Statistics Authority takes on the Tories

By staff

The Statistics Authority has criticised the Conservatives for saying its next census will intrude in people’s private lives.

The Tories said questions in the upcoming 2011 census about the number of bedrooms in a house and the birth dates of overnight guests amounted to a snooping attempt on people’s privacy.

It also showed that ministers had “no respect for privacy”, the Tories argued.

But the independent statistics watchdog has written a letter to the Conservatives insisting ministers have no input into the questions, which are formulated by officials after extensive consultation.

“It is quite wrong to give the impression that they are initiatives of government ministers,” the watchdog’s chairman Sir Michael Scholar wrote in a letter to Tory spokesman Nick Hurd.

Sir Michael went on to describe the Tory arguments as “ill-founded”.

It is the first row between the newly-independent watchdog and the opposition since it became separate from government. It has already found itself engaged in a bitter war of words with the government over knife crime statistics last December.

The public must answer questions in the census, which will be conducted in 2011, or face a fine. This time, respondents must outline the number of bedrooms in their home and the names, sex and birth dates of overnight guests.

Some commentators suggest the extra questions will actually make the census less accurate, because the extent of the questions may prompt some people to lie.

But Sir Michael insisted the question would allow public bodies to analyse overcrowding and provide it with a more accurate picture of the population.

“We need the census to know as best we can the size and distribution of the population, to provide a basis for the allocation of very large sums of public money to local government, the NHS and elsewhere,” he said.