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Ashley Mote deconstructs the UK Census - brilliant and chilling

When the US Census asked me my ethnicity, I answered, American. On reflection, it would have been better not to answer the Census at all.

I'm sure my co-editor agrees with me that Ashley Mote's deconstruction of the UK Census is brilliant and chilling -


12 March 2011

Problem with the 2011 UK Census?

In view of widespread and understandable concerns about the intrusive nature of the census we in the UK are asked to complete on 27 March, may I offer a few observations and a few relevant facts.

What Does the Law Demand?

Census Act 1920

Matters in respect of which particulars may be required
1 Names, sex, age.
2 Occupation, profession, trade or employment.
3 Nationality, birthplace, race, language.
4 Place of abode and character of dwelling.
5 Condition as to marriage, relation to head of family, issue born in marriage.
6 Any other matters with respect to which it is desirable to obtain statistical information with a view to ascertaining the social or civil condition of the population.

How Safe is Our Information?

Unlike in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the absolute confidentiality of personal information is no longer guaranteed by law in England and Wales. This was abolished by Nu-Labour in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, section 39.

Census data collected in England will be treated as ‘restricted’, not ‘confidential’. Our forms will be processed by some 1300 temporary employees at an 800,000 square foot warehouse in Manchester. The Coalition government has provided no convincing assurances about the vetting of these temporary staff, nor the security being imposed on them and the data they handle, neither during nor after the process.

Data gathering in 2011 has been contracted to a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin – the US arms conglomerate. Eighty percent of LM’s work is for the US defence department. It assists more than two dozen American government agencies and is involved in surveillance and data processing for the CIA and FBI. It has provided private-contract interrogators to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.

All US-based companies are subject to the Patriot Act, which allows the US government to have access to any data in the company's possession. In other words, the US government will have legal access to detailed and highly personal data on the UK's entire population.

The Census website boldly states, without qualification, that “completing the census online is straightforward, convenient and secure”. Each census form has a 20-digit “personal” internet access code. Describing it as “personal” when it is addressed to “The Occupier”, and accessible to anyone who happens to see the form lying around, is absurdly irresponsible.

How could bureaucrats with a long history of failing to keep data secure contemplate any such thing? If amateur hackers can break into the Pentagon’s computers, there can be no credible guarantee that the British government could guarantee better security – especially given their appalling track-record.

The losses of personal data by the British government and its civil servants have been enormous in recent years. Remember the 400 laptops and memory sticks 'lost' by the Ministry of Defence? And that was just one incident.

Worse, there have been no government guarantees that criminals will be prevented from gaining access to raw census data. How can it, when all our personal data will be available to the police, the intelligence agencies, immigration authorities, tax inspectors, DWP investigators, foreign governments, the EU, and to private sector and academic 'approved researchers'?

The Office for National Statistics’ claim that this data will be safe is worthless. Far too often the UK government has failed to secure and protect personal records in digital format. We have no credible reason to believe them this time.

Intrusive Role of the European Union

In 2008 the European Parliament approved a Census Regulation requiring the harmonization of outputs from member states’ censuses of population and housing. It is now law in the UK. The regulation requires that information collected in the UK is passed to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics institution, which was totally discredited for fraud and corruption amongst its own senior staff in a major scandal over many years.

. . .Statewatch, the civil liberties body that monitors the EU, has discovered that Brussels wants law enforcement agencies in member countries to build lists of political activists as part of a 'systematic data collection'.

Civil servants in the member countries charged with this duty have been told to collate information on what the EU chooses to call 'agents of radicalisation'. They have been sent a list of 70 questions to answer about each ‘suspect’. They want to know about family members, psychological traits, religious affiliation, activities, economic status and, significantly, 'oral comments' - presumably via phone taps - on political issues. The extent of this EU trawl for potential political opponents was confirmed in The Guardian on 8th June 2010.

No doubt the 2011 census will provide a good starting point.

Invasive Questions and Wrong Assumptions

Who is expected to respond? The census is addressed to “the occupier” – singular. Yet there is space for answers relating to six people, and visitors. The preamble makes it plain that “the occupier” is legally liable for the accuracy of answers relating to all the others.

