to be between four and five years. For a family in a one-bedroom property needing a two-bedroom home, the transfer wait is currently six years, and for a three-bedroom home it is seven years and eight months. For those wanting to trade up to a four-bedroom home the wait is apparently, if academically, 27 years and seven months. 

Furthermore, since 2004 London has seen increases in A8 migrants sleeping rough. Westminster city council has worked hard to tackle the needs of new arrivals and has worked with central Government agencies. I do not wish to offer too much criticism, because there have been significant improvements. The situation has ebbed and flowed at various times, and we have been trying to prevent nearly 400 A8 nationals from falling into long-term rough sleeping. I highlighted that work in a speech I made in this Chamber in January last year, when I warned the Government about the increasing pressure on homelessness services following the A2 enlargement of the EU; indeed, where I felt it was appropriate, I also complimented Government action. 

Once A2 or A8 nationals have completed 12 months? continuous employment as registered or authorised workers, if they remain in the labour market they have the same access to Jobcentre Plus services as any other citizen. The flip side of that is, of course, that Jobcentre Plus refuses to help A8 nationals to find work if they have not already been employed for that period. Those men and women rely on their local authority for support and advice and can all too often fall into homelessness, addiction and the other problems that arise in those circumstances. 

The Westminster drugs and alcohol team is under increasing pressure to assist clients from EU accession nations who have fallen into alcohol dependency and drug addiction. Unfortunately, the influx from A10 countries has also had an impact on the council's community protection operations. Strong evidence suggests that pockets of petty theft in the west end and persistent organised begging operations are being initiated by Romanian migrants. In fact, after several constituents complained to me specifically about aggressive begging in shopping districts, I had to raise the issue independently with City of Westminster police. The borough commander Steve Allen informed me that the police have had to put specific operations in place to combat a problem of which they are well aware. Unfortunately, begging seems to be just one arm of organised crime that originates from eastern Europe. Automated teller machine fraud is another example of such crime, which, anecdotally, the local police have told me is conducted almost exclusively by Romanian gangs. I have tabled various parliamentary questions on that matter and was informed by the Home Office that it had no idea how much crime was being committed by Romanian nationals because country of origin data are not collected or collated in the crime statistics. 

On education provision, short-term migration and the large number of migrants who move around the country seeking work cause significant problems in relation to the churn in schools. Such churn can leave teachers coping with a diverse class that has vastly different abilities in numeracy and literacy, and diverse cultural and language needs. Many children arrive mid-term and have no records, which has a significant administrative cost?about £400 for a primary school child and £800 for a secondary school child. In addition, extra support staff might be required to help migrant children with their learning and to liaise with related services. The council estimates that migrant families will contribute to a 10 per cent. increase in required school places in

Westminster in the second half of this decade. Child protection can be particularly difficult because of language and cross-cultural issues when investigating migrant families. In addition, mobility tends to be high, which makes investigations into problem families both costly and time consuming. With higher than average British birth rates, migrant families will often also have a greater reliance on primary health care facilities. A general confusion over who is entitled to assistance adds to service pressures, and there is increasing concern among local authorities about their legal obligations towards destitute people from abroad who have no recourse to public funds, such as failed asylum seekers or A10 nationals who have not worked for the requisite 12 continuous months. British citizens who have lived abroad for many years may also lose their right to benefits. 

The obligation to support such foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds often arises as a direct result of a Home Office policy and practice, whereby support is withdrawn from failed asylum seekers, but they are not removed from the UK when their claim is finally refused. I have seen that phenomenon time and again in my constituency during the seven years I have represented it, and I am no longer surprised to find that a constituent is still writing to me many years after being told that they are to be deported and that they are still homeless, still wanting work and still desperate. 

The Home Office has failed to provide local authorities with adequate guidance in such circumstances to the extent that many are concerned that they might be acting ultra vires. If local authorities disregard immigration restrictions on access to public services, they may be acting outside the law; but equally, a failure to provide services where there is an entitlement could result in judicial review and a claim for damages. 

For obvious reasons, Westminster City council receives no funding from the Government to assist its work in supporting foreign nationals who have no recourse to public funds. That puts increasing pressure on the council?s departments, particularly adult services and health, to deliver services while maintaining strict budgets. Furthermore, regardless of benefits entitlement, all migrants are entitled to use leisure and culture facilities, environmental services, join local authority-funded community groups, and have their children use local schools. Many migrants use the council?s libraries and one-stop shops and their visits often take longer because of language and cultural barriers. We all want to live in a civilised society and no one can deny that it is important for such individuals to have the right to play a part in various community services, but that comes at a significant cost. 

