30 Nov 2013

A dog’s life: why people want pets included on the census

As the UK considers a major reform of our 200-year-old census, moving it from once a decade to once a year, we look at other ways in which the great British public want the census changed.

The census is how we know who’s who in Britain and what they are doing. It is how the government counts the facts that matter most about the country. And that is why some people want their dogs on it.

“We’re already getting letters saying why can’t we have a question about dogs, and why not horses? And why aren’t tattoos in there?” says Alistair Calder, head of stakeholder engagement at the Office for National Statistics.

His colleague Peter Stokes, output policy and design manager for the 2011 census, dealt with the consultation on what questions to ask before the most recent census in 2011.

“We got requests for questions about ‘do you own pets?’ and ‘could you include horses as a method of transport to work?’. And other ones that could be classed as lifestyle questions – ‘how much do you smoke, how much do you drink?”

And some are even more off-beat. “‘What football team do you support?’ We always get one or two that come in like that,” Mr Stokes said.

The ONS will open a consultation on the content of the 2021 census in a couple of years as it gears up for the next edition. But the office gets a steady trickle of such requests all the way through the life cycle of the census. And pet-ownership is one of the most commonly requested questions.

What the nation wants

Not having a question about dogs on the last census did not stop people entering information on them anyway, according to a survey of 2,000 pet owners just after the 2011 census. 11 per cent of pet owners claimed they had listed their dog on the census as their son.

The government ePetitions site and a browse of the ONS Facebook page reveal a multitude more things people want to be recorded – or not recorded – on the census. How many two- to three-year-olds in the UK have had flu? How many people in the UK have had tablet computers?

By allowing a “race” category, governments are greeing that people can be judged and categorised according to skin colour.

One confused Facebooker asked the ONS what the percentage of blood donors per head of population was in New Zealand compared to Australia.

One petition on the government ePetitions site wanted one question – ethnicity – taken off, partly because there were now so many categories.

Race does not exist. By allowing a “race” category on the census, governments are agreeing that people, whatever their current situation and culture and beliefs, can be judged and categorised according to their skin colour.

As a 2002 academic paper on census definitions of ethinicity puts it: “The census does much more than simply reflect social reality; rather it plays a key role in the construction of that reality,” (from Census and Identity, by David I. Kertzer and Dominique Arel, published by Cambridge University Press)

What makes the cut

The census asks about age, occupation, employment status and details about the kind of households people live in. The major stakeholders who advise on the questions are government bodies, who use the data to plan services like public transport or school places.

A copy of the 2011 census and all its questions can be found here [PDF].

Mr Stokes and the ONS sift through all the questions in the same way:

“Most of the requests we get are genuine topics which would be interesting to people, but perhaps only to a small group of people: things like wheelchair use or what sort of childcare people use. We get asked about renewable energy as well, how many people have solar panels on their roofs.”

And there is a set of criteria for what makes the cut.

“All the questions are evaluated in the same way. We ask: what would you use this data for? Could you get this data somewhere else?

“And importantly, we can only ask questions on the census that people are happy to answer – and that’s things that aren’t controversial. Which is why we never ask questions on income or sexual identity.”

Question of income

Controversial questions can lead to inaccurate information says Mr Stokes and, in fact, can lead to less information overall, which is why people are not asked what they earn.

“We tested an income question in 2007 and 1997,” he says. “When we did the census test we split it in half: half had a questionnaire with an income question and the other half had one without.

“There was a significantly higher response rate from those without. Even people who did send back their census, many hadn’t answered the income question – and because it was seen as particularly intrusive, it made it less likely that people would fill in the whole thing.

Sexual identity we left off because there would be a section that wouldn’t want to answer it. Peter Stokes, 2011 census output policy manager

“So however useful that data would be, we couldn’t collect it because it would be at the expense of all the other really important data we need to get,” Mr Stokes explained.

For similar reasons, the census does not ask how much people smoke or drink – another popular request. And the question of how many LBGT people there are in the UK is left off as well.

“Sexual identity we left off because, however useful it would be and however happy a majority of the British public would be to answer it, there would be a section that wouldn’t want to answer it.

“And you could imagine a situation where people wouldn’t necessarily want to share their sexuality with other people in the household. Which would lead to people not filling in the questionnaire.”

An inaccurate or unduly distorted statistic is worse than no statistic, in the census setters’ reckoning.

All will be reconsidered before the next census, when a private online census may make it easier to ask certain questions. And Mr Stokes expects to get many more requests about internet use and social media in the consultation for the 2021 census, or whatever replaces it.

Recent additions to the census include a religion question, introduced in 2001, and a language spoken question, added in 2011.

‘Peter Tabby’

The census has already seen much change since the first one was put out in 1801. People were asked for their names and occupation from the beginning – there were 541 fork makers in Britain in 1841. But many other details – women’s fertility, income – have come and gone.

But some things have stayed the same: people have been trying to sneak animals onto the census since at least the 1900s when one gentlemen recorded his cat.

A man described an occupant of his house as “Peter Tabby” and lists his occupation as “mouser”. His nationality was “Persian”, according to ONS records. The enumerator has crossed out the entry with red ink and noted sternly: “This is a cat.”