Eric Pickles doesn't mind jokes about his weight. At least, if he makes them himself. Or if he's making them about other people. Or if they're made by people he gets along with. At a meeting when I was part of his Shadow CLG team, he welcomed Stephen Greenhalgh, the former leader of Hammersmith Council and now Boris Johnson's Deputy Mayor, with a paean of praise, culminating in the highest compliment of all - that "like me, he's nice and fat".
The question is whether or not George Osborne is on the list of people that the Communities Secretary gets along with. The Guardian has a detailed account this morning of how the Treasury negotiated the spending review, and makes the point that CLG is one of the two departments that was especially helpful (the other was Justice). But relations between them aren't always as harmonious - particularly over housing and planning.
The Chancellor has been given a rough ride over his burger snap, particularly by the Sun, which seems particularly ill-disposed to him. Pickles is a master of publicity, and will have known the effect that his tweet would have when he published it. Osborne is grinning and bearing it - "Nice one, Eric" - he tweeted back yesterday, but the exchanges speak eloquently about how the Chancellor's relationship with some of his colleagues. Were I him, I would lay off the Fat Jokes.
By Paul Goodman
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The combination of Eastleigh and Italy have between them unleashed a tidal wave of commentary about the drawbacks of being governed by the professional politics. Consider Charles Moore's column in today's Daily Telegraph:
"Eastleigh brings out something which more and more voters feel. A quarter of a century ago, when people used to complain in pubs that “they’re all the same”, I used to argue back: it seemed to me patently false. Today, I stay quiet. Nigel Farage says that we have three social democrat parties now. There is a bit of truth in that, but I would put it differently. It is not so much that they all think the same thing. It is more that they are all the same sort of people. They all belong to a political elite whose attitudes and careers are pretty different from those of the rest of us."
Even the briefest inspection of David Cameron and Ed Miliband supports this view. Miliband has been a full-time political apparatchick since University. Cameron briefly had a job in television, but not a career: the post was acknowledged to be a waiting room for the Commons, even by his employers.
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon saw Communities and Local Government questions in the House. Eric Pickles is often a target for sharp Labour questions - because of his combative approach, and the fact that his department is making cuts in one of Labour's bureaucratic strongholds, local government.
This belligerent attitude from the Labour - front and back - benches was on show yesterday.
By Paul Goodman
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Here is the list of those who went into the No lobby to oppose the Dorries/Field amendment. It included such senior Conservatives as George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Cheryl Gillan, William Hague, Eric Pickles, David Willetts, Sir George Young.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob
Alexander, rh Danny
Alexander, rh Mr Douglas
by Paul Goodman
Caroline Spelman was questioned in the Commons yesterday about the waste review. One of the main matters raised was weekly bin collections, and perhaps the best place to start is with two quotes.
The first is from my colleague Harry Phibbs yesterday, citing the Government's review of waste policy as follows:
"The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections"
The second is from an article by Eric Pickles, also published yesterday.
"For the first time, in a major change of government policy, Whitehall will start supporting – rather than opposing – frequent rubbish collections. We will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle. The Government understands that the public have a reasonable expectation that household waste collections services should be weekly, particularly for smelly waste which results in vermin, flies and odours."
The phrase "increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections" suggests that Pickles and Spelman are literally reading from the same page on weekly bin collections - while DEFRA officials work ceaselessly to rewrite the policy, against the wishes of their Secretary of State. This is the view that Harry took, and there is no hard evidence to the contrary.
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday at questions to Eric Pickles and his team of ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government, a number of Tory MPs took the opportunity to highlight how their local Conservative-run councils are coping with the financial squeeze. Doubtless their local papers will be encouraged to cite the praise heaped upon them by the ministers.
Here's a sample:
Peter Bone (Wellingborough): Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?
Eric Pickles: What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley [Caroline Flint] accepted some responsibility for that.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.
Bob Neill: Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplar of how councils with imagination and political courage can deal with the matter. My hon. Friend is right to point out that it has done so-without any significant redundancy-by deleting needless posts.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?
Eric Pickles: I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.
Mel Stride (Central Devon): Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services?
Eric Pickles: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?
Eric Pickles: I am always glad to congratulate my hon. Friend's council and have no hesitation in doing so today.
