Our Right for the Government Not to Know

The previous post made me ponder how the heavy hand of history has at times weighed down even on me. During the 2001 UK Census, I was moved to commit an act of micro civil disobedience by refusing to complete all of the Census questionnaire. It was prompted by my knowledge of how the high quality of the Dutch population records together with the slavish civil obedience by the vast majority of the Dutch population, facilitated the Nazi’s extermination of 75% of the Jewish population of the Netherlands during World War II. A copy of the letter I wrote to the Census District Manager follows. Census District Manager 2485 16 June 2001 Freepost London E1 1AA Sir or Madam,


Enclosed with this letter is the Census 2001 form for my household. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that I respectfully decline to answer questions 7, 8, 10, 11 and 13 for myself and for my two minor children. I recognize that, while question 10 “What is your religion” is voluntary, questions7, 8, 11 and 13 are compulsory.

Question 7 (“What is your country of birth?”), Question 8 (“What is your ethnic group?”), Question 11 (“Over the last twelve months would you say your health has on the whole been:….”, and Question 13 (“Do you have any long-term illness, health problem or disability which limits your daily activities or the work you can do?”) represent an unacceptable invasion of my privacy. As the information is not provided anonymously (the name of each household member must be provided), any present or future government or any other party with access to these data will have at its disposal all the information required for the effective design and implementation of policies that discriminate on the basis of country of origin, ethnicity or health status and ability to work.

Obviously, such grim scenarios will not happen under the current government or any likely immediate successor. However, within living memory on the European continent, this kind of information would have been sought and exploited with alacrity by those seeking to exterminate the jews, the gypsies and the mentally infirm. The argument that ‘it couldn’t happen here’ fails to convince, even if the expulsion of the jews from England, in AD 1290, was quite a while ago. In the UK, the references to Britain as a “foreign land” during the run-up to the recent General Election should be sufficient to convince one not to take unnecessary risks by enhancing the visibility and vulnerability of the individual vis-à-vis to the State.

I have read your Confidentiality statement “The information you provide is protected by law and treated in strict confidence. The information is only used for statistical purposes, and anyone using or disclosing Census information improperly will be liable to prosecution. Census forms will be held securely. Under the current terms of the Public Records Act 1958m the data will be treated as confidential for a period of 100 years.” I do not doubt the sincerity of this statement, but it is not convincing. As long as the information exists, it can be misused.

As a social scientist, former policy maker and present policy advisor and analyst, I am aware of the importance of good data for the effective design of policies and programmes that improve the quality of life. Fortunately, such useful information can be obtained without recourse to an intrusive Census. Scientifically designed sampling methods can be used to collect the information required for the design and implementation of effective social and economic policies without the threat to civil liberties and human rights inherent in the Census.

I regret having to engage in this small act of civil disobedience, but I cannot, in conscience, act any other way.

Yours sincerely,

Willem H. Buiter

I never received a reply to my letter from the Census District Manager or anyone else.

Labels: ,

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website