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Fabian Richter: Stop the state snoops

Fabian_richter_photo_3 Fabian Richter, the candidate for Bath, explains why he is campaigning against intrusive questions on Government census forms.

Last month, my neighbours in Bath got a letter from the Office of National Statistics. Like thousands of others across Britain, they had been selected at random to participate in the trial of the 2011 census forms. “Great”, they thought, “that will give us a chance to provide some feedback.” Little did they expect that what they were going to see would upset them so much that they would lobby me, their parliamentary candidate, to launch a petition against the trial census.

I hasten to add that these are civic-minded, law-abiding citizens who have accurately filled in every previous census form. But that made their predicament even worse. They realised that, while participation in the trial version was voluntary, not filling in the real census in 2011 would result in a fine of £1,000. And some of the questions added to this new version made them feel very tempted to chuck the entire thing in the bin.

For the first time in Britain’s history, people will have to tell state inspectors in detail about their health and their sexual orientation. What is more, they also have to write down how often and why they stay in another home. So if you and your partner live in different homes, and you spend your weekends together, you now may have to inform the authorities how many nights you stay over with their girlfriend or boyfriend.

These are very intrusive questions, but my neighbours conscientiously answered them in the safe knowledge that our Data Protection Act will keep this information anonymous. At this point, I did a bit of research. And what I found out was not reassuring. In September 2006, the Cabinet Office published an “Information Sharing Vision Statement” calling for data protection controls to be weakened. The statement pledged that a comprehensive plan for information-sharing across the public sector was soon going to be introduced. The Guardian had published an article one month earlier warning its readers that:

"Ministers are to announce next month that they have overturned a key data protection principle which prevents information on individual citizens held by one government department from being passed to another public agency."

It gets even better. As Michael Gove learnt from a parliamentary answer (Hansard, 12 October 2006, col. 882W), that the Government has decided to purchase “geo-demographic” lifestyle data on every home to help computers determine the characteristics of these neighbourhoods. This will allow detailed profiling of people’s homes, which may come very useful when deciding on (upward) revisions of council tax bands, for example. Even if none of this were to happen, the problem remains that the best data protection laws in the world cannot protect against criminal abuse or sheer blunders. We all remember the mountains of bin bags full of personal bank statements that were found outside the entrance of a high street bank recently. And we equally remember the personal details of trainee doctors being splashed all over the internet. Mistakes happen. And once the information is collected, it can be used.

When I informed my neighbours about this, they came close to ripping up their census form. That would be a shame. We do need the census in order to plan the provision of public services across the country. If lots of people were to defy the fines for non-completion or, even worse (since harder to detect), were to lie about their answers, that would significantly reduce the value having a census in the first place.

That is why I have launched an e-petition on the Prime Minister’s website, I hope you will support it. I strongly object to building this Big Brother database of people’s lifestyles, and urge the Labour Government to delete these incredibly personal and intrusive questions from the new census. Let’s stick to the more limited, existing questions. Out of principle - but also because I want people to feel confident enough to complete these forms truthfully. Adding prying new questions makes that less likely.


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