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Government defends need for census

Privacy groups say survey is 'intrusive'

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The census director at the Office of National Statistics has said that the UK's national census remains incredibly important amid criticism from privacy groups about its effectiveness.

Glen Watson said that the survey collects data that will provide "a bedrock of information for the next 10 years".

He was responding to questions on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about whether there was still a need for the population survey, which is carried out every 10 years. The collection of such information in England and Wales allows local councils, central government and businesses to plan services that families and communities need.

The census has been criticised over a lack of participation from the public and over forms containing inaccurate information being processed. Watson conceded that there have been problems in the past.

"Well, every census is a little difficult. I mean, the 2001 census in most respects was a success, and has been used ever since to allocate funding out to local areas and has been used to plan services. So there were some particular problems, but that's why we've improved the arrangements for 2011," he said.

"We're producing a new address register to underpin this and we're providing an online internet completion option for the first time. We're providing a questionnaire tracking system, which means we'll know on a day by day basis who has and who hasn't returned their questionnaires, and there's a lot of improvements built in."

Daniel Hamilton, campaign director at Big Brother Watch and fellow guest on the show, argued that the census was a duplication of information already held by the government.

"Having a self-completion form is an incredibly ineffective and an intrusive way of getting the information that the government already has," he said.

He added that the government should collate data that it holds already in "a much more sensible way".

Privacy campaigners NO2ID has also hit out at the survey, describing it as "pointless, out-of-date and wasteful".

"If David Cameron and Nick Clegg want to show that they mean their fine words about rolling back the database state, then they will reverse the stealthy changes that have been made to census confidentiality," said Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID.

"The government should commit itself to keep census information fully confidential, and to destroy all the raw data when it has been statistically tabulated, so that it cannot be used for other purposes."

Last year Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said that there were cheaper and quicker ways of collecting population information and other statistics. He suggested that it could be done more regularly and accurately using various databases.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. To register, email james.longhurst@guardian.co.uk at Guardian Government Computing.

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