Clearly, there needs to be a fundamental and radical reform of population measurement between each census, so that local authorities are funded appropriately for their true populations. The Government have committed extra resources?some £12 million?to the improvement of population estimates and have shown an important degree of leadership in taking forward progress via the statistics improvement programme board. However, I fear that those commitments might be insufficient to bring about the reform of the population estimates envisaged by the former Statistics Commission and by some local authority users. 

Last September, the Statistics Commission stated in its response to the Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee that ?sample surveys, of the kind typically carried out by statistical offices, are not the answer?. However, much of the work being carried out by the ONS to improve migration estimates seems to be centred on survey improvements, and if the plans to improve migration estimates are not more ambitious the council is concerned that the work being undertaken will simply replace poor data with the like. If that happens, confidence in official statistics could be irreparably damaged. 

Widespread concern has been aired that the ONS is simply not being adequately funded to make the improvements necessary to provide confidence in migration estimates. The Bank of England believes the ONS?s move to north Wales poses a serious risk to the maintenance of the quality of macro-economic data. It is unfair to ask local authorities and the communities they serve to foot the bill or to suffer adverse effects to services while waiting for migration measurement to improve. 

So what needs to be done? In the short term, the Local Government Association wants the Government to make a contingency fund of £250 million available to aid councils where migration estimates fail accurately to reflect the current population. The fund could be distributed via an agreed set of local and national administrative data, such as national insurance numbers and schools? surveys. Going further, until a resolution is found to the wider statistical problem,

Westminster would like the Government to introduce specific grants to council areas that face pressures caused by short-term migration. In the longer term, the Government need to invest a significant sum of money in research to ensure that statistics produced on migration are accurate and reflect the true number of both long and short-term migrants living in

Westminster and the country as a whole. There needs to be radical changes to the methodology used to estimate and measure migration movements, as migrants who intend to stay for fewer than 12 months are not yet considered in population counts. The ONS needs to be adequately funded so that skilled, experienced staff are not lost. 

I note that one of the Government?s intentions is to introduce a transitional impacts of migration fund to build capacity in local service provision and support innovative projects from 2009-10. That response has come five years after A8 accession, and councils are still no wiser about how the fund will work and how it will be distributed around the country. The fund is unlikely to be the £250 million called for by the LGA and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and is, I fear, too little too late. 

In an area where there is continuous movement of short-term migrants who are regularly replaced by other short-term residents, the impact on council services is continuous.

Westminster is one such area and the borough receives no extra Government funding to meet extra costs. Although that problem was highlighted after the 2001 census, it has, as I have said, been exacerbated. I accept that the issue is not just Westminster-specific, but the problem is particularly extreme in my constituency and borough. In areas across the

UK where migration is high, I expect worryingly similar problems have been encountered: difficulties in educating a mobile and diverse population, difficulty in coping with extra demand on housing stock and new problems with community protection. 

I accept that migration will always be a contentious issue, despite the clear economic benefits of hard-working migrants coming to our country. Perceived threats to an existing settled community from new arrivals will serve only to increase those tensions. Unfortunately, unless the Government properly fund local authorities, such threats may come to fruition. 

I sent my speech to the Minister, so he is well aware of some of these issues. I apologise for taking slightly more than my allotted 15 minutes, but I wanted to put some of the issues on the record. Having had sight of my speech, he will perhaps be able to reply not just in this debate but to Westminster city council at a later stage. With the 2011 census only three years away, I call on the Minister to take urgent action to ensure that the Government get their house in order and reform the collection of vital population data.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright):

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate. Given the unprecedented events taking place in the banking and wider financial sectors, particularly today?s developments, I imagine that he is in a great deal of demand at the moment, but I pay tribute to the hard work that he undertakes not just on behalf of the square mile, but for his entire constituency. He has demonstrated that commitment today. 

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the calculation of the population census, population estimates and population projections is the responsibility of the ONS. Those statistics are used for a wide spectrum of purposes and by a range of users, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, where the statistics are used in part for the funding of local government through formula grant. As a Department with a key interest in the statistics, we are also involved in the cross-Government, ONS-led work to improve the statistics over future years. I would like to outline some of the improvements if time allows, but the hon. Gentleman raised specific points and I am keen to deal with those detailed concerns. If I do not have time to deal with them all, I will write to him. 

We recognise that some local authorities are experiencing more challenges than others in dealing with recent levels of international migration. My Department is working with local authorities to manage the transitional impacts of migration on local areas and communities. As set out in the document entitled ?Managing the Impacts of Migration: A Cross-Government Approach?, the Government have put in place a programme of financial and practical support for local service providers to help them to manage migration, to maximise the benefits and mitigate the transitional impacts experienced by local communities. 

That includes a substantial cross-Government programme to improve population and migration statistics to ensure that the data on which local government funding is based are as good and as robust as possible. I shall return to that if time allows. We have also provided a £50 million investment in community cohesion over the next three years to help local authorities to respond to their particular challenges, including issues relating to migration. We have made available an exceptional circumstances grant for schools that either experience a rapid growth in pupil numbers during the period between the January pupil count and the start of the academic year in September, or that have a significant number of children who have English as a second language. 

