2011 Census – the ONS responds

by | Oct 15, 2010 | civil liberties, Please fuck off., Politics, Strange Thoughts, UK Misery, Well I never. | 3 comments

Late last week, I wrote about the apparent discrepancy on the ONS website regarding the confidentiality of the information you supply when completing your census return. You can read that article here but in summary :

On their Frequently Asked Questions page they have the following (emphasis mine) :

What will happen to my information?

Your answers will be turned into statistics about the community and groups within it. Personal census information is kept confidential for 100 years and is not shared with anyone else, including any other government bodies or departments.

Nothing wrong with that statement I suppose.

Or so I thought until I looked at the Privacy Statement where people tend to hide the interesting items because no one but lawyers and nosey buggers read them (again, emphasis mine) :

Who will see your information?

Your information is used only by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is not shared with any other government departments, but may be made available to a small number of accredited researchers. Access to your information is strictly controlled to ensure confidentiality.

Now, I think you will agree that that is somewhat different from the first statement.

If the latter was under the FAQ section there would be a hell of a lot of questions being asked of the ONS.

On the back of that, Wasp sent of an FOI request to ascertain who the “small number of accredited” researchers are and what do they get to see.

I asked two specific questions :

1, Who are the accredited researchers you refer to in your privacy statement?
2, What personal information is passed to those same researchers?

The ONS response arrived today at the Waspsnest and unfortunately doesn’t directly answer the questions asked.

The main section from their response is as follows (copied verbatim from response including typos/grammer) :

To permit access to personal information held by the ONS for statistical purposes there must be in place a legal gateway and it must adhere to ONS policy.

‘APPROVED RESEARCHER’ (AR) was a new legal gateway that was created by the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007. This was a project specific gateway that only permitted an individual to access data held by ONS for a specific statistical purpose. The AR is required to meet the published criteria for an AR. that (sic) ensured they were a ‘fit’ person to use the data and that they would use the data for a ‘fit’ purpose.

AR application process and criteria LINK (pdf).

Following AR accreditation the Microdata Release Panel (MRP), which consists of a group of ONS senior managers assess the project to consider whether the request meets ONS policy.

In the case of a successful request for Census data, access and analysis of the data is only allowed to take place onsite at ONS Titchfield. Once the analysis is completed the researcher is only permitted to take with them the outputs of their analysis and which (sic) is thoroughly checked to ensure stastical disclosure control standards have been met and no individual can be identified from these outputs.

To me, that reads like a ‘gloss over the issue and hope he will go away’ type of response.

Taking a couple of points they do make or at least clarify slightly :

Firstly, the “small number of accredited researchers” mentioned in the privacy statement is unspecified in the response and they appear to be saying that the numbers are open ended as long as an application is approved.

Perhaps I should have specifically asked “How many …” as well in my original email but then I am new at these things and should have expected a minimalist approach in their answer (especially as it comes from their Legal Services Branch).

Secondly, my reading of the answer suggests that researchers may indeed be able to view individual returns data whilst at the ONS Titchfield office with the only safeguard being that the results they take away with them cannot identify an individual. This seems to be at odds with the privacy statement – “Access to your information is strictly controlled to ensure confidentiality.” which suggests that personal details are not available to view.

Having looked at the AR application form (link in response text above), it certainly appears that these researchers can and do actually see your personal information whilst at the ONS site (selected snippets, emphasis mine) :

You first need to contact ONS to explain the purpose of your statistical research and your
wish to access its personal information.

A researcher is deemed ‘Fit and Proper’ when….
The researcher is able to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the National Statistician, that
1. Has the appropriate knowledge and experience necessary for handling potentially
disclosive personal information
2. Has provided satisfactory evidence supporting their application that illustrates
their professionalism and technical competence to carry out the research
3. Demonstrates a commitment to protecting and maintaining the confidentiality of
the data
during the creation of outputs and publications that arise during the

I declare that the personal information provided to me shall be kept secure and confidential
according to the terms of any agreements with the Office for National Statistics.
I understand that :
Personal information means information which relates to and identifies a particular person (including a body corporate). Information identifies a particular person if the identity of that person is specified in the information; can be deduced from the information itself; or can be deduced from the information taken with any other published information;

I don’t think that leaves much room for doubt – they do seem to get access to the personal data on census returns even though we are assured in the FAQ that “Personal census information is kept confidential for 100 years and is not shared with anyone else, including any other government bodies or departments.”

Finally, lets have a look at the relevant parts of the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007 (emphasis mine) :

Confidentiality of personal information

(1)Subject to this section, personal information held by the Board in relation to the exercise of any of its functions must not be disclosed by—

(a)any member or employee of the Board,

(b)a member of any committee of the Board, or

(c)any other person who has received it directly or indirectly from the Board.

(4)Subsection (1) does not apply to a disclosure which—

(a)is required or permitted by any enactment,

(b)is required by a Community obligation,

(c)is necessary for the purpose of enabling or assisting the Board to exercise any of its functions,

(d)has already lawfully been made available to the public,

(e)is made in pursuance of an order of a court,

(f)is made for the purposes of a criminal investigation or criminal proceedings (whether or not in the United Kingdom),

(g)is made, in the interests of national security, to an Intelligence Service,

(h)is made with the consent of the person to whom it relates, or

(i)is made to an approved researcher.

(5)For the purposes of subsection (4)(i), “approved researcher” means an individual to whom the Board has granted access, for the purposes of statistical research, to personal information held by it.

(6)The Board is from time to time to publish criteria by reference to which it will determine whether to grant access as specified in subsection (5).

(7)Those criteria must require the Board to consider—

(a)whether the individual is a fit and proper person, and

(b)the purpose for which access is requested.

Once again, approved researchers and personal information both mentioned there – I really do not think they can justify the FAQ answer on confidentiality based on all that but if they admitted it then no one would fill it in would they!

Anyway, I have sent a follow up to my FOI request to specifically ask how many current approved researchers they have and to ask for clarity on whether or not these people actually see personal details on census returns while they are doing their research at ONS Titchfield.

To be continued …


  1. zerodtkjoe

    Thanks for the info

  2. Wasp

    Thank you for taking the time to add clarification on the matter of anonymity Helen. My follow up query should be with you shortly.

  3. Helen Bray

    Apologies for not being clear in ONS’s response to your FOI request – the team did not realise the context in which you were asking. ONS will of course give a clear response to the additional information you have requested once we receive your request, but we wanted to offer an additional explanation in the meantime.

    The key point about the individual records that are made available to approved researchers in a strictly controlled environment is that names and addresses are removed beforehand, and the records are therefore anonymous.

    We are grateful to you for pointing out that our privacy statement does not currently make it clear that the information provided to approved researchers for statistical analysis is anonymous. We will amend this shortly to make it clear that the information available in the controlled research environment does not contain names and addresses.

    Helen Bray
    Head of Communications
    2011 Census
    Office for National Statistics