The Independent View: action is needed to keep census data confidential

So far Lib Dem voice has seen two opposing points of view on the census, one from Merlene Emerson who explains why she believes the census is important, and another from Simon Beard who explains why as a Quaker he will be objecting to it on the moral grounds of Lockheed Martin’s involvement.

NO2ID appreciates why some people have concerns regarding the involvement of an arms company in the census. However as a single issue campaign our concern is with the immediate privacy threat the census poses to everyone. We have therefore taken it upon ourselves to expose 10 lies that are currently being perpetrated by the Office of National Statistics as they set about their multi-million pound census marketing campaign.

Many people are used to the census. Because of this, they might reasonably assume they understand what the 2011 census is about. Let’s be clear, the 2011 census is like no other that has come before. Not because it’s more expensive or more intrusive than the last one, but because of changes in legislation that have altered what can happen to the census data once it’s collected.

Concerns of potential data-sharing with the US government via Lockheed Martin are a distraction. What we think will concern people more is the very real and actual data-sharing powers brought in by the previous government. These data-sharing powers as I shall reveal call into serious question any claim that the census can or will be kept confidential.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 is the legislation that changes what can happen to the census data. The exemptions under Section 39 (4) of the act enable the personal information collected by the census to be widely shared with a large range of public bodies. Now, as I explain in my blog Ian Cope the Deputy Director of the census went on air denying there was any possibility whatsoever that information could be legally shared. He confirmed the ONS’s lie that the data will be kept confidential.

Only a few days later Glen Watson the census Director was publically stating his office would now defend any claim for disclosure of information made under the act tooth and nail through the courts. First there was denial of the legal powers that existed; now there is a promise that they will mount a legal defence if they are invoked. Guy Herbert our General Secretary has written an open letter to the Independent pointing out that the Office of National Statistics is in no position to claim they can mount a legal defence against the powers granted in this act.

As our General Secretary points out, there is a perfectly simple way to resolve this problem. The government could issue a regulation to ensure that the exceptions shall not apply to census information. They could also destroy all the personal census data once the statistical abstracts that are its purpose have been made.

NO2ID opposed the National Identity Scheme on the basis that it represented the spearhead of the database state – the tendency of government to collect, control and share our personal information. We are now opposing the 2011 census for the same reason. The coalition has stated it wishes to roll back such bureaucratic intrusion of our private lives, If it’s serious it needs to act now.

James Baker is the campaigns manager for NO2ID.

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14 Comments

  • It’s all very well opposing it on moral grounds, but the truth is this data is needed to formulate policy. Denying the government this data it is punishing society more than the government, and that’s something I find morally objectionable and don’t want on my conscience.

  • It looks like you’re responding to a different article Alex. This was very specific in what was wanted, and it wasn’t a boycott.

    Thanks no2id for noticing things like this.

  • Can we just stop this odious myth that our state absolutely has to know exactly how many people there are and where they are in order to fine tune services, please? It’s offensive rubbish invented by little englanders and racists in their campaign for overbearing border controls and now it’s being used to justify intrusive census questions.

    The census may have been justified when all it did was ask how many people were in a household and there was no other way of getting the information. What we’re being asked to tell Lockheed Martin in 2011 goes far beyond anything that can be justified.

  • Genealogists (both amateur and professional) may well object to the destruction of the data, since they make extensive uuse of past census data.

  • Andrew Watson 1st Mar '11 - 9:01am

    Terry – NO2ID is NOT calling for the destruction of the data. It IS calling for the individual census returns to be kept absolutely confidential for 100 years, as was the case before the The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 was passed.

  • Chris Riley 1st Mar '11 - 10:37am

    @James

    “We do point out that much of the data collected by the census is next to useless, and this can be demonstrated by widespread complaints by local councils who have had the wrong levels of funding allocated as a result of it.”

    James, I think you’re making the common mistake of confusing the data themselves, which are emphatically not ‘next to useless’ and the use that is made of them, which is sometimes not ideal.

    If No2ID want to hold the position that the bulk of the data collected are of no value, you are entitled to do that, but you are, and will remain, wrong, and you will be genuinely and knowingly misinforming people if you persist in making that assertion. Yes, ‘some people’ might believe that the data are not needed for policy. Those people are foolish, badly informed or for other reasons, don’t want the data to inform policy. An example I gave on an earlier discussion on the census was on HE policy. The census data are necessary at this stage to get a picture on the earnings of graduates so we can get the fee repayment system as close to correct as we can. Perhaps you would like to suggest an alternative source of the data we need, as I assure you it doesn’t currently exist.

    Using Hong Kong as an example of an economy that grew without a census as if there was a correlation or an example to be drawn is…..well, there are a lot of words I could use, but none of them would be complimentary. Please do not take readers for fools.

    I am sympathetic to your main point, but your tactics bear a worrying resemblence to No 2 AVs. The main point that you make is strong enough without you trying to bullshit people about the census itself – that is dishonest, counterproductive and makes me suspicious of your real motives.

    I am extremely unsympathetic about people like you who try to muddy the pool of evidence we have about the effect of Government policy. Although you say your stated aim is to keep the data secret, you are also making statements trying to cast doubt on the very validity of the census. My question to you is: who really benefits if we don’t have this data? I can tell you know. Government does, because we lose a vital tool, not just in setting evidence-based policy (which means they can carry on with policy based on ideology), but also in holding them to account.

  • Chris Riley 2nd Mar '11 - 7:49am

    @James,

    The LGA’s concerns are to do with the way the population accounts for migrants – a legitimate issue, but not one that invalidates the census as a tool for assessing social change and a narrow argument against the census as a whole.

    This is not the right venue for a lecture on social research methods, but (and apologies for the aggressive tone earlier), it might be useful if you went to a couple so you could get to grips with the issues here. Again, there is not a lot of value in tangling with a specific example – the earnings of graduates – as a proxy for the whole gamut of policy and research questions the census can tackle, but what you are coming dangerously close to arguing is that it is impossible to actually work out what graduates earn and so we shouldn’t bother. Now, you happen to be right that earnings now don’t tell us what tomorrow’s graduates could earn in 2050, but since we’ll never actually know that in advance, and no ‘poll’ will ever tell us, the best tool we have – or could have – is the census because we can look at graduates across all ages and stages of professional development and develop a model which can then be tweaked using subsequent data sources without having to go to a sample which is subject to all the potential issues of sampling.

    “A poll” is exactly what the census is. Doing a ‘poll’ that would get us the data we need is rather costly – it’s been tried as one-offs and will still be subject to potential sampling issues. Reference to entirely reworking the education system to evade the issue is a bit pointless, as we can’t do that. We are where we are and have to work with the situation as it is not as we’d wish it.

    There are plenty of examples of uses of census data that are not so timebound and rely, rather, on the fact that the census can be viewed as a time series. Links between deprivation and education are a good one – as a lot of excellent work on social mobility involves comparing data across populations in successive censuses and to break the time series now would be to essentially wipe the evidence for this Government’s efforts in that direction – bad news if you oppose them, as it’ll let them off the hook, and also bad news if you support them as evidence that policy is successful would be lost.

    James, I realise you’re not deliberately misleading people, but I also realise that perhaps this rather important response to your assertion that the census lacks value might lie outside your expertise. I appreciate that you do not want the census boycotted but rather all the personal identifiers should be kept secret for 100 years. I have no issues whatsoever with that request and restate: that point is comfortably strong enough to stand alone without you needing to, erroneously, tell us that the census data themselves are valueless.

    Thanks for arguing your case though – much appreciated.

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