The other day I had an argument with a friend about the Census. He told me that he wasn’t going to fill in the form because it was an attack on his civil liberties. “The state doesn’t need to know all this about me”, he said.
On one level he is right. We should all be wary about the information that the state holds about us. Big Brother can flourish if we reveal too much of the information that we give is misused. However, we do seem as a society to be very happy to give sensitive information to private companies. We are then amazed when another company pops up obviously using that information. Usually that means that they have sold the information either legally because we didn’t tick an little obscure box or illegally because they don’t care.
The information you give in the census is entirely different. Firstly, it is not given to anyone else either inside the state or outside. Secondly, you won’t be contacted by the Government or any of their departments as a result of the information.
The only way that the information is used is by adding it to all the other information of your neighbours, then your district, then your city, then your region and then the whole Country. So, what’s it for? Two things:
- To decide what services need to be provided to all of us by the state either at national or local levels. Details about the number of elderly residents allows us to plan local for schools and nationally for budgeting for the pensions and other services that the elderly need. Details about the numbers of people in each area and whether they have a car enables us to plan the transport that we need. Details about the numbers in particular ethnic groups enable us to provide specialist service. Details about housing occupancy enables us to plan both public and private sector housing.
These are details which will affect our communities for a long time. We will use the information to plan for long term things like housing, where we put hospitals and where roads and other transport systems should be provided. Once these are built, they will need to last for decade if not centuries.
2. To decide what money each area gets for its services from central and local government. To be blunt every person who does fill in the census will cost public sector service providers in our City at least £10,000. That’s less money for everything that we need in a city that needs every penny that it can get.
The Government make every effort to make the census easy to fill in. It’s the first one that is completed on-line. For those that don’t have access to the internet or don’t like using IT a paper form is available. As you fill it in there are explanations of what the information requested is for and some of the sections are entirely optional. The form took me about 10 minutes to fill in for two people. Obviously, it takes longer with more residents as some parts of the form need to be filled in per person. There is a clear explanation of why the information is needed.
Once the information is all in it is used as a baseline for the next 10 years. The Government have an awareness of the fact that there are some people who won’t fill in the form. Someone will knock on your door to remind you. However, some will not be found because they won’t fill in the form or because their lifestyles are simply too chaotic. An allowance will be made for this but the more accurate that the information is the less gaps that will need to be filled the more usable the information will be. The information is partly updated on a regular basis but all the updates are based on the full census base. Get the base wrong and information will be wrong for a good number of years.
Things might change soon. It is possible that this will be the last census of its type. The Government might find ways of aggregating geographically based information using things like DWP, school rolls, electoral register or patient enrolment in GP practices. This may be the case and in some ways is a more dangerous aggregation of information than a one-off census. In the short term though the census is what we’ve got.
So, I would plead with people to take that 10 minutes because it is so important to our cash availability and to our service and physical planning. I am a great defender of the limitation of the role of the state and for minimising information held about us by both public and private bodies but I had no hesitation in filling in this form.
Being a refusenik will limit the cash that we need in Liverpool to provide vital services and to plan for the future. Is 10 minutes per household too much too ask for to make sure that we get that cash and can plan our services better?