Monday, 26 October 2009

Sense and the Census

It seems that the Conservatives are objecting to some of the proposed questions for the 2011 Census, described by the Mail as "the most intrusive ever carried out". They are especially alarmed by the suggestion that householders will be required to enumerate the names and dates of birth of any overnight guests they might have, which looks like an opportunity to pry into the nation's bedroom antics. Nick Hurd calls the new questions "yet another sign of how the Labour Government has no respect for the privacy of law-abiding citizens", and predicts that "an increasingly invasive and intrusive census will erode public support, cost more and result in a less accurate survey."

Well yes. If some questions seem designed to get people's backs up, others almost invite a frivolous response. One question slated for 2011 asks (in English) "How well do you speak English?" - with "not at all" as one of the possible answers. Who thought of that one? Henry Higgins? The notorious religion question will still be on the paper. I'm hoping to see healthy growth in the Jedi community, though the followers of Yoda now face stiff competition, numbers-wise, from devotees of His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As for the overnight visitors demand, which may potentially cause embarrassment 100 years hence (when - who knows? - many people now under 30 may still be alive), there's a simple expedient if you have something to hide, or merely resent the intrusion. Lie.

That's the big flaw at the heart of the census: it is entirely dependent upon people's willingness to give full and correct answers. In theory, you're obliged to answer every question fully and accurately, on pain of having your eyelids torn out and being hung upside down in the bowels of the MI6 building, or whatever dire punishment the government in its infinite wisdom has decided upon. In practice, the process of collecting and collating the information is so huge and expensive that it there are no spare resources to devote to checking the accuracy of every piece information. In fact, if they had the capacity to verify people's responses, they wouldn't need to ask the questions in the first place. They'd know already. Actually, they probably do know most of it already - or some other part of the ill-co-ordinated government behemoth knows already, which is why the entire Census concept is horrendously out of date, even as it tries to justify itself by becoming ever more elaborate.

Many people last time spent hours poring over the Census form, adding up figures, counting all their light fixtures (or whatever it is the question wanted to know) as though it were a tax return and inspectors were waiting with fierce dogs to pounce on anyone who made the tiniest slip. The truth is that it really doesn't matter what you put. Me, when the 2001 monstrosity dropped onto my mat (more than eight years ago, unbelievably) I just randomly ticked boxes. Not because I wanted to deceive, or because of my libertarian objections to the intrusiveness of the questionnaire (though I had, and have, such objections) but because it was just too long, and once I'd got as far as page 4 I simply couldn't be arsed. The work section, from what I remember, asked the same question about three times, and seemed to require a detailed break-down of a typical day. I just wrote "see above". And that, to be honest, was probably more than I needed to. The entire form took me under five minutes to complete. Anyone who takes more than ten minutes, as far as I'm concerned, is a dope.

Put it this way. In these days of (theoretically) omniscient databases it's easy to imagine that the state is using the Census form as a way of building up a detailed picture of every detail of your life. It isn't. If it wanted to, it could - and, in many cases, does. But the government statisticians who compile the Census are interested in generalities rather than specifics. It would be much cheaper and just as effective to use random sampling rather than a blanket survey to discover what is needed for policy planning. The Census persists, however, because it has always been there, gathering snowball-like accretions with every ten-year reissue until in size and complexity it approaches a tax return. It gets larger and more intrusive because it needs to justify its continuance; if it didn't exist no-one would try to invent it. But that's bureaucracy for you.

Of course, you are legally obliged to answer all the questions. The chances of actually being prosecuted are, however, fairly slight. At the time of the 2001 survey, a "non-compliance policy" was devised which, out of around a million non-returned or incompletely-returned forms, produced 38 successful prosecutions. None of these was for giving inaccurate information. The policy, indeed, was designed with the specific aim of producing a small number of high-profile convictions and, especially, avoiding possible acquittals. Tellingly, a 2003 follow-up report noted that the idea "was not necessarily to achieve significantly higher levels of response in the current census itself. Rather it is to discourage non-participation in subsequent censuses".

In particular, the Office of National Statistics only took legal action "in cases where it has obtained clear and sufficient evidence of a refusal that more or less guaranteed success in the courts." People who claimed, truthfully or otherwise, that their forms got lost in the post were not prosecuted. The ONS took a stricter line on non-returners who had been abusive to its staff (fair enough), but there also seems to have been a policy of targeting those who claimed that the Census violated their human rights. One such objector was charged £2500 in costs. However, most people were not charged in 2001, and they will not be in 2011.

The message is clear. If you object to a particular question, ignore it or make something up. If you object to the entire Census, claim that it got lost in the post.

Nevertheless, I'm fully behind the spirit (if not the grammatical logic) of Nick Hurd's statement that "Just because the Government has the legal powers to ask these questions does not give the state the licence to ask anything they want." Most people will meekly cough up the information asked for, even if they don't want to, even if they regard the whole business of (for example) defining one's race for the benefit of officialdom as offensive. It doesn't say in the report, however, that a Conservative government would scale back the Census, and remove several questions. In fact, there's no hint in the report that there's likely to be a Conservative government in place in 2011, although most people now assume that there will be. That is slightly odd.

Whatever current Tory intentions, the Census is an obvious candidate for abolition in the new age of government austerity. The last one cost almost £300 million; the next will be more lavish still. According to a document I found on the ONS website (which seems to be the source of today's story, despite having been hidden there, in plain sight - as so often happens - for almost a year),

A labour force of some 30,000 temporary field staff will be employed to carry out the Census. There will be a hierarchical management structure to this field force, headed by some 100 or more Census Area Managers employed for about a year before the Census and for about four months beyond. Each will be responsible for the enumeration of an area of about 500,000. As in the 2001 Census, Welsh-speaking Managers will be appointed to oversee the enumeration in Wales.

And that's not counting the publicity campaign to persuade people to fill the damn thing out, the IT systems that will need to be bought and upgraded to crunch all the numbers, not to mention the mopping-up exercise that will follow to find some high-profile refusniks to randomly persecute. And for what? To tell the government things they either already know, or if they don't, MORI could find out for them in a couple of weeks. The last Census - despite intense efforts to ensure compliance - was notoriously inaccurate, and created real problems of resource allocation as a result. The document cited above referred to "a less compliant society" as being one of the major challenges this time around, which suggests it will be even more inaccurate this time around. I was also interested to note that proposals for even more intrusive questions, about income and sexual orientation, have been quietly dropped for fear of provoking widespread disobedience.

The whole thing is a ridiculous waste of public resources, an anachronism belonging to the days of horse-drawn carriages, and a monumental cheek. The Tories should promise to scrap it now - while they still can, before they get into government and the Civil Service turns them, as it turn all parties of government, into a bunch of zombies.