Sunday 24 October 2010

Census 2011 - Who Reads Your Responses?

Next year, we’ll all have another opportunity to list our religion as ‘Jedi’, as envelopes marked with a big purple C start dropping through people’s letterboxes in time for Census Day on Sunday 27 March 2011. This is the date when the personal details of all usual residents and any visitors staying the night must be included in a 32 page questionnaire.

Last year, the borough of Newham was one of three places chosen for dress rehearsals for the 2011 Census and results were far from impressive. According to an evaluation by the Office of National Statistics [PDF], only 28% of the households selected in Newham returned forms, compared to 48% in Lancaster and 49% in Anglesey. The ONS concluded, however, that “the majority of non-responders did not return their questionnaire because the rehearsal was voluntary”. Next year, those who fail to return their questionnaire face a possible £1000 fine (although in 2001, only 38 people were actually fined).

The evaluation goes on to say that “despite breaches of government security publicised widely in the media, it appears that worries about the confidentiality of information given are relatively low” at 12% of a survey of 994 non-responders. However, according to a fairly obscure article by Nigel Hawkes of the pressure group Straight Statistics that was buried in yesterday’s Independent, more people are likely to start worrying about what happens to their personal information as we get nearer to next year’s Census - and with good cause.

Privacy is supposedly guaranteed under the Census Acts of 1920 and 1990 but according to Hawkes, the Statistics and Registration Act introduced in 2007 can force the ONS to hand over individual data for non-statistical purposes to the European Union, the police or MI5. Circumstances where confidentiality can be breached include “a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings” – including those taking place outside the UK – and that inevitable catch-all, “the interests of national security”. Hawkes suggests, quite rightly, that “even non-criminals may hesitate to provide data which, as the law stands, could be demanded by any police force in the world”.

As I mentioned back in 2007, allaying our suspicions is hardly helped by the knowledge that the Census' main contractor is a US arms company, Lockheed Martin, which provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services for the Department of Defense and other US government agencies. Nor is there a lack of precedent for the security services having access to census data. Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew's authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, says (on page 48) that the 1911 Census returns were:

“used to record the particulars of all male aliens aged eighteen and above of eight nationalities (in particular Germans and Austrians) living in areas which would be closed to aliens in wartime. Information on aliens taken from the Census was then circulated for checking to chief constables, who were also asked to take note of those on the Register [of Aliens] in their areas."

When filling in next year’s Census form, what you include may therefore not be quite as private as the Office for National Statistics claims. Potentially, for every adult in a household, the police and security services can read answers to detailed questions such the name of your employer, your qualifications, how well you can speak English, how many passports you hold and, if you are a migrant, your date of arrival and how long you intend to stay in the UK.

For people in comfortable, white, middle-class areas, this may not present much of a concern. But in places like Newham, where people feel they are targeted because they are Muslim, or Arab (a new ethnic category in 2011), or Pakistani or a migrant, there is rather more to carefully consider than whether to jokingly add ‘Jedi’ to the question about your religious beliefs. Many who have escaped from oppressive states around the world to this part of London have found British state agencies are far from models of tolerance, objectivity and anti-discrimination. Is it any wonder, then, that the response here to the Census is therefore so poor?

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