The government ‘justifies’ the need for the census by claiming that, amongst other things, it is required to plan the provision of education, health, transport, policing, housing and so on. Apparently we are expected to believe that these services are today being managed on the basis of the census taken ten years ago. It’s demonstrably ridiculous.

Such services are demand led, and rightly so. The use of census statistics to plan and deliver them is at best highly marginal and rapidly out of date.

Unlike previous censuses, people are expected to state their employer's name, their main activity, their address, and the full postal address of the location where that individual works. This applies to everyone, whether they work for Tesco or the intelligence services. Even people who are supposedly in a witness protection scheme after giving evidence at a criminal trial must provide this information.

The first question on employment provides nowhere for a retired person to state that fact. The assumption is that he or she should have been looking for work in the previous week, if not actually working. The chance to declare that they are retired comes later. Volunteers who work for nothing have nowhere to say so.

There are far more intrusive questions on ethnic origins than 10 years ago, unsurprising after the torrent of foreign nationals allowed to live here over the last decade. Answers are mandatory. Questions on religion are not. However, despite there being over 390,000 self-declared Jedi recorded in the 2001 census (more than there were Sikhs or Jews) there is no tick box for Jedi.

Even the reasonable voice of Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, complains (12 March) that the intrusive questions on ethnicity will be used by government and others to exploit the race and culture wars which bedevil us. They reinforce divisions.

So, I might add, does the expensive provision of census forms in over 50 other languages. How better to reinforce the divisions in today’s fractured British society? Those of us meeting the cost of such indulgence might reasonably ask foreigners who have chosen to live in the UK to adopt our language, culture and way of life, at least outwardly.

Legal and Constitutional Protection

In 2001 over 1.5 million households failed to complete the census, but only 38 were prosecuted. But that was 10 years ago.

The Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act provide us with protection against an overbearing state. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

Several other aspects British and international law are also relevant.

Both Magna Carta, 1215, and the Declaration of Rights, 1688, were contracts made directly between the Crown and the people. Both were and still are beyond the powers of parliament. Any repeal of statutes leaves the original contracts untouched. (References: Speaker Betty Boothroyd, Hansard 21 July 1993, and a letter from the House of Lords Archives Office to me in September 2000.)

Magna Carta recognises the rights of subjects of the Crown to hold government to account. This is sometimes described as the right to ‘lawful rebellion’, and was specifically confirmed in the oath sworn by Henry III at his coronation on 28 October 1216.

The Bill of Rights went further. It explicitly forbids the recognition of power over what is now the UK by any “foreign person, prelate, state or potentate”. In other words our joining what was then the Common Market was unlawful, and our membership of the EU remains unlawful. Most certainly passing information to Brussels to assist their governance of the UK is illegal.

Our constitution is fragmented but clear. It provides that the state answers to the people. We, the people, do not answer to the state. There is no such legal entity as a British state.

We are a sovereign people and we elect individuals for a maximum of five years to look after our best interests. And any future parliament has an absolute right to repeal any Acts passed by previous governments. Thus, they answer to us.

Several clauses in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights defend our right to privacy.

3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

A census is only possible with the general consent of the population. In some countries this no longer exists. Germany has not taken a full census since that planned for 1983 was postponed until 1987. The Netherlands has not had a census since 1971, following a high level of refusal previously. Both these countries, and Denmark, now use alternative data sources based mostly on housing registers and sample surveys.

The UK government has made no secret of its irritation at having to carry out the 2011 census, which was put in train by Nu-Labour before the election last year. It will cost almost half a billion pounds.

The Coalition has initiated work on data-collection alternatives, so that the 2011 census proves to be the last of its kind.

Meanwhile, what to do?

All the basic information about each of us is in the public domain already. That is – name, address, age, sex and marital status.

If you plan to complete it at all, you might consider. . .

(a) providing the legally specific information required only, and
(b) posting it.

The Royal Mail admits to several million letters a year not reaching their intended destination.

Think on. . .

Thank you, Mr Mote.

Comments (1)

Matthew Nelson:

When asked about my ethnicity, I always respond, English. To me, America, is only a geographic designation.

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