CENSUS 2011: THE RETURN OF JEDI KNIGHTS & DONALD DUCK?

If you haven’t got round to filling in your purple 32-page “Household Questionnaire”, don’t panic. You still have a few days before Government agents start banging on your door demanding to know why you haven’t complied with your civic duty. Although the Office of National Statistics (ONS) designated Sunday 27th March as “Census Day, in practice it would appear that the final permitted deadline is Wednesday 6th April. According to “Yahoo! News”, if you haven’t completed and returned your form by then (either online or by post) “ a census collector will call to offer any help you need”. Which s all sounds rather more polite and civilised than the draconian scenario portrayed in “The Guardian” newspaper on Saturday 26th March. It quoted the ONS as stating that a 100-strong unit of ‘non-compliance’ officers has been authorised to “conduct interviews” and “gather evidence” against householders who “ decline to participate” in the national survey. Anyone refusing to answer the questions – or deemed guilty of “repeated failure” to do so  – could be fined up to £1000,which means they will also acquire a criminal record. This risks penalising those people who genuinely don’t know how to respond to some of the questions. To assist in such cases, London Mayor Boris Johnson has sent a double-decker bus (purple in colour, like the form itself) on a tour of the capital. Between 26th March and 3rd April, it will visit nine boroughs: Barking & Dagenham, Hammersmith & Fulham,Greenwich,Kingston, Kensington & Chelsea, Hillingdon and Wandsworth. Among those on board are officials who “speak the languages prevalent in those areas”. Even they, however, are likely to have a problem explaining box Number 17, which only specifies that “This question is left intentionally blank. Go to 18.” An ONS spokes-woman, when asked by Yahoo! News for clarification, wasn’t too sure about it either.

The “Privacy Impact Assessment” (PIA) conducted by the ONS has attempted to justify some of the more contentious  “Census Questions”. The sections on personal relationships and marital/civil partnership status, for example, purportedly enable the ONS to plan for services and housing and “inform a range of government policies concerning the family, children and caring”. Number 12 (“Intended length of stay in theUK”) facilitates “an assessment of the impact of short-term immigrants on local labour markets and their demand for local services”. Number H10 (“How many bedrooms?”) provides “information on overcrowding”. Number 15 (“How would you describe your national identity?”) “allows British-born ethnic minorities to express a ‘British identity’ separately from recording their ethnic group”. The population estimates obtained from the census, says the PIA, will be used to allocate annual health & community funding. As Stevenage Borough Council have emphasized: ”Like all local authorities, how much we get is related to how many people the census says live in our area – so if the census can’t account for everyone, we could lose out”.

Several aspects of the census, however, have been widely criticised.  The assurance that the personal information obtained will be “protected by law” and that it will be “kept confidential for 100 years” is viewed with scepticism by The “Register.co.uk”. Section 39(4) of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, they assert, allows a disclosure when (among many others), it is made for the purposes of a criminal investigation, is provided (“in the interests of national security”) to an Intelligence Service or is requested by “an approved researcher”. In other words, private details from the census can be passed on whenever (& to whoever) the ONS senior managers choose. The fiercest opposition, though, has been provoked by the involvement of two American companies. The £150 million contract to run the census was awarded to Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer which makes F-16 fighter jets and Trident nuclear missiles. Anti-arms trade campaigners have been considering a boycott of the census even if that means incurring the £1000 fine and are moreover concerned that the US Government could consequently acquire access to confidential details about the UKpopulation, though this is denied by ONS. There are also objections to the US-owned firm Vangent participating in the processing of data collected through the census. Its staff (according to a Daily Mail news item) were implicated in stealing President Obama’s student loan records.  The civil liberties pressure group, ”Big Brother Watch”, considers the census to be “highly intrusive (such as asking the identity of your ‘overnight guest’ on 27th March) and a monumental waste of time & money” It will cost £480 million – more than double the £210 million spent on the 2001 census. Furthermore, that it will duplicate data already available from sources such as the electoral register and tax files They claim that those people who are slow to return their forms (or refuse to do so) will be “bullied and threatened until they are cowed into submission, yet seem confident that  anyone giving a “palpably absurd answer” (such putting your name down  as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck) is unlikely to be prosecuted – despite the ONS insisting that there could be penalties for supplying “false information”.

In the 2001 Census, 390,000 people inEnglandandWalesdeclared their faith to be “Jedi” (from the Star Wars films). This time, the question on religion (Number 20) is optional, though it is still disliked by the British Humanist Association on the basis that it will convey a “wholly misleading picture of religiosity in theUK”. Many people who automatically wrote “C of E” (Church of England) haven’t, they say, been near a church for years. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has angrily denounced the state’s “census spies” who will employ “a vast computer network to monitor every home, checking whether the residents have sent back their census forms”. Its outspoken columnist, A.N. Wilson, has dismissed the census as “an expensive and outmoded bit of nonsense”, declaring that “no-one is going to admit to being an illegal immigrant living under a false name or to having slipped past the system by means of a sham marriage with a British national” and that “it should be alien to the political instincts of all decent people to want a Government to stick its nose into their private matters”.

There is some dispute over the date of the first official census inEngland. For many historians, it is 1086, the year of the “Domesday Book” which provided the Norman King William 1 with a survey of the lands and possessions he had acquired when he conquered the country in 1066. For the ONS, it is 1801,when just 5 questions were asked and 10 million people were counted. It has always, however, caused controversy. In the Census Debate of 1753, the Member of Parliament forYorkdescribed the proposed idea as “a most effectual engine of rapacity and repression”. More recently (in 1951), Sir George North, the Registrar General forEngland&Wales“asked women to be more honest about their age”. The problem pages in newspapers and magazines were, so the ONS reports, “Flooded with queries from distraught women fearful that their true age would become public knowledge”. In 2011, it appears that data security, the “surveillance society” and the arms manufacturer connections are the main factors fuelling the dissent.

COLIN GORDON

www.colindgordon.co.uk

Filed under: Society | Posted on March 29th, 2011 by Colin D Gordon

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