In response to Alex Deane's recent piece – "Why I won't be completing the Census" – I thought readers may be interested to hear a different perspective.
I will be filling in my Census form for various reasons, but most importantly because I see it as part of my duty as a British citizen. This doesn’t mean I don’t have serious misgivings about handing over personal information, or absolute confidence in the Whitehall machine to abide by data protection and handling rules.
In Opposition the Conservatives were extremely concerned about the relationship between the citizen and the state when it came to personal data, and the subsequent problems of data losses and state incompetence. Whilst steps are being taken by the Coalition Government to reverse New Labour’s transformational government agenda, we still need stronger policies to return power to each citizen over his or her data. MPs interested in this area could put down amendments to the Freedom Bill to end the notion of implied consent; allow data freezing; and introduce transparent audit trails.
However, there is a difference between disliking an intrusive state and not interacting with the state at all. We rely on the government to provide our public services and safeguard our security. So for practical reasons alone, we need to make sure it has the necessary information to do this. Whilst vast amounts of government-collected data may not be essential, Census data is. It is used to allocate local authority funding, and other government grants, which are currently calculated on out-of-date 2001 estimates.
In addition to the financial importance of this data for local communities, both the public and private sector rely on Census findings when making decisions about new projects, business expansion, and regeneration.
As the Government decentralises power and funding, Census data will help ensure this can reflect the contemporary situation in every area.
Given the rate of change in our communities over the last decade – due to uncontrolled immigration under Labour and changing demographics – it is clear that Britain today is a very different place to 2001. You can pick up any local or national newspaper, or chat to anyone in the pub or on the tube for anecdotal evidence of this. Now we need statistical evidence. It is shameful that in Britain today we see deprived communities living in generational stasis, and Britons of different backgrounds living ‘parallel lives’.
We need answers to such questions as: Where and why is poverty still entrenched? What lessons can we learn from the current links between young people’s skills and their ability to find employment? What patterns do we see in certain areas between demographics and home ownership? Is integration between ethnic minority groups improving in certain areas? What correlation is there between ethnic background and disadvantage?
In answering these questions a picture will emerge of areas that need better targeted government and Big Society support. Whilst politicians may not always know best, let’s give them the greatest possible chance to develop responsive policies by starting with the right facts. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I can’t see how breaking the law over the Census contributes to anything but a perpetuation of distrust between the citizen and the state.
We may believe in a smaller state, but there is a role for the state in all democracies. Surely all Conservatives believe that government should provide a safety net for those who need it most. And they should be able to see how the Census can help it deliver that.