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Census question questions

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Mark Easton | 17:14 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Nick Hurd has won the distinction of being the first Conservative MP to get a rollicking from the official statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority.

Undated handout photo of a page of the 1881 census recordsYou may have read Mr Hurd's claims at the weekend that the 2011 census provided evidence that Labour wanted to snoop on people's sleeping arrangements. For the first time, people may be asked to provide details of the number of bedrooms they have as well as the names, sex and birth dates of any overnight guests in their homes.

His statement to the Press Association read thus:

"An increasingly invasive and intrusive Census will erode public support, cost more and result in a less accurate survey. Just because the Government has the legal powers to ask these questions does not give the state the licence to ask anything they want. These bedroom snoopers are yet another sign of how the Labour Government has no respect [for] the privacy of law-abiding citizens."

Now the head of the UKSA, Sir Michael Scholar, has written to Mr Hurd [36Kb PDF]:

I was concerned to read the comments attributed to you in the press about the Census proposals, particularly the ill-founded suggestion that they are a licence to snoop into people's private lives

The letter goes on to explain that the census questions "have been designed and tested by the Office for National Statistics after extensive consultation, and approved for submission to Parliament by the Board of the UK Statistics Authority."

"It is quite wrong to give the impression that they are initiatives of government Ministers," Sir Michael points out.

I have just spoken to Mr Hurd, who had not seen the letter which was only recently delivered by e-mail. I read its contents to him whereupon the Conservative Shadow Minister for Charities, Social Enterprises and Volunteering told me: "I stand by my remarks and I am not really interested in saying anything more."

I pressed him as to why he had used the phrase "bedroom snoopers" and attributed the questions to the "Labour Government" when the census information is, as Sir Michael Scholar reminds him, "wholly confidential" and not a party political matter. "I have said what I want to say," Mr Hurd replied, ending the conversation.

It is possible that the inclusion of bedrooms and sleeping arrangements in the proposed Census Questions suggested an opportunity to cast the other side as central control freaks.

But "[t]he question about the number of bedrooms is to help local councils establish whether and where accommodation in their areas is overcrowded," in the words of Sir Michael.

"The question about overnight visitors is needed to achieve more accurate estimates of the whole population, by ensuring that people away from home are included in the Census."

I would have thought this is just the kind of key information that Mr Hurd would welcome, given his interest in sustainable communities. His website explains how it was he who initiated the Sustainable Communities Act to "give local people much greater power over the way in which taxpayers' money is spent in their community".

The distribution of funds is, of course, linked to census population data.

Mr Hurd told me he didn't know who Sir Michael Scholar was. In fact, Sir Michael was former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Private Secretary at the time when Mr Hurd's father - Douglas (now Lord) Hurd - was Home Secretary.

He is now on the case of any politician - from whatever background - who he believes undermines confidence in official statistics.

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