UK 2001 Census

Cambridge 2000 memos

April 2001

Since 1801 the UK has conducted a census of its population every ten years. The 2001 census date is 29 April. What you are doing on that date defines you, your household and your neighbourhood for the next ten years.

In keeping with most government initiatives the census is intrusive, patronising and insulting in almost equal measure. You have to fill in the form (correctly) or be subject to a fine. All questions have to be answered except the question about religion, as if that is any more offensive or private than any of the other questions.

The worst aspect is the racial profiling, which the accompanying blurb claims "will help to uncover racial inequality and take action to tackle it". Yeah, right. Of course one could deem the racial profiling itself to be racist.

Many of the questions require free form, rather than enumerated, answers, which means the entry of the data on computer is a slow and laborious process. Free form questions might be considered to allow more accurate answers but the interpretation of the data is almost impossible unless sensibly enumerated by someone.

A short description of the English census form follows.

Table 1 asks for the names of all household members, which is a complete invasion of privacy and has nothing to do with the actual purpose of the census.

Table 2 continues in the same vein by asking for the names and usual addresses of visitors on the night of 29 April. So if you do not want the government to know who is visiting you then best not to have any visitors that night.

The next section asks for household information, e.g. whether the household accomodation is a detached house, etc. This is information which a census should be collecting.

Then each person in the household has to fill in a personal section.

This again asks for the person's name. It then asks for sex and birth date, which of course are the real reason for the census. For students the next question is whether the given address is the normal term-time address.

The form then asks for the country of birth. This has an enumeration of six possibilities: England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland or "elsewhere". For the last choice a free form entry is specified, which will inevitably cause data entry problems since no standard list of country names is supplied (so, for example, is it USA or America or the United States of America, it will be up to the data entry operator to sort out the confusions). Note also that the British still believe that being born in the Republic of Ireland deserves specific attention, it is the only non-UK country listed.

The next question is about "ethnic group". The form does not define what this means so it is up to the person to place themselves in whatever ethnic group they choose. The possibilities are:

Obviously China is not considered to be part of Asia. And the Irish are again picked out for special attention. And mixed blood people are not well catered for (e.g. what is the correct answer if your father is quarter British, quarter Irish and half French Canadian and your mother is German and you are born American but naturalised British). The lack of precision in the definition of ethnicity and the free form of the "other" answers makes this particular question worthless. 10 percent of the personal section is devoted to this one, awful, question.

The next question is not applicable in England, and they do not tell you what it is, you have to go to Wales to find out.

The next question is to specify your religion ("None", "Christian", "Buddhist", "Hindu", "Jewish", "Muslim", "Sikh" and "other", to be specified). This question is voluntary, presumably because some worthy committee decided this was potentially offensive (unlike the other questions).

The form then asks how your health has been the last twelve months ("good", "fairly good" or "not good"), this is too imprecise to provide useful information but no doubt it will be used by the government to allocate health resources.

The next question is whether you look after someone who is disabled or old, followed by a question about whether you yourself are disabled (in the Thatcher years many people were removed from the government unemployment figures by pushing them onto the disability figures, so this subjective question again needs to be treated with care).

The form then asks for your address a year ago. This is useful to indicate population movement.

There then follows two questions about qualifications (but none about what qualifications you would have liked if you had had the opportunity) and a whole series of questions about employment. Several of the employment questions are free form entry and so are practically useless ("what is the full title of your job", "describe what you do in your job", "what is the business of your employer").

The address of employment is then requested, again this is useful (in theory). This is followed by a question about the means of travelling to work, which is enumerated so definitely useful. However how you travel to work is not necessarily the same as how you would like to travel to work, and the latter is as important as the former in deciding government transport policy.

The final question is about how many hours you work per week. For many people this number is not well-defined.

There are several places where an address is entered. These are all free form and so prone to error. UK addresses do have one semi-enumerated element which is the postcode, which identifies the household to around 100 to 1000 m (dependent on location). If the postcode is entered accurately then this would be the ideal address locator. Unfortunately many people do not know their (work or home) postcode, and even worse postcodes change quite frequently.

There are amazing gaps on the form. There is no question about household income, which is a better indicator of many things (e.g. health) than almost anything else. Presumably this is because the British consider money to be such a sordid subject. There is no question about how long you have lived at the current address (except for the indirect question about where you lived last year). There are no questions about how many TVs, computers, mobile phones, etc., which your household has access to (only one question about cars). There is no question about whether you are a vegetarian, or any about whether you smoke or are HIV positive, much more relevant to the future health requirements of the nation than whether you think your health has been "good" the last year.

Cambridge 2000 memos