Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Insensible Census Part I: The Letters (Polemic) by Giles W. Watson

Few people are aware that the British government paid the armaments manufacturers, surveillance experts and Guantanamo Bay interrogators Lockheed Martin large sums of money to administer the 2011 Census. The fact was reported in a few of our national newspapers, albeit not on the front page, and it put me - and thousands of others like me - in an impossible position. The Office of National Statistics threatens those who do not comply with a criminal record and a £1000 fine, and sends enforcement officers to knock on doors of people who withhold their census forms. These visits become increasingly intimidating, and boycotters have complained that family members have been harrassed.

As a school teacher, I felt in a particularly vulnerable position. I was unwilling to get myself a criminal record, but equally unwilling to cooperate with Lockheed Martin in any way. My correspondence with an ONS legal advisor is included with this preface. His final email is of particular interest, since he admits that he has “some sympathy” with my position, and also that he has no idea what weight was given to moral considerations in making the decision to award the work to Lockheed Martin. The email is, however, firm in its reiteration that I would be fined and given a criminal record if I refused to comply.

I finally arrived at a compromise solution. Since I have no particular problem with the idea of a census in itself, I filled in my form. I then covered every available space with post-it notes, and decorated them with pen and chalk-pastel drawings in protest against Lockheed Martin’s involvement. I also wrote the words “stop selling arms” in the boxes reserved for recording one’s religion. The idea was to turn the census into something approaching a work of art – one which would have to be destroyed by the administrative staff collating the census.

Since sending in my form, I have heard nothing from the Office of National Statistics. Other people, who refused to send in their forms at all, have been subjected to repeated visits from enforcement officers, many of whom object to being filmed. Video evidence shows that most of the enforcement officers are either ignorant or ill-informed about the involvement of Lockheed Martin. In some cases, enforcement officers have lied, telling householders that Lockheed Martin is not involved at all.

The arrival of my own census form coincided with a visit by our current prime-minister, David Cameron, to a Middle East arms fair. This was more than ironic: it is symptomatic of the determination of our current Conservative government – and of the “Labour” government that preceded it, to militarise our society, and to implicate ordinary citizens in the selling of armaments. In this context, conscience demanded vociferous protest, and it can only be said that the prognosis for the future is ominous indeed.


Editor's Note: What follows are the letter exchanges between Giles and ONS.

First letter - 13 March 2011:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I cannot in good conscience participate in the Census as required by law, as I understand that £150,000,000 is to be paid to the armaments manufacturer Lockheed Martin for its administration. I am unwilling to make even the most tacit contribution to the remuneration of an organisation which I regard as having colluded in the murder of innocent civilians through the manufacture of cluster bombs and other weapons designed to kill.

I am also of the conviction that a government census should be conducted by government employees, and not licensed out to private enterprise, thereby throwing its impartiality and integrity into question. As a school teacher and a law-abiding citizen, I have much to lose through this disobedience, and I have no desire whatsoever to incur a fine or a criminal record. However, in a political climate in which prominent cabinet ministers have no qualms about hawking armaments in the Middle East, even in the context of mass repression of democratic protest in Egypt and Libya, I have no option but to boycott the census in conscientious objection to the current national tendency to do obeisance to the forces of militarism. That such perverted standards should even govern the administration of a national statistical survey is an occasion for the gravest concern.

Given that the ONS threaten me with the stigma of criminality for taking the only option that is morally open to me, I reserve the right to publish this letter, and any responses to it, in whatever way I see fit.

Yours truly,

Dr. Giles Watson


Their standard-letter response can be seen here:


I replied as follows, around 2nd April:

Dear Mr. McKeown,

Thank you for your letter dated 13 March 2011. I wish I could say that I am “reassured” by the information you have provided, but unfortunately, I still find that I am placed in an impossible position: by sending in my census form, I accept that it is right that the citizens of this country should support an armaments manufacturer; by refusing to send it in, I risk acquiring a criminal record. I am amazed that those who made the decision to employ Lockheed Martin for this purpose could not predict that it would throw a lot of responsible citizens into an insoluble moral dilemma.

