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Question on data protection and the 2011 census

I’ve been trying to find out about the gathering of data for the 2009 rehearsal for the 2011 census, and how much of it is covered by the Data Protection Act. It’s a little beyond my knowledge, and try as I might I can’t condense my query into 140 characters, so I thought I’d post my thoughts here on the off chance that anyone reading knows something about this.

The London borough I live in is one of the areas selected to take part in the rehearsal for the 2011 census. As such, we received through the door on the 15th October a census rehearsal form, with instructions to complete and return it either on or soon after the 15th. Between one thing and another we didn’t actually get it done until Monday 19th October, and I posted it back the following day.

Last Friday (23 Oct) my partner happened to be at home during the day, and had a visit from two representatives of the Office for National Statistics, wanting to know why we hadn’t returned the form yet. He explained to them that we had done so at the start of the week, and pointed out that there had been ongoing Royal Mail strikes in the area for the last couple of months. They grudgingly accepted this explanation and left.

My question is this: should they actually have had access to data identifying who had returned their forms so far and who hadn’t? We had actually had a note through the post from them earlier last week (Wednesday 21st, I think): a generic, bulk-mailed reminder saying something along the lines of “If you haven’t yet filled out your census form, there’s still time” and containing instructions on what to do if we had lost the form. This seemed totally reasonable to me, and I didn’t really expect to hear anything else from them. I was taken aback that they were actually (presumably) paying people to go out and knock on individual doors. I don’t really know an awful lot about data protection, and all I could find on the ONS website was this commitment to confidentiality, so I was hoping that someone who knows what they’re talking about could confirm whether or not using the data collected to target individual homes constituted a breach of that confidentiality. Any advice gratefully received – am I worrying over nothing?

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2 comments on “Question on data protection and the 2011 census

  1. I think you are worrying about nothing. It’s how the census works… I worked as an enumerator on it in 2001 and it was a thankless task, knocking on people’s doors. I covered a bit of Tooting and I got about £400: and £800-worth of abuse from people.

    If the point of the exercise is to see how the forms work, or their delivery mechanism, or to get a handle on the accuracy of their data, then it would make sense for them to follow up whether they’d got a form back from that address or not. In 2001 forms were delivered and collected by hand but I understand it’s all going to be postal in 2011, is that right?

    • Yeah, that does make sense. Would still quite like to know who actually has access to how much of the data though – someone emailed me earlier with a helpline number for ONS, so might give them a bell and see what they can tell me. Was mainly curious about it really – it must be a mammoth operation! (and yes, I can imagine that it’s a pretty thankless task for people who actually have to do the door-knocking!)

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