The UK census is beginning, and so is the protest movement against it. Organizations like No2ID, as well as peace organizations are arguing for a boycott of the census for various reasons, including its processing by Lockheed Martin, which also does defense contracting, and the potential of census questions to violate civil liberties. No2ID has a list of their concerns here.
This boycott movement is a little odd for me, because in Canada academics have been lobbying against the government’s decision to CUT the long-form census. The Canadian census creates publicly available data which is widely used in social science research (and its perceived as being relatively reliable). It’s seen as the only way of getting unbiased data about some things, like household internet use, or real levels of immigration. Now that the long form has been eliminated, ostensibly because it was intrusive and cost too much money, researchers are scrambling to try and reproduce the data it collected.
So this raises some questions for me about the British census, that I hope someone can shed some light on. I don’t know about how useful the British data is, and I don’t know whether the census here is more or less intrusive. It sounds like it is more intrusive, and it sounds like there is a history linking census with persecution, where I don’t have this association of the Canadian census. Also, does everyone fill in the same census or are there random ‘long forms’ where more information is solicited? It also sounds to me like questions about religion and employment are perceived as being more intrusive than they might be seen elsewhere.
Do you know who holds census data? Do you know how it’s used? Is there baseline data on population demographics that isn’t collected any other way? Is there a way to get this data without breaching privacy? Is this publicly accessible afterwards, or only available under license? And finally – how are we supposed to understand who is living in Britain if we don’t have a census?
I’m not sure if I’ve missed a trick, and the census is really not useful here, or whether there is some cultural understanding of what census (the verb, French recensement) means. Any thoughts?
You’re taking it back to question basic assumptions here Alison which is fair enough I guess.
On the qu “how intrusive is it” you can judge for yourself; the qq are here http://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011-census/2011-census-questionnaire-content/2011-census-questions—england.pdf
(Will try to post full text in another comment but not sure what your char limit is)
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Another problem is the breadth of the exemptions under which data can be released. See eg http://williamheath.net/?p=177
(again, plain text in next comment)
Firstly can I just point out that NO2ID has not called for a boycott of the census. We have said the government should commit itself to keep census information fully confidential, and to destroy all the raw data when it has been statistically tabulated, so that it cannot be used for other purposes.
Do you know who holds census data? –
The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 establishes a national statistics board that holds the data.
Do you know how it’s used? –
It is used in a variety of ways, but it’s impossible to know all the ways in which it’s used as we don’t know how many people it has been shared with.
Is there baseline data on population demographics that isn’t collected any other way? –
The UKs Local Government Assoication has said that other sources of information would give a clearer picture. They were furious that the 2001 census data was used to allocate their funding.
Is there a way to get this data without breaching privacy? –
You could ask far less intrusive questions, and not require people to give personally identifying details, name, DOB. You could also delete the data once it’s been tabulated as we say the government should.
Is this publicly accessible afterwards, or only available under license? –
The data is kept hidden from the public for 100 years. However the The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 creates broad data-sharing powers to share it with the 56 geographical and 8 non-geographical UK Police Forces the three UK Intelligence Agencies (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ), the Department for Work and Pensions,private investigators working for the DWP hunting down “benefits cheats”, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax investigators, approved Insurance Industry “anti-fraud” investigators / private investigators, the Home Office Borders and Immigration Agency, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (either for domestic investigations into Serious Crimes, or for these and also for minor investigations if requested by a Foreign Law Enforcement agency under Mutual Legal Assistance treaties, Lawyers in civil Court Cases e.g. for Divorce or Libel or Copyright Infringement etc., Local Authority Trading Standards departments, Local Authority Environmental Health departments etc. etc. etc……………. not to mention ‘approved researchers’.
There are also plans to share it with all 27 EU member states and pass the data over to EuroStat.
How are we supposed to understand who is living in Britain if we don’t have a census?
How are we meant to know who is living in Britian by using census data that only takes a 10 year snap shot. Britian is subject to high migration as people move freely between EU memebe states.
How do we know how accurate the census data is, millions of people don’t reply and who knows how many lie?
Thanks all –
Apologies to No2ID for implying they were calling for a boycott – I know that others have.
This is helpful information – I am getting to see that the objection is not to conducting a census per se, but to a lack of transparency about how the data is used, and the personally identifiable nature of the data collected (it’s important to note that names and DOBs are not part of the Canadian census).
I really appreciate your responses, but now I want to know, how could this be done better? It seems even more wasteful to start a process that is expensive and infringing of rights when many people don’t participate. Or is it out of date and silly to conduct censuses at all, considering high levels of migration?