There can be no possible excuses for accepting Lockheed Martin's involvement in administering the census. This company makes a range of lethal weapons, including cluster bombs, which by their very nature are designed with a foreknowledge that their use must cause civilian casualties. Lockheed Martin sell these monstrous inventions to a range of regimes, some of which have dubious democratic credentials, at best. It is a particularly unfortunate coincidence that my copy of the census form arrived in the same week that it was reported that our new prime-minister was off hawking weapons at an armaments fair in the Middle East, suggesting that the employment of Lockheed Martin was not merely a mistake of the previous administration, but evidence that the canker of military laissez-faire has eaten deeply into our society.

Unfortunately, your reply is wholly unsatisfactory. It reassures me that Lockheed Martin will not have access to my personal data. It is not in fact my personal data which concerns me: it is my personal honour and moral dignity. I will not sit down and complacently fill in a form when my elected "representatives" have paid £150 000 000 to a company to administer it, given that I consider this company to be guilty of mass-murder. I am told that "any organisation with the correct technical capability, financial stability and experience has the opportunity to compete openly for Government business throughout the European Union without discrimination." Lockheed Martin has practised its technical capability by managing the logistics of distributing missiles around the world. It has financial stability because it makes money by dealing death. It has experience because people like me do not shout out our disgust and indignation loudly enough to bring it down. It is reassurring to know that even international pariahs are not subject to discrimination, but if the government had not abdicated its responsibility to employ people to administer the census, there would have been no need to offer a contract to the private sector in the first place. I am told also that "Lockheed Martin's UK bid offered the best technical solutions and the best value for money for the taxpayer". I want to know how the ONS thinks it can possibly be considered value for money that an organisation of rapacious gun-runners are given £150 million to do a job which ought to be done by government employees.

Your letter makes it clear that "the information that the census provides helps central and local government to understand the needs of local communities, and plan and prioritise billions of pounds of resources and public spending on housing, education, health and transport services for years to come." If that is the case, why has it prostituted itself to one of the filthiest international organisations on the planet? Surely it is a clear indication of how little our politicians care about local needs that they are prepared to provoke a boycott of what may yet prove to be unprecedented proportions by making it morally nauseating for a large portion of the populace to participate in the census? The only reason that it may have got away with this travesty is because most people who have filled in their census forms are blissfully unaware that in doing so, they are tacitly promoting death and destruction in the name of profit, because so little media attention was given to the appointment of Lockheed Martin to this role.

Finally, I am boldly informed that "Those few who do refuse [to send in the form] may be prosecuted and could be fined up to £1000." As a school teacher, I have much to lose from this arrangement, but so do children around the world who may be maimed or orphaned by cluster bombs. So do some of my students, who join the armed forces out of idealism and run the risk of being put on the front line by a trigger-happy government which has no qualms about operating a seemingly interminable Middle Eastern war, ostensibly because it quells terrorism and despotism, but in reality because it makes money for organisations like Lockheed Martin.

You therefore appear to be offering me a stark and simple choice: I must either follow the law of conscience, or the law of the land. When a nation forces its citizens to make such a choice, it teeters on the brink of totalitarianism, and it is the moral – and indeed patriotic - duty of its citizens to resist. I have absolutely no wish to break the laws of this land, but as far as I am concerned, to obey them in this matter would be to betray all of the principles I have ever held dear as a British citizen.

Since your organisation has placed me in the ethical stalemate I have described above, perhaps you can advise me as to my best course of action if I am to avoid a fine and prosecution, whilst obeying the moral law?

Yours truly,

Dr. Giles Watson.


There was no reply from the ONS, so I sent this email:

Dear Mr. McKeown,

I have not yet received a reply to my previous letter to you, in which I made it clear that the commissioning of the armaments manufacturer Lockheed Martin for the partial administration of the census has placed me in an impossible situation, and yet I have started to receive notices, posted through my letter box at inconvenient times, the most recent of which has threatened me with a £1000 fine. My unanswered letter concluded with the following question: “perhaps you can advise me as to my best course of action if I am to avoid a fine and prosecution, whilst obeying the moral law?” As far as I am concerned, the moral law precludes any cooperation with a private company which makes most of its money out of death and destruction. It seems to me that there must be thousands of decent citizens who would agree with me, and I therefore find it very difficult to believe that I am “one of the few” who still has not returned the questionnaire.

