Sunday, 27 March 2011

Census 2011

I have just completed my Census 2011 form on-line and submitted it. I admit to doing it reluctantly, as along with many other people, I find it to be personally intrusive. However, at my time of life, I do not have the strength of conviction to break the law.

The Census paperwork says, "You need to take part so that services in your area - like schools, hospitals, housing, roads and emergency services - can be planned and funded for the future". Sorry, but I don't believe this. It gives the impression that services are planned on the basis of need, when it's obvious to anyone with an open mind, that services are governed by political philosophy and the availability of money.

This Census is costing nearly £500 million, which is around twice the cost of the 2001 Census. With job losses and service cuts infecting the country at this time, the cost is hard to swallow. There has always been some disquiet around the need for a Census. In 1753, Matthew Ridley, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, told the Commons that the people of the city regarded the proposal (to have a Census) as "ominous and feared an epidemical distemper should follow the numbering". While another MP argued that "a Census would impair the liberty of the individual".

It's this very liberty that opponents of the Census say is under attack today. There are 43 questions for each individual, when the first Census in 1801 had 5 questions, which simply sought to establish the number of people in each household, their sex and occupation. I could live more happily with that. Personal details are supposedly kept secret for 100 years, but the raw material, shorn of the personal details are available almost immediately to 'clients' such as Whitehall departments and businesses who want to target particular groups.

At the last Census, over one million people did not return their forms, and of those who did, you have to question how seriously it was taken,and therefore how accurate the information is.

390,000 people declared their religion to be Jedi, and 7,000 people said that they were witches. Can what they said in answer to the other questions be trusted? Glen Watson, Census Director admitted that people are increasingly reluctant to take part in the official survey because they "just want to be left alone".

But Government will not allow you to be left alone. Refusal to complete the form can bring a criminal prosecution and a £1,000 fine. As mentioned earlier, at the last Census over one million people did not complete their forms, but only 38 people were prosecuted. The Office for National Statistics says that there will be greater enforcement this time. From the 6th April, a field force of 30,000 staff will begin visiting households that have not yet completed the Census "during the day, evenings and at weekends to try and catch people in". And for the first time in the 210-year history of the Census, a separate unit of dedicated 'non-compliance' officers authorised to conduct interviews under caution will visit homes across the country. I can't help but agree with Daniel Hamilton, director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, "It says a great deal about the public's view of the Census that 100 bully-boy legal enforcement officers have been hired in order to harass people into returning their forms".

There's something terribly wrong here. Forget the usefulness of Census data to family historians, there's got to be a better reason than that. Why do we need a Census at all? There is already a mass of information available from many other sources, such as Government databases, supermarket loyalty cards to give a simple population count. Anything else can also be obtained from current tax and benefits records, driving licences and household surveys. The amount of information held on each of us is quite frightening. Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph said, "Why does the state need to know your sexual proclivities or whether you worship Allah or are a Jedi knight?".

The coalition Government has hinted that this year's Census could be the last, but given that they may not be around in 2021, that decision may not be there's to make.

The blog site, was particularly hot under the collar about religious questions (even though this question was optional). It encouraged people to tick other, and to write in the box, "Mind your own business".

Taking it a step further with the whole of the form, Philip Johnston said, "The 27th March would be a more restful Sunday if we had the option to tick a box that read, 'Mind your own business'".

If only I'd thought about this a lot earlier. Ah well, the deed has now been done. I've another ten years to decide my attitude to the next one. Whatever you've chosen to do - well done.

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