Is the census senseless?

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We’ve all been in that situation in our lives when someone with a huge fake smile comes up to you in the street and asks for “a minute of your time”. They’re all the same: young, annoyingly confident, wearing a brightly coloured tabard, clipboard in hand. Most of us with an ounce of common sense will decline the offer of filling out the “quick” survey, and make a mental note not to return to that street for the rest of the day.

But what if you couldn’t just say no? How would you feel if, just because you declined to tick a few boxes, you were breaking the law? Well, this month we all experienced something pretty similar when the 2011 census arrived.

To be honest, I wasn’t going to bother. I’d seen the stacks of forms in the porters office, but I’d assumed it was a job for the parents. I don’t own a house, have a job, or do anything vaguely productive with the majority of my time – I thought it was something for the grown ups to be dealing with. But then I saw the big bold letters on the bottom of the form that told me “Taking part is compulsory. You may face a fine if you don’t participate or if you supply false information”. Suppose I better fill it in then.

It wasn’t until after I’d gone through the boredom (and confusion) of filling the thing in that it occurred to me to get annoyed about the whole situation. I understand that the census provides information that the government needs to know for things like grants and health care, but should we really be forced to complete it? I mean it’s not like it’s just a simple form asking who we are and where we live, they want to know about the exact state of your sexual partnership and even your religion. Personal information that’s likely to get passed on to EU member states within a few years. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky – we didn’t get the full 32 page household form that asks you about central heating.

The religion question of course always causes a stir – I spent a good five minutes trying to work out which little box deserved my tick. There’s no box for atheists or agnostics, and the “other” line leaves it open for funny people to put something incredibly witty in it. Thanks to that, the 2001 census showed an alarming increase of Jedi Knight worshippers in the UK. This year, the results are predicted to show a new wave of Dumbledore’s Army Devotees or worshippers of the Your Mum religion.

It’s commonly known that a lot of the census data is rather unreliable. People are inevitably missed out, meaning a lot of generalisations about the population are wrong, and questions may change from one year to the next, so mapping changes over time becomes difficult.

To top it all of, at a time of economic mess, a census that costs £482m also seems a bit of a joke – do we not have better things that we should be spending our money on? And where that money is going to is also a bit of a concern. The £150m contract for the census has been given to Lockheed Martin, an American arms company – the second largest in the world – who manufactures missiles and cluster bombs, and have sold arms to repressive regimes in Saudi and Bahrain. Should taxpayers money be used to fund an industry that profits from conflict and war?

To be honest, what ever I think, or anyone else thinks about the census is irrelevant. If you didn’t fill it in last month you could be facing a criminal record and a £1000 fine. Whether you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, or a colossal waste of money, in 10 years time, you’ll be filling another one out anyway.

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