The coalition Government is determined to enact the Conservative’s plans to wipe-out the Government deficit within its term of office.
According to Chancellor George Osbourne, this will entail 25% budget cuts across the Government, with some departments, potentially, facing cuts as great as 40%, with only a handful of favoured departments, such as health and international development, being spared. Even in these chosen few, funding will not keep up with the increasing demands made of them. Such brutal cuts in spending at a time when the country is barely out of recession, unemployment is rising and Government spending is the main thing keeping the economy moving is widely regarded as reckless in the extreme. Arguably, large amounts of debt, both government and private, are both an inevitable product of the financial system and essential to its continued functioning. Despite this the Conservatives, in particular, see reducing Government debt as a matter of the greatest urgency and have announced budget-balancing measures including regressive changes to the tax and benefits system, redundancies and new impositions on those claiming disability benefits that can only pay for themselves by denying access to those with genuine claims. With so much damage being done, particularly to those who are already the worst off in society, it’s strange that the announcement that has enraged me the most is Francis Maude’s plan to scrap the national census.
Let’s be clear, with the next census already set to take place in 2011 and at least two elections before the 2021 census, it’s incredibly unlikely that this will happen. However, this announcement seems to epitomise the stupidity of the recent bout of Government cost-cutting. Firstly the amount of money saved will be miniscule compared to the size of the deficit, and in ten years time, will be entirely irrelevant to the Government’s present budgetry woes. Even if the time delay didn’t render it moot, this proposal is perhaps the perfect illustration of the foolishness of the Government’s wider economic strategy. The U.S. found that the workforce required to execute their census had a measurable effect on their employment statistics. Truly, this was the vindication of Keynsian economics in microcosm!
Secondly, there is the complete ignorance it demonstrates of the subject in hand. Maude appears to believe that the functions of the census can be replaced by cobbling together data from other public and private databases, such as credit ratings agencies. Leaving aside the reduced security, and greater threat to privacy from the informal mining of these databases, the data collected in this way will be, by its nature, less comprehensive than the census – by its very definition a survey of an entire population. The Government will never be able to get an accurate picture of the entire population from existing databases, which, crucially, will be more likely to overlook people with fewer ties to the formal economy, and will lose its ability to tailor its questions to the information it really wants to know.
Lastly, and most gallingly to me, it displays a complete lack of respect for the historic institutions of government. England has had a regular national census every ten years, since 1801, with only one suspension, in 1941, due to the Second World War. I’ve looked into my own family history and have had experience of searching census data going back to 1841, so I know how valuable it is to anyone studying the social history of this country. The Government would throw away this valuable legacy of information to future generations as well as one of its own most comprehensive sources of data for strategic planning – all for very minor and temporary financial gain. This just showcases, the utter, utter short-termism of the Conservatives’ ideology in all its, horrible, glory.
This is not the first time the Conservatives have played politics with the national census. Last year they attempted to score party-political points with a puerile interpretation of some new questions to be added to the 2011 census. Conservative MP, Nick Hurd, described those responsible as “bedroom snoopers” and claimed it that it was “yet another sign of how the Labour Government has no respect [for] the privacy of law-abiding citizens.” And what were the questions that drew such ire? The 2011 census was to include a question asking the number of bedrooms in each person’s house – information anyone would happily hand out to their estate agents to be published, and is potentially crucial to understand where there may be areas of housing need. Also, people returning their census forms are to be instructed to include the details of any overnight guests (something I had thought that they always had been, previously) so that people do not get overlooked in official population counts by being away from home when the census it taking. Naturally, the Rt. Hon. Hurd took the most prurient interpretation possible! In doing so he even drew criticism from the head of the UK Statistics Authority – himself a former Private Secretary under a Conservative Government – who, rightly, pointed out that the planning and execution of the census is completely separate from the Government of the day.
This raises an interesting question. Perhaps the Conservatives aren’t as stupid as they sometimes appear. Perhaps this all comes back to the same old suspicion of any government, that arises from the privilege of having no need of its services, and it being the only source of restriction on your activities and opportunities. Hence, what is not so much a bonfire of government, but outright arson. Either way do we really want to be governed by those who, like Esau, would sell their birthrights, and ours, for the thin soup of short-term personal or political gain?