I am hereby making it clear to you that I am very willing to fill in my census questionnaire, as soon as this moral impediment is removed. When Lockheed Martin are deprived of their contract, and have eschewed the £150 million of taxpayers’ money which has been promised to them without taxpayers’ consent - or alternatively, when this company decides to stop selling cluster bombs and other weapons designed to kill and maim - I will very happily submit my census form.

Indeed, I am taking this opportunity to register my indignation at the fact that the appointment of Lockheed Martin has made it impossible for me to have my statistics recorded, since it is surely axiomatic that one’s moral obligations must override all others – including those of the State.

Yours truly,

Giles Watson


Mr. McKeown's response:

Dear Dr. Watson,

As I am sure that you will appreciate it is now far too late to change the contract for those support services that Lockheed Martin UK (LMUK) are managing for the 2011 Census, and of course ONS has no way of influencing
the non-census related business practices of LMUK. Therefore it is impossible to meet the conditions that you state are necessary for you to complete the census questionnaire.

There is no way for people to avoid their statutory duties under census legislation, on moral or ethical grounds. The law is very straight forward, every person has to be included on a census questionnaire and it is a criminal offence to refuse or neglect to comply with this duty.

Therefore, whilst you state that you are not refusing to complete the questionnaire, assuming that your conditions are met, you would be committing an offence by not returning a completed questionnaire regardless.

You may be aware that the census operation has now moved on and that those households yet to return a completed questionnaire are now receiving visits from census non-compliance teams, these may well be the staff who have left you notices. These staff are tasked with encouraging and helping households to complete a questionnaire and if all attempts fail they will explain about the possibility of prosecution and then gather evidence under caution, in line with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.




I replied:

Dear Mr. McKeown,

Your response is an occasion for the profoundest concern. You state:

"There is no way for people to avoid their statutory duties under census legislation, on moral or ethical grounds. The law is very straight forward [sic.], every person has to be included on a census questionnaire and it is a criminal offence to refuse or neglect to comply with this duty."

By employing Lockheed Martin in the administration of the census, the ONS and the government are discriminating against anyone who holds pacifist views. This includes members of the Society of Friends, as well as a wide range of other individuals who do nothing but promote the ethic of peace. They are also discriminating against anyone who believes in the notion of a just war, but does not approve of cluster bombs or Trident missiles.

By making it a criminal offence for us to refuse to sully our hands by lending tacit endorsement to these promoters of organised international murder, the state has made a totalitarian decision. This is an outright denial of freedom of conscience.

You place me in an utterly impossible and deeply upsetting situation, and your argument may be legal, but is entirely unethical and worthy of the most vehement condemnation. I now have to decide whether to compromise everything I hold dear, or face a criminal record, despite the fact that I have done nothing but labour in this country's interests all my life. You may be a legal expert, but if you cannot see that this situation is utterly despicable and morally reprehensible, I pity you. Some laws are more important than the law of the land.

I may yet decide to be bullied into participating in your bloodsoaked census, but you should know that never before have I been commanded by a government to participate in something so sick and immoral. I hope you will forgive the strong language of this reply, but I think it is important that you should be given at least some inkling of how this makes me feel.

Yours sincerely,

Giles Watson


He responded:

Dear Dr. Giles [sic],

I understand your position completely and have a degree of sympathy with your views, my email was certainly not meant to offend, if the tone sounded brusque or threatening then I apologise. My response was only intended to
alert you to the potential dangers of following the course that you appeared to be considering, namely that you would refuse to complete the census on moral grounds, as there is no provision to do this under the law.

Therefore, it would be up to you to argue your case in court, during a prosecution, in order to persuade a bench of Magistrates that moral and ethical issues should provide the holders of such beliefs with an exemption from completing the census. Personally I think that this is unlikely to sway the court as it could set a dangerous precedent for people to unscrupulously seek exemption from all sorts of statutory duties on moral grounds. Whilst there is legislation that seeks to counter discrimination on matters of belief, I am not sure that this would stretch to cover non-participation in the census due to ethical matters regarding a contracted supplier. Therefore, if you do go to court relying on morality as a defence, no matter how convincing your argument may be on an ethical basis, I believe that you run the risk of conviction under the law, as it stands.

