The United Kingdom Census

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How would you like the United Kingdom Census to exist in future years ?

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Wow! I’m not sure a question has ever made me think quite so much as this one. Thank-you!

I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the census was, prior to such an educational commodity question, limited. I was 15 (I think!!) when the 2011 census was carried out and sadly, I think I was too busy playing outside or doing whatever a hideously uncool 15 year old does to have paid too much attention to it (*guilty gulp). But, researching your question has given me a quick education- genuine thanks!!

It appears the current state of the census is hotly contested- from concerns around data protection, to nosey-ness, to its capturing of information. Over the last 210 years, the census has gone from a simple headcount to a 32 page booklet containing questions which are, debatably, limited in their usefulness- like who’s staying on the night of the 27th March 2011. I’m sure, for some of the 40,000 government and non-government bodies who use census data, this kind of question is somehow useful, but it certainly makes me question just how much information needs to be shared.

According to an exhibition run by Ian Cooke (not the Ian Cook of Ian Cook et al- but the curator for political studies at the British Library), early opposition to the census revolved around “fears about governments using figures to direct labour and to find enemies”. But it’s really made me think about whether the information the census gathers today couldn’t be accused of doing something similar. As soon, for example, as Sainsbury’s finds out you like yogurt, you end up with a book of yogurt vouchers. Very useful nonetheless, but an example of how data could be used to direct thinking- particularly at a time when cyber attacks have been rife.

It’s also got me thinking about the changing data protection regulations to be introduced in 2018. We will now have to ‘opt in’ to receiving updates from charities or companies rather than having the little tick box at the bottom which is automatically ticked to ‘opt-in’ (i.e.- we’ll have to tick that box- a doubtlessly simplified explanation of a much more complex process!). But, if we now have to opt in to sharing our data with, say a charity we’ve supported for 10 years, should the government have regulations on what information we give and how we give it? What about the right to privacy?

I certainly do understand the need for a census- it provides invaluable information. Part of me thinks we should go back to a simplified head count, along with some questions on religion, or ethnicity, or disability- albeit ensuring these questions are open ended- only stuff we really need to know. For example; as the British Humanist Association suggested, changing “What is your religion” to “Do you have a religion? If so, what is it”. This would ensure a fairer representation when making government decisions about faith schools and so on. Do we really need to answer questions about who’s staying on the night of the 27th? And how helpful are subjective questions like “How is your health generally; very good, good, average, poor”- with no guide to what each category means, subjectivity and inaccuracy is rife. I also wonder how the census could be changed to include everyone. I know that specialised officers are sent out to collect data from individuals who are, for example, sleeping rough, but it’s unlikely it’s capturing, or best representing all. And what too about those seeking asylum, or illegal immigrant- if we are to get a clear picture of the UK’s population, should we be including these individuals without fear of persecution? Idealistic, controversial and impractical- certainly. But just something else that’s got me thinking.

So, I think I'd like to see a more basic, headcount based census. Completing it online, as is the aim for the 2021 census, would certainly cut down on costs (and, importantly, trees!)- though we do end up back in the sphere of cyber attacks as individuals complete questionnaires on devices of differing security.

Yet- some slightly nosey part of me would also be interested in including questions on current day things- like feelings around Brexit, or threats of nuclear war, or climate change. At the very least, it’d give the GCSE history students in 50 years time some ‘primary data’ to use when answering essay questions like “Evaluate the demise of the Western world in 2016-2025, giving at least two examples”…

Those in charge of creating the 2021 census and pleasing everyone- I salute you, an impossible task I’m certain!

by MoCCconsultantGabrielle on August 26th at 10:51am
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