Later, in reply to a complaint from Labour MP Mary Glindon about cuts to the voluntary sector in her local council, the minister Greg Clark delivered a roll call of Tory councils that are dealing with the situation without such cuts:
"I am grateful for the hon. Lady's question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton - 10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors."
As promised by Eleanor Laing last week, the Conservatives have tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill which would Save General Election Night by setting in statute a requirement for Returning Officers to count votes at general elections on the night.
It proposes that counts could only be delayed if there are "exceptional circumstances" - and that these would have to be defined by the Justice Secretary and be subject to approval by Parliament.
Tomorrow's proceedings on the committee stage of the Bill will most likely be dominated by the Government's proposals on electoral reform, so I do not presently know what likelihood there is of the issue being properly debated and/or voted on.
If it is put to the vote, I would certainly hope that all the 220 MPs from across the House who signed the original Save General Election Night early day motion would stick to their word and back it.
I will let you know if I get any more news later.
The full text of the amendment (New Clause 98) is as follows:
Counting of votes in parliamentary electionsMr Dominic Grieve
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Eric Pickles
To move the following Clause:—
(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows—
(2) In Schedule 1 (Parliamentary elections rules), in paragraph 44, after sub-paragraph (1) insert—
“(1A) The counting of votes in a parliamentary election shall start within four hours of the close of the poll, save in exceptional circumstances.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall, after consulting the Electoral Commission, prepare draft guidance on the definition of “exceptional circumstances” for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1A).
(1C) The draft guidance prepared under sub-paragraph (1B) may not be issued unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by both Houses of Parliament.”.
Yesterday saw an adjournment debate in the Westminster Hall chamber initiated by Labour MP David Cairns on "the accountability of returning officers", which enabled MPs to discuss the Campaign to Save General Election Night.
There were more than a dozen MPs present for the debate - far higher than usual for proceedings in Westminster Hall - and there were contributions from co-founder of the Save General Election Night Campaign, Labour MP Tom Harris, and also from Conservative chairman Eric Pickles, who highlighted the figures he recently obtained showing how few postal votes get submitted on polling day - thereby rubbishing the excuse given by some returning officers for delaying the count.
It was a debate which very much found a consensus in favour of Thursday night counts, as shadow Justice Minister, Eleanor Laing, summed up:
"Knowing the result of the general election is not comparable to waiting until Sunday to see who wins Strictly Come Dancing. It is matter of importance to everyone, whether they know it or not... Simply changing how our general elections are run for the administrative simplicity of some returning officers who are accountable to no one is unacceptable. So, what can we do about it? First, let us make it clear that the assumption should be that the count should take place at the close of the poll unless the returning officer can publicly justify his actions in deciding otherwise. In some places that will be easy and in some places it will not. Returning officers have made decisions that they have not been required to justify. Let us now ask them to justify their actions publicly. There has been no update to the precise law on returning officers' duties since the 1872 Act.
"The Minister knows very well that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has been amended and expanded considerably over the past few weeks, and the Opposition have agreed with much of the expansion that the Government have brought forward; we have co-operated with it. I am considering bringing forward an amendment to the Bill on Report to deal with the matter. It would be far more effective, however, if the Government did that. I give an undertaking that, if the Minister brings forward such an amendment on Report, he will have our support."
Michael Wills, the Justice minister replying, accepted that there was a consensus view in favour of Thursday night counts, but stopped short of accepting the idea of amending the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, preferring to suggest it would be a matter for discussion after the general election:
"There is clearly a consensus across the House that all those responsible for delivering the count need to do everything in their power to deliver it overnight. I agree with that from a personal perspective. As the Minister responsible for elections, I have no role in directing EROs to do anything at all, and I want to ensure that everyone understands that I respect their independence.
"However, if any are still considering not holding overnight counts, I hope that they will read the record of this debate and reflect carefully on the strength of feeling. At the very least, if they decide not to hold an overnight count, they will have to have extremely good reasons. Whatever happens, they can expect to be rigorously scrutinised, and should realise that this House will take the matter forward after the next election. I have no doubt at all that that is the conclusion that everyone will draw from the strength of feeling in this debate, and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. I have no doubt that it will move the policy on in some way or other in the future."
