No consensus on UK Census Day 2011

No consensus on UK Census Day 2011

By staff writers
27 Mar 2011

Sunday 27 March is UK Census Day 2011, but though it is a legal requirement to return the form, there is widespread disagreement about how it is being conducted and the information it requires and uses.

A range of different concerns have been raised with the 2011 census - from the involvement of a multinational arms company in processing it, through to data secrecy, the 'religion' question, and its provision of information for policy making and public service provision.

"The census is promoted as a way for the government to provide better and more appropriate services. Instead, census data in the past has been used to justify fewer services, not more — particularly worrying at a time when the government is taking a wrecking ball to public services," says campaign network Count Me Out (http://www.countmeout.me.uk/).

"In addition, the UK census asks limited questions about disability and none about income, rendering swathes of the population invisible in official statistics," they say. Sexual orientation is also omitted.

But the Scottish government and local authorities, as well as some charities, describe the information to be collected as "vital".

The issue of Lockheed Martin's role is also highly controversial, leading some to call for a boycott of the census altogether, and others, including the Green Party, to suggest making a protest to the authorities while filling in the form.

The American weapons manufacturer "has a ruthless and blood-soaked history," says Count Me Out, along with many other peace groups. "They are best-known for building cluster bombs and our Trident nuclear weapons system, and their arms sales to Bahrain and other repressive regimes are an ongoing controversy. Granting the contract funnels our money into conflict and the suppression of legitimate protest, and gives credibility to a company that deserves none. This credibility is in turn used to gain the contract for more censuses."

The magazine Peace News says that, though it deplores Lockheed's involvement, ""A principled stance by you to boycott the census will not hurt [Lockheed], could provide the British Government with a £1,000 fine of your money and will make life harder for local authorities. Don’t let them make a profit from your census return but do help to provide the data your council needs for its Government grants. If you don’t send in your form, Lockheed Martin will still get its money and just make a higher profit for less work."

Instead, the magazine has provided a guide to completing and returning the form which "maximises the cost and inconvenience to Lockheed Martin" (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14416).

The census database and security of the information has come into question. A security professor told TechEye (http://www.techeye.net/): "Yes, the census isn't new but any extra database is ludicrous. The government has proven time and time again that it can't be trusted with a laptop, let alone the details of millions of people.

"And it's not just the Office of National Statistics staff we have to be concerned about, with the fact that this data will be shared out with the police, MI5 and other "security" bodies all of which will be able to see the information.

"The question here is - how can they successfully transfer and share this information and how can they ensure it doesn't leak? There's no doubt we'll be hearing soon that our details have been hacked."

The ONS denies these claims. It says: "Information submitted online is protected by strong encryption and identity protection. All data processing will be carried out in UK No data will leave or be held at any point outside the UK."

However, critics say that it has no way of policing data or guaranteeing this claim. They point out that Lockheed Martin operates under the Patriot Act in the USA, which obliges them to disclose data if requested for "public security". Legal experts have been contesting and counter-contesting this issue for some time.

The voluntary 'religion' question on the form is also in dispute. By asking people's religion and adding a 'no religion' option it is not neutral, making religiosity normative, non-religious people have claimed.

"The section in the census on religion is optional and misunderstood, the [72%] who described themselves as 'Christian' in 2001 perhaps confus[ed] their cultural identity with active religious participation," commented the Guardian newspaper.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has run a vigorous campaign (http://census-campaign.org.uk/) urging people without religion to "say so" on the form. They believe that an apparent majority of Christian believers is being used to justify policies allowing discrimination in faith schools, unelected bishops in the House of Lords, and other examples of 'religious privilege'.

The Bible Society-funded thinktank Theos denies these claims. But in practice organisations supporting such policies or arguing that Britain is a "Christian nation" regularly appeal to the 72% statistic - although a 2008 ComRes opinion poll commissioned by Theos recorded that a total of 48% of respondents described themselves as a “doubter” or “atheist”. Another 38% called themselves “a Christian who doesn’t go to Church regularly” and just 8% said they were a Christian who “regularly attends church”.

The UK census has taken place every 10 years since 1801, other than during World War Two. The government says it will enable it to "plan public services for the future" - though thaty has been read negatively as well as positively.

Questions include national identity, ethnic group, educational qualifications, job titles, method of travelling to work and health status. For the first time there will also be enquiries on civil partnerships, second homes and recent migration.

Around a quarter of the forms will be filled in online, says ONS. Government enforcement officers will start knocking on doors of homes where a census form has not been completed in five weeks' time. Repeated failure to fill in the form could result in a fine of up to £1,000. But campaigners, like Peace News, say that it is still possible to beat the system.

[Ekk/3]

Keywords: census | census boycott
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