The census manages to evoke contrary responses: it’s either a bit of a joke or a threat to civil liberty. I’ll address the objections in a moment, but let’s start with the jolly part.
Religion makes an important contribution to census-related humour. Who can mention the subject without bringing up the 390,000 Jedi Knights enumerated in England and Wales in 2001? Not The Guardian:
The columnist Lucy Mangan wrestles with the problem of counting bedrooms, though she also notes that “The question about religion is voluntary, but precipitates an avalanche of self-interrogation nevertheless.”
And the ‘alternative census’ available on the Guardian’s website offers some non-standard answers to the religion question:
What is your religion?
Professor Brian Cox
We are gratified to see that, at the time of posting, our Manchester colleague Brian Cox is running neck-and-neck with Facebook (at about 34% each). To see whether Brian has pulled into the lead, you’ll have to complete the form:
And now to the objections. Will your details be left on a train? The Office for National Statistics goes to extraordinary lengths to safeguard confidentiality. The claims – for example by the NO2ID campaign – that data identifying individuals can legally be released to analysts in this country or any other are based on a misunderstanding of the relevant legislation. The EU directive being cited by objectors sets minimum standards; it allows but does not require data sharing. The law in this country mandates high levels of protection for census data.
The information collected is far less sensitive than that routinely stored on us by GPs, the Inland Revenue, banks, employers, telephone companies, credit card companies, and so on. There are richer pickings elsewhere for security services; cracking the census vault to learn whether we have central heating is an unlikely use of resources. The Muslim Council of Britain has urged Muslim households to complete their forms. If Muslims, who have more reason than most to be paranoid, are keen to be included, why not the rest of us?
Credit details, medical records and so on are inherently sensitive because they are linked to you specifically. The census isn’t like that; no records on named individuals are used. We don’t want to know the religion or non-religion or Mr Smith or Ms Patel; we’d just like to know how many people in each local area have which characteristics and need which services.
For these purposes, the sad truth is that no one cares who you are. Names and addresses are stripped off as soon as the data are processed. Some of our colleagues in the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research spend their working lives ensuring that no identifying information is released, and it is understandably frustrating to them when objectors act like American ‘Tea Party’ activists who think that the government is conspiring against them.
If this census is the last, it will have to be replaced by something. The government has talked vaguely about linking public and commercial datasets. Leaving aside the feasibility of such an exercise, it would pose far greater risks to confidentiality than the tightly controlled census of population. Anti-census agitation seems misguided.
The census helps to guide the allocation of billions of pounds of our money. Recording your existence is a minimal form of social responsibility. Avoiding it has real consequences: public services in some areas suffered because of undercounts in 2001.
Apologies for the sermon – can Brian Cox absolve me?