The sense­less cen­sus that could de­fine Gov­ern­ment pol­icy

Yorkshire Post - Property - - PROPERTY - Robin and Pa­tri­cia Sil­ver

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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