The senseless census that could define Government policy
OVER the past few weeks, every home in the country received one and, by now, every home should have sent it back. We are, of course, talking about the 2011 census form, more officially called the “Household Questionnaire.” Just for the record, we have returned ours.
Leaving aside the important issues of invasion of privacy and erosion of civil liberty, we sat down one evening to fill in the answers as honestly and accurately as possible. If the information gathered is to form the basis of future national decisions, then it is essential to get the answers spot on. We were happy to see that the declaration of one’s religion has become voluntary, but the wording of some questions meant that we really did not know how to respond. One question in particular, no. 14 to be precise, asked how many hours per week did we “look after or give help or support to family members, friends, neighbours or other” because of age or disability.
Our answer was that the number of hours varies. Sometimes it’s been virtually a full time “24-7” effort. At other times, we have just done a quick errand. The point is that the requirements change and the number of hours varies enormously but there were only three options on the form: 1-19 hours, 0-49 hours or 50-plus hours. No option for what must surely be the most common circumstances for most households: widely variable hours.
So we decided to phone the Helpline. First of all, we were talked through an interminable range of questions that required deep concentration and frequent button pressing. We made a mistake half way through and had to go back to the beginning, which made the whole tortuous experience seem even longer.
Eventually, we spoke to a very pleasant “helper” and explained our dilemma. She didn’t know what we should do and consulted her Team Leader. The Team Leader instructed us to choose the middle option (20-49 hours). We thought this was worryingly inaccurate. Fearing that the Government’s next social policy may be based on this reply (and if not, then why is it included in the census at all), we explained that this could not possibly be the right answer because it was simply wrong. We weren’t convinced that our “helper” understood our concern but detecting her French accent, continued the conversation in French.
In her mother tongue, she grasped our dilemma and again reverted to her Team Leader. Same answer came back: choose option 2 and we have dutifully done so. Even more bizarrely was the question about our general health. A doctor could pass a meaningful, professional opinion but for most of us, the answer tells more about our character than our health. One of our parents, an 88-year-old diabetic with stomach ailments and recovering from a severe fall in the icy weather, declared his health “very good” because he thought this quite true for his age. We, much younger, much fitter, rated our health only “fair” because we want to feel healthier. Such personal judgments don’t sit comfortably in a factual national survey but we chose not to take this up with the Helpline. In any case, our French doesn’t stretch that far.
Fortunately, we don’t live in one of those modern apartments where, quite commonly, the kitchen is only separated from the living room by an archway or a counter unit. If we did, we would have had to phone our French friend to ask if this layout constitutes one or two rooms.
We couldn’t even agree on this one ourselves and dread to think what the Team Leader would have suggested. Possibly three rooms.
As it happens, our kitchen is separated from the living area by a glass screen in an oak frame but because it is only a partial partition and has no door, we had no problem counting it as just one room.
The Team Leader may have different ideas.
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