Warm words from the minister, but not good enough. I very much hope that Eleanor Laing will table an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill and that MPs get a chance to vote on the issue.
After I launched the campaign to Save General Election Night to ensure that votes are counted and results delivered overnight at the general election, a number of spurious arguments have been offered for wanting to overturn the traditional Thursday count in favour of Friday morning counts.
One of the claims regularly made by Returning Officers wanting to delay counting until the Friday was that thousands and thousands of postal votes get handed in on polling day at polling stations and that under new regulations it would take hours to verify them, thereby making it impossible to deliver a result on the night.
Quite why you would apply for a postal vote if you do not intend posting it rather baffles me. In any case, I happen to believe that the Government has now made postal votes far too readily available, but that's an argument or another day.
The point is this: do voters really deliver postal votes to polling stations in their thousands?
And the answer, Eric Pickles has discovered, is no. In a written parliamentary question to Tory MP Gary Streeter, in his capacity representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, he asked for information on the number of postal ballot papers handed in on polling day in each of the last five by-elections.
The answer came as follows:
"The returning officers for the last five UK parliamentary by-elections have provided the following estimates of the number of postal ballot packs handed in at polling stations on polling day:
Glasgow North East (12 November 2009) - 270
Norwich North (23 July 2009) - 180
Glenrothes (6 November 2008) - 125
Glasgow East (24 July 2008) - 116
Haltemprice and Howden (10 July 2008) - 180"
And before anyone says they were all on unusually low turnouts, the figures were 33.0%, 45.8%, 52.3%, 42.2% and 34.4% respectively - all of which, apart from Haltemprice and Howden, accounted for at least two thirds of the previous general election turnout.
The case for delaying counts is weakened yet further.
With the number of MPs who have signed the Save General Election Night early day motion almost standing at 200, and the Facebook group membership having almost reached 5,500, Tory chairman Eric Pickles has been seeking further information about the extent of plans by Returning Officers to switch counting at the next general election to the Friday morning.
In one written question last week, he received an assurance that local authorities do not need to bear the costs of running elections. Justice Minister Michael Wills replied:
"Returning officers are entitled to recover their charges in respect of services rendered or expenses incurred at parliamentary elections if they were necessarily rendered or incurred for the efficient and effective conduct of the election and they do not exceed the overall maximum recoverable amount specified in an Order made by the Secretary of State. Provision is made for this purpose from the consolidated fund."
In a separate question, addressed to Gary Streeter in his capacity representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, he asked "what information the Electoral Commission has collected about the number of local authorities considering commencing their counts at the next general election on the day after polling day?"
The reply was as follows:
"The Electoral Commission informs me that it wrote to Returning Officers for all UK parliamentary constituencies in September 2009 requesting information about when they intend to begin the counting of ballot papers for the UK parliamentary general election.
"As of 21 October 2009, the Commission informs me that it had received responses from Returning Officers for 247 out of 650 constituencies. Returning Officers for 134 constituencies reported that they planned to begin counting on the evening of polling day. Returning Officers for 27 constituencies reported that they planned to begin counting on the morning of the day following polling day. Returning Officers for 86 constituencies reported that they had not yet decided when they would begin counting. Over the coming weeks the Commission will be actively seeking responses from Returning Officers who have yet to reply.
"A spreadsheet detailing responses received by constituency, at 21 October 2009, has been placed in the House of Commons Library. This information is also available on the Commission website and will be updated regularly."
The spreadsheet is available to view here, although 247 out of 650 seems a very poor response rate after a month. Watch this sapce for further details...
The end of half-term brings with it a new edition of Hansard and written answers. Herewith some that grabbed my attention.
The answer that leapt out at me was to Shadow Home Affairs Minister David Ruffley. Staggeringly, the Government doesn't seem to know by how many police officers the country is short:
"Mr. Ruffley: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many police officer vacancies at all ranks there were in (a) the Metropolitan Police Force and (b) all other forces in 2007-08. 