In February 2008, in the earned citizenship Green Paper, we announced our intention to set up a fund to manage the transitional impacts of migration, providing tens of millions of pounds to local public services dealing with high levels of migration. We are working with the Improvement and Development Agency on the migration excellence programme to share good practice among local authorities and promote peer mentoring. 

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that short-term migrants are not included in the population estimates. That is because the ONS estimates relate to the usually resident population of each area, so only long-term international migrants are included in the estimates. They use the United Nations recommended definition of a long-term international migrant?anyone who moves from their country of usual residence for at least a year. However, the ONS has recognised the interest that Westminster council and others have shown in the possibility of producing estimates of short-term migration. As a result, and as a product of its improvement work, this year the ONS has already published national-level estimates of short-term migration for mid-2004 to mid-2006 on an experimental basis. The ONS plans to publish a feasibility report on its plans for producing local estimates. That report is expected by the end of the year. If, after that, reliable estimates for that group of migrants at local authority level became available, we would be able to consider more carefully whether to include those data in the three-year grant distribution system. However, that would need to be considered in the same way as any other changes to the formula system, through discussion involving the official-level settlement working group and consultation. 

In relation to the improving migration and population estimates programme, it is important to know that that work involves local government in a number of ways, as both data suppliers and data users. Local government is represented on the programme board and in the working groups by the Local Government Association. The ONS and the LGA are holding an open workshop to explain the research that has been undertaken towards the end of 2008. Implementation seminars are likely to be held in April or May 2009 further to explain any changes to the estimates. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman encourage Westminster council to take the opportunity to engage with the ONS through those workshops. The hon. Gentleman mentioned three specific issues regarding funding for Westminster: the three-year formula grant settlement; affordable housing and homelessness; and foreign nationals? recourse to public funds. I would like to deal with each of those in turn. With regard to the three-year formula grant settlement, the Government worked closely with local authorities in the context of the comprehensive spending review 2007 to examine all pressures on councils up to 2010-11 and the ways in which those pressures could be mitigated and managed. Councils will receive an additional £8.91 billion over this CSR period in total Government grant. 

With regard to distributing formula grant to local authorities, the amount of grant paid to a local authority is based largely on its socio-economic and demographic characteristics and its relative ability to raise council tax locally. We then ensure that every authority receives at least a minimum increase, which is called the floor, on a like-for-like basis?that is, after adjusting for changes in funding and function. Understandably, population forms the main element of the demographic characteristics, and we use the ONS population projections, split into different age groups where appropriate, as the client group for most of our relative needs formulae, but it is not the only factor that determines the funding allocation. I stress that, to be fair when calculating local government finance settlements, we have consistently used the best data available at the time and that those data have to treat all authorities consistently. We took that approach when calculating the final 2008-09 settlement and the provisional 2008-09 and 2009-10 settlements in January. 

For population projections, the best data available at the time were the revised 2004-based sub-national population projections published by the ONS in September 2007. That means that for the population client group for Westminster, we used the population projection for 2008 of 256,266 in the 2008-09 settlement, 262,592 in the 2009-10 settlement, and 268,569 in the 2010-11 settlement. In turn, Westminster received a 2 per cent. increase in formula grant on a like-for-like basis for 2008-09 and benefited from the floor damping mechanism by £14.4 million. Other local authorities were not so fortunate with the damping mechanism. Furthermore, in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Westminster will receive increases of 1.75 per cent. and 1.5 per cent. respectively and will again benefit from the floor damping mechanism by £8.5 million and £2.7 million respectively. 

I will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I want to mention, because it is a particular passion of mine, affordable housing and homelessness in Westminster. Tackling the shortage of affordable housing is central to our efforts, and it is a major part of my work and priority as a Minister. As the hon. Gentleman said, demand for homes to buy or rent is growing faster than supply, and it is the most vulnerable in society who suffer from housing shortages. We have at our disposal some £8.4 billion for new social housing until 2010-11, and we will build some 45,000 new social homes a year. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Government?s strategy to cut rough sleeping by two thirds, with the longer-term goal of bringing levels as close to zero as possible. 

Local leadership underpinned by our Supporting People programme, along with local homelessness strategies, has promoted effective partnerships and improved services. In December 2007, I announced homelessness grant funding of at least £200 million over the next three years to continue to support local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to tackle and prevent homelessness in their area. That was the largest ever cash injection for homelessness services in this country. Westminster received £6.6 million for 2008-09, which was the largest homelessness grant allocation ever provided for London. 

I do not have time to discuss foreign nationals with no recourse to public funds, but as the hon. Gentleman suggested, responsibilities?