An influential group of MPs has urged the government to seek assurances from Washington that the Patriot Act would not be used to access personal data contained in the UK census, if it is outsourced to US defence contractor Lockheed Martin.
The cross-party Treasury Select Committee is making the call today as part of the results of an investigation into the upcoming census in 2011. The once per decade data-gathering exercise is used by government departments to target billions of pounds of public spending, but has been criticised as unable to cope with a more mobile population.
Lockheed Martin, whose corporate slogan is "We never forget who we're working for", is bidding against Deutsche Telekom's T-Systems division for the £450m contract to run what's reckoned will be the last census in its traditional centralised form. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) is expected to announce the winner in June. Lockheed's potential involvement has been opposed by anti-arms industry campaigners, including the Green Party and privacy advocates.
Exchequer secretary Angela Eagle told a February session of the select committee that personal data would remain under UK control regardless. In a carefully-worded follow-up letter to the investigation, she wrote: "I can assure you that the eventual contract that ONS places with the successful bidder will have sufficient provisions to ensure that the service provider will, at no stage, allow the removal from the United Kingdom of any completed paper questionnaire, or any electronic data or images that could in any way identify an individual. Both the warehouse and the processing centre will be located within the United Kingdom."
All UK households are required by law to complete and return the census form.
The MPs are not satisfied by Eagle's guarantees. In the conclusions of the report they wrote: "We remain concerned that the personal information gathered through the 2011 census could be subject to the United States Patriot Act and therefore we ask the government to take clear legal advice and advice from the US State Department and to publish it in response to this report."
The hugely controversial Patriot Act, brought in in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, grants US spooks powers to access a very broad range of data held by American companies. The Treasury declined to comment on the select committee's recommendations.
The MPs also recommended sweeping changes to the way the government monitors migration. It found that the International Passenger Survey, originally set up to provide estimates of population movements to business and tourism, was not fit for government statistical purposes. The survey involves polling a sample of passengers at air and sea ports on their travel intentions.
Ministers have repeatedly come under fire in recent years as departments have underestimated the level of economic migration from former Eastern bloc countries, for example. A subsequent adjustment to the 2006 figure revealed that 28,000 more net new migrants were living in the UK than previously estimated. The report urges the ONS to replace the International Passenger Survey with a more accurate measure of international population movements.
Internal migration was also seen as a big problem for local council funding, after authorities in Westminster, Slough and Manchester cried foul over budgets that weren't big enough to cope with unexpectedly large populations.
The committee's Conservative chairman Michael Fallon said: "Our democracy is dependent on accurate, independent statistics. It is essential that when we consider important national issues we can rely on the data that is provided. It is now impossible to estimate accurately the UK population today. Unreliable statistics make planning impossible." ®