I suppose now that Eric Pickles is Party Chairman he won't table so many questions. That's a shame. He asked a good one about The Man's power to rifle through our bins:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (1) what powers waste collection authorities have to enter premises in relation to suspected breaches of waste regulations; and what powers they have to (a) measure and (b) photograph household waste; 
Jane Kennedy: Section 92A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA) gives local authorities powers to serve a litter clearing notice on any open land, requiring the occupier, or failing that, the owner, to clear litter from that land. If the notice is not complied with, they can enter the land, clean up and then reclaim their costs.
Section 59 of the EPA allows waste regulation authorities and waste collection authorities to serve a notice on the occupier or owner of land to require the removal of controlled waste unlawfully and knowingly deposited. Where a person fails to meet these requirements, the local authority or the Environment Agency may clear the waste and seek to recover the costs.
It is intended that joint waste authorities should have the same powers as are currently available to local authorities when they are carrying out those functions which joint waste authorities may take over."
Last November he claimed that the Government was hiding from pubs the fact that they could be entitled to a cut in business rates due to the smoking ban. The story appeared in the Telegraph on 9 November:
"Publicans who applied for a reduction in the rateable value of their premises after the ban was introduced in 2007 were turned down on the grounds there had been no material change in the way the pub was used.
But the Valuation Office Agency has received legal advice saying that decision was wrong.
New guidance states valuers should take the loss of the right for customers to smoke into account when assessing the rateable value of a pub, which could save landlords thousands of pounds a year.
The Conservatives have accused the Government of failing to notify publicans about the new guidance.
Shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles said that a £5,000 reduction in the rateable value of their business could save publicans £2,200 a year, at a time when the British Beer and Pub Association estimates that pubs are closing at the rate of 27 a week."
Mr Pickles had uncovered the story through a written parliamentary question:
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will place in the Library a copy of the Valuation Office Agency’s non-domestic rating guidance, RAT IA, as amended to include advice on the smoking ban. 
Mr. Timms: A copy of the Valuation Office Agency’s Rating Instruction and Advice reference 260106, which was updated to include advice on the Smoking Ban in June 2008, has been placed in the Library."
The document is available here.
Mr Pickles has recently been informed, through another written answer, that the Government has written to write to trade associations to inform them of the reduction:
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government with reference to the answer of 28 October 2008, Official Report, columns 887-88W, on non-domestic rates: valuation, what steps (a) her Department and (b) the Valuation Office Agency has taken to raise awareness amongst the licensees of licensed premises of the change of policy on material changes of circumstances arising from the prohibition of smoking on licensed premises. 
John Healey: On 11 November 2008 I personally wrote to the main trade associations representing public house operators and occupiers to help ensure that their members are clear about the change in approach to the rating assessments for pubs following the introduction of the smoking ban."
So the Government acted two days after the Conservatives lined up a news story drawing attention to their ineptitude (although the minister should have written to all landlords, not just trade associations). Once again Mr Pickles, who has absolutely first class research support at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, has proved himself to be an outstanding operative.
Update: Some more examples of Mr Pickles's written questions have been added, to give a fuller flavour.
Eric Pickles, Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary and MP for Brentwood & Ongar, has come top of a league table. He was followed closely by Mark Hoban, MP for Fareham and a Shadow Treasury Minister. In 2007-08 Mr Pickles asked 2,190 written questions. Mr Hoban asked 2,097.
This story comes courtesy of the Yeovil Express, as local Lib Dem MP David Laws came a distant third.
Written questions certainly tie up civil servants and cost money. But these MPs are assiduous, and should therefore be congratulated for their efforts. Admittedly this is just one measure, but they are clearly working very hard.
The following written question represents one of Mr Pickles's greatest hits. When John Prescott left his grace and favour Whitehall pad, he left a hell of a mess:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the answer of 6 February 2008, Official Report, columns 1158-9W, on Admiralty House, (1) what minor works were undertaken; 
Meg Munn: In line with normal procedure a one-off deep clean of the property was undertaken at change over of tenants. This included cleaning of lights, curtains, nets and windows, at a cost of £3,319.67, including value added tax (VAT).
Two bedrooms, an adjacent corridor and one bathroom were repainted and a washer dryer, a tumble dryer, fridge freezer and mixer taps were supplied and installed. The cost of these works and equipment was £9,322.92, including VAT."
Mr Pickles exposed the fact that flytippers - who dump rubbish and run - are not being held to account.