You are certainly not the only person who has written in to ONS complaining about this issue, and while I can well understand your stance and disapproval of LMUK, I have to tell you that there is now nothing that can be done about their involvement in the census. As you may be aware, they were awarded a contract to provide support services to the census in 2008.

This covered elements such as software development, printing of questionnaires, running a help line and processing completed questionnaires. LMUK then appointed a consortium of specialist UK and EU companies to undertake these specific elements of the contract and are therefore not directly involved in the collection or processing of questionnaires.

The majority of the work undertaken under this contract has already been completed, in preparation for the census. Therefore, whether or not you participate in the census will not affect the remuneration paid to LMUK for this contract. You may think that this is small comfort to you but many people who have complained about the
involvement of LMUK have been under the impression that by boycotting the census they will affect the monies paid to LMUK, which is not the case.

Unfortunately, not having been involved in the awarding of the contract to LMUK, I can't give you any further explanation as to why such a company was chosen to provide the services to the census that they do, or why the
contract was not broken down into smaller segments and awarded to the sub-contractors directly without LMUK's involvement, other than to say that I am informed that their bid to the original tender proved best value for
money for the tax payer. They are also very experienced in supporting censuses having supported the UK census in 2001, and a number of US and Canadian censuses. I can't comment on the use of ethical considerations when tendering for a contract as I am unaware of the UK and EU legal constraints imposed on such exercises, and how ethical considerations are weighted in the overall decision making process.

I hope that this expands on my earlier reply, and whilst I am sure that this will not fully allay your deep rooted concerns, it may explain the situation further. If you have any further questions that I can help with please let me know.




On Thursday, 5/19/11, I replied:

Dear Mr. McKeown,

Thank you for your sensitive and informative reply. There is no need to apologise for your previous email; it did not strike me as brusque, and it was not your tone that caused offence, but rather the situation. Indeed, the clarity with which you expressed the legal situation was appreciated, even if it strengthened my conviction that something is very wrong. The information you have provided will certainly assist me in making a decision as to what to do next.

You will not be surprised that I am a little taken aback that you are "unaware... how ethical considerations are weighted in the overall decision making process" when companies are appointed to adminster the census. If you don't know, who does, and why is it not a priority? Since nothing can be done to reverse the decision to involve Lockheed Martin at this stage, perhaps steps could be taken to ensure that there is some forum for discussion of the moral appropriateness - and social acceptability - of future appointments?

I ask these questions not only because of my convictions about war, but also because, as a trained historian, I do recognise the long-term value of the census as a historical resource. By selecting census-administrators who are considered to be morally repugnant by a specific section of the population, the ONS (or the government) runs the risk of compromising the statistical validity of the survey, since those who feel that they cannot comply are likely to belong to particular social groups, who will therefore be under-represented in the results. If no moral considerations are brought to bear in the selection of administrators, it might be considered equally appropriate to appoint a tobacco company to the position: a decision which, I suspect, would alienate many responsible citizens. Since both an armaments manufacturer and a tobacco company can be said to be dealers in death (the former in a rather more direct and immediate way than the latter), it is difficult to see how the one should be deemed more acceptable than the other - and yet I somehow doubt whether the latter would ever make it to first base in the selection process.

I am sure that there are no answers that you can give, nor counter-arguments I can offer, that will resolve these problems. I will content myself with thanking you for answering my last email as a human being, rather than as a legal expert, whilst I try to decide what is the most acceptable course of action.

Yours truly,

Giles Watson

Author bio:

Giles is a secondary school teacher in an English comprehensive school, and divides his spare time between poetry, photography, painting, and film. He also writes prose essays on natural history and mediaeval visual culture, is an avid walker and amateur naturalist, and has a keen interest in theatre. He has taught English, History, Drama, Sociology and Film. His current projects include paraphrasing the works of the mediaeval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, and whilst he would prefer to be out walking with his dog, he is occasionally distracted by political problems. His photography can be viewed at his Flickr stream.

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