Critics say it is intrusive, old-fashioned and expensive. Proponents maintain it is vital for planning our future and helping tomorrow take shape. Laura Murphy takes a look at these issues and more surrounding the 2011 Census.
This Sunday is Census Day, and by then, many of us will have already - myself included - settled down with a cup of tea and filled in the weighty document packed with nearly 60 (59 to be precise) questions about nearly every aspect of our life.
In the past, the opportunity to offer a bit of false information about your job and how you get to it in the morning, or some imaginitive details about your other half’s nationality, proved too good to pass up for some - even back in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The 1851 Census carried out in Great Britain recorded one woman who described herself as a “mangle worker”, and the role of her husband as that of “turning my mangle”.
And in 1911, one man named “Peter Tabby” as an occupant of his house, listing said companion’s nationality as “Persian” and his occupation as “mouser”.
The 2001 Census famously recorded 390,000 Britons who described themselves as “Jedi knights” when asked to offer information about their religious belief.
But most of us - hopefully - won’t be as inventive when it comes to ticking the boxes, and will willingly play our part in contributing to what its proponents claim is essentially a snapshot of Ulster life.
Each of the province’s 700,000 odd homes, which have been grouped into 1,670 districts, must be included and counted in this mammoth gathering of information about our lives, from our jobs to our homes to our health.
In preparation for the Census operation, just under 2,000 temporary staff have been recruited, and a census enumerator is responsible for each district.
The thought of organising such an undertaking alone is quite overwhelming.
At the helm of such an operation is Dr Norman Caven, Northern Ireland’s registrar general, who has “statutory responsibility for the planning, operation and reporting of the Census.”
He says: “A great degree of planning goes into it - no sooner is one census finished that we are starting to plan for the next one.
“For instance, in the run up to 2011, we started with a consultation exercise in 2004 about the kind of questions that people might like to see.
“On receipt of the comments from that consultation we started to develop questions, and those would have been tested in 2007.”
Dr Caven explains that a sample of potential questions were distributed to a number of households and the residents were asked their opinions on them, including whether they thought they were “too intrusive” etc.
“Based on that information we would have dropped some questions and kept others in,” he says, revealing that questions on income had to be excluded from this year’s Census because it caused difficulties with respondents in the ‘test run’.
The Assembly must also give permission for the Census to actually take place, and a Census Order passed.
Adds Dr Caven: “Then there was a dress rehearsal which took place in 2009 just to make sure the processes we were going to use would work - again we used a sample of households in different parts of Northern Ireland.”
I ask him why he thinks there remain some people who oppose the Cenus for various reasons; is it too intrusive? Too time consuming?
“I think there is always someone who doesn’t like a question and would have liked it excluded, and there is always someone who would have liked a question in - I suppose you have to try to walk a middle path in this and that’s why we do this testing.
“The feedback that we got in the 2007 testing indicated the questions we are now asking were not ones that caused a major degree of concern to the individuals who were asked to participate in that exercise.”
He says that filling in the Census form should take an average of 40 minutes for each household.
And he stresses: “This information is going to be extremely important - it’s going to be used for a very wide range of purposes. The population figures and the actual number of people we record will determine a significant part of the level of additional monies that are made available to Northern Ireland by the UK central government. And it’s not just this year, it’s over the next decade.
“So I think in some ways, while it takes 40 minutes, it’s not a big ask for people given the value of it and how it will affect their livelihood, not just as an individual, but as a family, a neighbourhood, a community and for Northern Ireland as a whole.
“The last thing we want to do is fine anyone - what we want is for people to be convinced of the importance of this exercise and to understand that it affects their wellbeing whether they actually complete it or not.
“At the end of the day it is compulsory, and you can be fined up to £1,000 if you refuse to do so.”
The Census forms were sent out to homes all over Northern Ireland last week, and with Census Day being this Sunday, we have 10 days to a fortnight to get them filled in - we can now do so online for the first time - and returned.
If they are not returned by this stage, enumerators will “visit those households that have not yet returned their form and encourage them to do so,” says Dr Caven.
“If there is a need for additional help with that, it will be provided.”
Once all the forms have been returned, the major work begins in “taking an image of the form and coding the information on it,” says Dr Caven.
“We will also do a series of checks on the information to ensure there are no logical inconsistencies and edit the data as necessary to remove these. Then you start to tabulate (the information) and create the output.”
He adds: “It’s quite a long and involved process once the forms come back in, to actually move from the information about the individual to the statistical table summaries which are of use in the policy process.
“We produce the first results next summer - population numbers, and an age and sex break-down
“All the other information will follow about six months after that.”
What kinds of changes can we expect to see in the population and demographics of Northern Ireland this year compared to the last Census?
“You will probably see a tendency towards smaller household sizes in 2011 - we think there are probably about 15 per cent more households than there were in 2001,” says the Dr Caven.
He says that some new questions have been included in this Census, such as one about people’s primary language, one about the nature of any long term health conditions they suffer, and also one about whether they do voluntary work.
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