"To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how many prosecutions were (a) undertaken and (b) successful in relation to fly-tipping incidents in 2006-07 in (i) absolute terms and (ii) as a percentage of the total number of fly-tipping incidents. 
In 2006-07, local authorities recorded an additional 378,974 enforcement actions, consisting of warning letters, statutory notices, fixed penalty notices, duty of care inspections, vehicle seizures and formal cautions. Excluding Liverpool city council, this figure was 172,042.
|Local authorities||Environment Agency|
There are several noteworthy written answers in the latest edition of Hansard.
The Opposition has supported the Government's carbon reduction plans. The following question from Shadow Local Government spokesman Eric Pickles is interesting in light of this. Are the Conservatives contemplating a spending commitment?
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether local authorities will be compensated for the regulatory costs of the carbon reduction commitment. 
There are no plans to provide additional funding to local authorities in regard to their participation in the Carbon Reduction Commitment. There are already funding streams in place to help local authorities monitor and reduce their energy use via the Local Authority Performance Framework Climate Change Indicators and the SALIX Finance fund. The additional administration costs of the emissions monitoring required by the Carbon Reduction Commitment are not substantial.
Overall the energy efficiency benefits of participating in the Carbon Reduction Commitment are calculated to outweigh the administrative costs. Economic analysis indicates that local authorities are well placed to perform well in the scheme as there are significant opportunities for local authorities to increase the energy efficiency of their operations."
Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers asked about Metronet - who are responsible for two-thirds of London Underground's infrastructure - and we were reminded how costly the programme is:
"Mrs. Villiers: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effects of Metronet going into administration upon the delivery of its commitment under its public-private partnership contract. 
Jim Fitzpatrick: Following the PPP administration of Metronet on 18 July 2007, both Metronet companies transferred to Transport for London on 27 May 2008. Transport for London, together with London Underground and the Government, are currently considering the future structure for the lines previously the responsibility of Metronet. A key consideration is to ensure that the major upgrades due to be completed on the Victoria, Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith and City lines are not significantly affected by Metronet’s failure.
The comprehensive spending review 2007 settlement sets out the expected levels of Transport for London’s grant and borrowing to 2017-18. This generous funding package worth some £40 billion over the next 10 years makes provision for the continued modernisation of the underground and costs arising from Metronet’s administration. Government will continue to work with London Underground and Transport for London to ensure that these upgrades can be delivered.
Passenger safety remains of paramount importance. London Underground has always retained overall responsibility for passenger safety on the network and the Office of Rail Regulation regulates health and safety on the underground."
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles has received a written answer on the cost of the 2011 Census. The census is taken every ten years. It is an attempt to provide essential information about the country, "from national to neighbourhood level for government, business, and the community", as the Office for National Statistics puts it.
A census is a massive undertaking. There is a lengthy planning programme in the years running up to the census determining what information to gather, how to gather it, and how to display it. Last year there was a test of the data collection process, and next year there will be a "Rehearsal" of the whole system.
And it's costly:
"Mr. Pickles: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of the 2011 Census; and how much has been spent to date on trials prior to that census. 
As National Statistician I have been asked to reply to your recent question asking what the estimated total cost to the public purse is of the 2011 Census, and how much has been spent to date on trials prior to that Census. (230808)
On the basis of present planning assumptions, the cost of the 2011 Census in England and Wales over the period 2005-2016 is currently estimated to be around £487 million. Innovations for the 2011 Census within this budget include online completion of questionnaires and the tracking of each questionnaire from printing to processing through a robust form tracking system. We are also carrying out significant address register development and address checking work for the 2011 Census.
The Censuses in Northern Ireland and Scotland are devolved matters.
With regard to spend to date on trials prior to the 2011 Census, the way the programme of work is structured means that it is not possible to isolate expenditure specifically for testing activities. The development work has included elements of questionnaire design, address checking, and small-scale testing of components of the field operation together with the 2007 Test covering some 100,000 households. The spend to date from 2005 on planning and development for the 2011 Census is £34 million."
Are we fans of the census? Do we think it's an unnecessary intrusion, or a vital way of gathering demographic details? Could the process be cheaper? What questions would you consider refusing to answer, even if it meant facing the wrath of the state?