The final decision on who will run the 2011 Census has not yet been made by the Office of National Statistics. There is still time to prevent the contract being won by arms company Lockheed Martin.
Thanks to the concerns raised by supporters of our campaign, the ONS has delayed its decision while it takes advice on data security and the Patriot Act.
The Treasury Committee of MPs has also listened to our concerns and has asked for clear legal advice to be published by the government. Their report of 14 May 2008 says:
"We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 Census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the Government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this Report."
A full census of the UK population takes place every 10 years. On the day of the Census, every household is legally obliged to record various details of who is living in their house and return this either by post or via agents who collect the forms door-to-door.
The information is used for government planning of public services and is crucial in allocating funding from central government to local authorities. It is also used to benchmark data for other surveys by the Office of National Statistics, and to provide information for business and academics.
Although the aggregate data is used extensively, the individual responses are confidential and are only released into the public domain after 100 years.
The next census will take place in 2011.
In charge of the census are the government statistical offices for England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The censuses are officially separate in each country, with slightly different questions asked but, in practice, all three censuses use a common process.
The collection and storage of the data is contracted out to private companies. Selection of the contractor for the 2011 census began in 2005, with 80 potential companies, and this was whittled down to four finalists for detailed evaluation during 2006.
Only two contractors remain under consideration: German telecommunications company T-Systems and American arms company Lockheed Martin. Both companies were involved in the 2007 Census Test for England and Wales in May.
They each made their final bid for the contract in August 2007, and the selection was scheduled to take place in January 2008.
World trade rules mean that the ethics of a company’s business are not allowed to be used as criteria in the selection of a public contractor.
In fact the only criteria being used by the ONS are around the company’s ability to deliver the work, the value for money they offer, their track record and experience.
However, we believe that if we can demonstrate a significant effect on public confidence in their data being kept safe, it would be permissible for the ONS to reject Lockheed Martin at this stage and find an alternative contractor.
Lockheed Martin were in fact involved in the 2001 Census. But a lot has changed since then, not least the US PATRIOT Act, which compels personal data held by any company on systems in the US to be made available to government intelligence, and requires this to be done without informing the people involved.
Office of National Statistics Census website
US PATRIOT Act and data security