‘UK census data is protected’ …?

A letter in The Independent (scroll down) purports to correct the record on the safety of census information:


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.

If disclosure is sought, we will always refuse to allow it, and will contest the case to the maximum extent possible under the law, using each stage of appeal in the courts if necessary, to ensure statistical confidentiality. …

Glen Watson, Census Director, 2011 Census, Titchfield, Hampshire

This is, I think, misleading. I have written a response:

Sir,

The Director of the Census (UK census data is protected, letters 25th February) offers reassurances based on promises about what the ONS will do. But these do appear to be at odds with the law, which says, quite generally, that personal information – which includes raw census data – held by the Board of the ONS is confidential and may not be disclosed *unless* the disclosure:
“(a)is required or permitted by any enactment,
(b)is required by a Community obligation, [i.e. any EU law or rule]
(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 United Kingdom),
(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.”
[Statistics and Registration Services Act, s39 (4)]

This seems to be a comprehensive exemption for anything that might be useful to any part of the state or to the board itself at some time in the future. It is stretching our credibility to suggest that the Statistics Board would resist any and all officially required disclosure.

There is a perfectly simple way to deal with the problem. The government can issue a regulation providing that the exceptions shall not apply to census information, and that once the statistical abstracts that are its purpose have been made, the census data should be destroyed. There is plenty of time before the last Sunday in March for the government to live up to its rhetoric about “rolling back the database state”.

Yours faithfully

Guy Herbert, General Secretary NO2ID