John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The Government already knows so much about you. And the new survey should take care of the rest'
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The Independent Online

How much does the Government know about you? How much could they find out if they wanted to? They already know your name, your maiden name and any noms de plume you may use, plus your home and work addresses, phone numbers (land and mobile), your national insurance number, your bank, bank account, mortgage provider, credit rating, car registration, speeding-fine and court-judgment histories; they know (if you've an Oyster card) where and how often you've travelled by bus or Tube, they know your criminal record, your children's names and ages and where they go to school, they know where you went on holiday last summer, and how much you've spent this year on petrol, dog food and Sainsbury's own-brand chocolate biscuits. A look at the 1988 Data Protection Act reveals how many of your personal details can be stored and used without your knowledge.

After all that, what in Heaven's name does the Government not know about you? Your inside leg measurement? You're granny's consumption of port? Your dreams of marrying a 24-year-old ballerina of "exceptional physical flexibility", as Vladimir Putin was rumoured to have done?

Well, a new survey should take care of any unswept nooks and crannies of your private life. The investigating organisation is the Office for National Statistics; they want to know who you've been having sex with, what devices, if any, you've been inserting, or wearing, inside or around your rude extremities, and when you got dumped.

No really, it's true. The ONS call it the Integrated Household Survey and they'll be calling on you. They're making random visits to 200,000 homes in the UK and interrogating every occupant with a questionnaire that features 2,000 questions on it. That's a lot of questions.

It will cost you, and the tax-paying citizenry, £3.5m a year for the intruders to elicit such vital facts as when your relationships began and ended, what contraception you used, whether you had a baby and whether you lived with your partner before getting married. They even – and this is going to shock people – break a centuries-old taboo by asking about your monthly net salary.

The visiting civil servants, parked on your sofa asking you 2,000 questions, sound rather creepy – like the smoothly polite, Ivy League torturers in Michael Haneke's film Funny Games. (Or like a new romantic partner, who seemed lovely when you first met, but who's in too much of a hurry to know all your intimate secrets.) But they'll need to be exceptionally skilled and tactful people to extract people's bedroom secrets and income details? Are civil servants equipped to meet members of the public and get past their defences? No, I didn't think so either. But what's this I see in the curriculum of the National School of Government, the official training college for public sector employees?

Why, it's a course called "Developing Style and Presence", which offers to groom "middle managers who would like to create more impact within their area of expertise". Marvellous. For only £970 a head, buttoned-up statisticians can attend a two-day course and learn "natural style", communication skills, colour co-ordination and clothing choice, plus Alexander Technique workouts to improve their posture and make them plausible interrogators.

No way is this a waste of anybody's money. After 48 hours, the ONS chaps will be able to dress like Pierce Brosnan, chat like Terry Wogan and wheedle embarrassing replies from the most clam-like householder. "Do you tend to achieve a more satisfying climax by employing the Reverse Cowgirl or the Spatchcocked Chicken?" "Does your husband own more than two pairs of white underpants?" "Do you actually like any of your children?"

Soon, you'll tell the Government anything they want. It'll be such a weight off your mind, to know that all this stuff will be securely locked away in the Home Office's impregnable database.


I'm enjoying the incidental delights of the Pope's visit to New York – the sale of "pope pourri" lavender cushions, the "popewurst" German sausages and "I [heart] Benedict XVI" bumper stickers, the cries of "Benedict-O!" from people running alongside the Popemobile, and the huckster calling out, "I'm feeling Catholic today!" as if belief in the old religion were a renewable daily option – but I'm puzzled about why the man from the Vatican is being greeted with such hysteria.

Actually, it's not that hard to understand. To a nation exhausted by the political bitching of Obama, Clinton and McCain, the supreme pontiff has been refreshingly direct. Not only did he accept that the Church might have a case to answer over child abuse, he dragged it into discussion. Not only did he not deny his background under the Nazis, he discussed it with schoolchildren.

For a professional dealer in advanced metaphysics, he was phenomenally straight-talking. And for a nation saddled with the responsibility of electing a supreme leader, he represents something established and secure – something superior even to the President.

"He's the closest thing to Gahd!" a lady from Long Island told one correspondent. "That's why I'm here." Which is the point, of course. The Pope isn't himself the supreme being of the universe, but he's got him on speed-dial. He's the ultimate agent. No wonder the Manhattanites admire him.