This coming Sunday, 27 March 2011, is Census Day in the UK. FOI Man explains why he’ll be completing his census and why he feels uneasy about calls to boycott it.

Slightly off-topic I know (and I’m not an expert on this in any way, so I stress that this is an opinion piece), but I wanted to talk about the census. Or more properly the commentary that it receives. If Twitter and the blogosphere are any indication nobody is going to fill in their census form this year, online or otherwise. Apart from me.

First off, here’s why I will be completing the census this year:

  • local authority government funding is based on the information collected in the census; Islington Borough Council in London calculates that it will miss out on £7500 worth of funding over the next ten years for every person who isn’t picked up in the census. Given the pressures that local authorities are under already, this is funding that they can’t really afford to miss out on.
  • future planning by central and local government, and other public bodies is heavily based on the census data. It influences the number of schools, hospitals, roads, houses that will be provided. The census data for London as a whole feeds into pretty much all strategy and planning by the Mayor of London and the various bodies that report into him, such as Transport for London.
  • but it’s not just the public sector that relies on it. Islington point out that voluntary and community groups use its data to attract funding for projects. Supermarkets use it to work out where to open new stores.
  • If you’ve ever watched Who Do You Think You Are? or researched your family or local history, you’ll know that the census from 100 years ago is an essential tool. All this information that you resent providing now will be incredibly interesting for your descendants or future historians.
  • And finally, if you need a stick, there’s a £1000 fine and a criminal record if you don’t complete your census form – it’s a legal requirement.

Which is all fair enough, but people have legitimate concerns about the census itself and the way the data will be used afterwards.

One of the concerns is that the Government has appointed Lockheed Martin, a company which also manufactures arms, to run the census operation this year. This is prompting calls to boycott the census or to complete forms in a way that will cause difficulties for Lockheed Martin. Of course, there are plenty of other companies that are also involved in the arms industry that supply goods and services that we use everyday without thinking about. Do you even know who made the engines on the jet you flew abroad on last summer? And while some may argue that awarding a contract for the census confers some level of undeserved respectability on this company, surely the ultimate point of any campaign against the arms trade is for business to stop supplying military hardware and provide harmless civic services to the people of the world. Like…well, like running censuses.

Then there are those who say that having a census at all is outdated. Surely Government should be able to use all that other data that is lying around to cobble together a picture of the country? But the same people will scream loudest whenever the Government talks about using or sharing data across departments for any other purpose than originally collected for. You can’t have it both ways.

The privacy concerns, as outlined in this excellent post from Chris Pounder at Amberhawk, are to me much more persuasive. But it can’t always be wrong for Government to collect personal information. I think that’s my main concern with the tone of the debate on the census – it seems to suggest that Government can never be trusted. That there is absolutely no exercise worth carrying out if it requires the collection or sharing of personal data. Instinctively I just don’t think that’s true. And I think that the Government, as well as finding ways to better protect our information has to argue more effectively the case for collecting and using it to improve our lives.


  1. I would like to see the evidence regarding the how the amount of loss Islington would suffer on each non-filled in census please. Also how does the council know the number of people against number of filled?
    I look forward to hearing these answers

    1. Richard, I’m only reporting the arguments made by Islington (and others). If you want to find out what the figures are based on, I’d suggest using FOI to Islington or your own local authority to find out.

  2. Tom, my point is that whilst I have reservations about some aspects of the handling of the census (and most particularly about how little Govt has done to explain the safeguards in place and the value of it), I still think that it is important to complete it. All organisations and individuals ‘hand’ personal information to ‘foreign based’ companies all the time; the question is ‘how safe is the data’ not whether the company is ‘foreign’. I am assuming (reasonably, I think) that there are adequate restrictions in place on what can be done with the data by the contractors. My understanding is that in the case of Lockheed Martin, it is the UK subsidiary that has been awarded this contract, so there’s no reason to assume that data is going outside the country. If the data was going outside the EEA (Europe basically) and there weren’t sufficient safeguards in place that would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, and I seriously doubt that ONS would have agreed a contract with them if that was the case. But as ever, if you want to know more, make an FOI request to the ONS to find out the terms of the contract.