We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

These people are not competent, are not honest, and are not your friends

In a letter (scroll down) to the Independent on February 25, Glen Watson, the director of the UK Census, had the following to say

First, it is not true that EU legislation allows for census information to be shared with EU member states. No personal census information has been or will be provided to EU member states or EU institutions; only statistical tables and counts will be provided.

Second, it is not true that raw census data may be acquired by the police, intelligence agencies, immigration authorities etc under the Statistics and Registration Services Act. The UK Statistics Authority and the Office for National Statistics will never volunteer personal information for any non-statistical purpose.

It is particularly lovely we were assured of that last point. However, a literal reading of Section 39 of The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 states that for data it holds, the ONS is not permitted to disclose any personal information (ie on specific individuals) to anyone.

Never ever, that is, except if such a disclosure:

(a) is required or permitted by any enactment,
(b) is required by a Community obligation,
(c) is necessary for the purpose of enabling or assisting the Board to exercise any of its functions,
(d) has already lawfully been made available to the public,
(e) is made in pursuance of an order of a court,
(f) is made for the purposes of a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings (whether or not in the UK),
(g) is made, in the interests of national security, to an Intelligence Service,
(h) is made with the consent of the person to whom it relates, or
(i) is made to an approved researcher.

It is great to have such protections, isn’t it?

There was considerable concern at the time of the census that some or all of these exceptions might apply to census data, which is why Mr Watson felt the need to make such a disclaimer.

If he was going to make such a strong claim, one would hope he was sure of it. One would expect that he or his organisation would have asked for legal advice on the matter perhaps? One wouldn’t want to mislead the public any more than one would want to disclose their data to the EU Agriculture Directorate. The readers of the Independent should not be misled, but should be told the truth, always.

Which is why the results of a recent Freedom of Information request to the ONS are quite interesting. Specifically:

The nearest that ONS came to seeking legal advice or formally discussing this matter with Treasury solicitors was while we were drafting the confidentiality undertakings that were incorporated into the Census Regulations. However there was no formal advice sought or specific discussion held about how Section 39 would cover the census, all of these meetings were un-minuted,

Yes, this is just as bad as it sounds. I for one am glad I did not fill in the form.

6 comments to These people are not competent, are not honest, and are not your friends

  • Antoine Clarke

    If a person wishing to murder gay people found a way of accessing the Census database (we know they have been hacked already, but so far, fingers crossed, only by other criminals and they will not sell or release the information, I hope)…

    Everyone had to answer a question about living as a couple with another person (with the gender specified). That means that any gay couple in the UK is now at risk of harassment or persecution, if they filled in the forms.

    I believe the Census staff that they did not believe this information could possibly be used for evil purposes. That is however, completely useless to those people who will be hunted down and humiliated or killed, with the assistance of the British State.

    If a closet Nazi had drawn up the UK’s census documents in order to prepare for future pogroms, the only difference would have been that the religion question would have been compulsory. It was not because so many people put Jedi Knight down last time. Thanks for small mercies…

  • Laird

    Even if the ONS had sought legal advice on the effect of Section 39, or for that matter if the law were crystal clear that personal census data were completely exempted from its provisions, does anyone really believe that the ONS would never share personal data with other governmental agencies, or with EU functionaries? If so, you’re remarkably naïve.

  • Gareth

    The key word in Watson’s weaselly wibble is ‘volunteer’.

    “will never volunteer personal information” is a universe away from “will never provide”.

  • The reason why Watson used the weasel word ‘volunteer’ rather than ‘will never provide’ is that the legal exemptions in the regulations means that government agencies can insist that the information is handed over and the Census office can only comply.

    They might not like it, but there is nothing that they can do about it.

  • guy herbert

    Not that the ONS necessarily ever deems itself to volunteer information:

    It is critically important that our statistical outputs reflect user priorities and that our users see how these priorities are reflected in our statistical plans. We continue to look rigorously at our priorities and focus on where we add value to users, so that users see the benefits that derive from the statistics we produce.

    – ONS Business Plan 2011-2015

  • PaulH

    It’s the second part of (a) that has long bothered me, though more generally than just the Census. It sounds good at first glance, but it actually says that the organisation won’t break the law to share your info. I’m not clear why that’s supposed to be reassuring.