Sunday 27 March, Census Day, is now rapidly approaching. The Office of National Statistics is preparing a big propaganda campaign starting with TV adverts. The total cost of the census to the taxpayer is estimated at over £450m.
Census forms are kept secret from the public for 100 years. But EU legislation allows the 2011 census to be shared with all 27 member states, and under the Statistics and Registration Service Act raw census data may be acquired by the police, the intelligence agencies, immigration authorities, tax inspectors, DWP investigators, foreign governments or private sector or academic "approved researchers" etc. It is impossible to guarantee there won't be a security breach or that data once captured will be used legitimately, or to assume anyone would know if it were not.
Thousands of people will be involved in gathering the information in the census, and it will be processed by large commercial contractors, including the US weapons firm Lockheed Martin, America's largest arms manufacturer, which won the £150m contract to run the census on behalf of the Office for National Statistics (ONS). All US-based companies are subject to the US Patriot Act, which allows the US government to have access to any data in the company's possession, and this could give the US government access to detailed and personal data on the UK's entire population.
I very much resent the threat of a £1,000 fine should I fail to provide a long list of personal and private family information.
The government track-record proves it cannot be trusted on security of personal data, with numerous incidents over recent years of lost data, while information from the DVLA database has, in the past, been sold to wheel-clamping companies.
I wonder whether the entire 1,300 temporary staff employed to collate census information are honest and trustworthy, along with the army of bureaucrats enabled to access such data, not only nationwide but EU-wide and perhaps worldwide.
Confidentiality of census data in England and Wales is no longer guaranteed by law and it could be passed on to foreign governments, the private sector and approved academic researchers.
With the imposition of the most severe cuts to services in living memory, I find it particularly galling that almost £500m of public money is being wasted on an unnecessary collection exercise for information most of which the Government already knows anyway.
As councils across the UK struggle to balance their budgets, it's incredibly important that people complete and send back their census forms ("First question on the census form: is there any point to it?", 22 February).
In my own borough of Westminster more than 63,000 people were "lost" in the 2001 census – over 25 per cent of the population – resulting in a £378m shortfall in government funding over the past decade. Over the past 10 years this money could have been spent on key areas such as social services, housing and education. We are, therefore, working hard with the Office for National Statistics to promote the census on 27 March so we can secure the right amount of funding for local residents and their services.
Westminster City Council
Tom Sutcliffe's suggestion to tick no boxes for the census question "What is your religion?" unless you are a practising believer (Comment, 22 February) will simply give the ONS grounds to record people's religion as "unknown". A better solution, and one that captures the sentiments of many British people, is to tick "Other" and write "none of your business!"
Tom Sutcliffe doesn't think non-regular attenders at church, mosque or temple should tick the appropriate box for their religion on the census form. Does this mean that atheists shouldn't tick the "None" box unless they're regular attenders at their local Humanist group?
Ten years after 390,000 people registered their religion as "Jedi" in the 2001 census (News, 22 February), I suspect that this year's will show how the Jedi religion has, as with seemingly all creeds, split into various factions and sects. I trust there will be enough space on the forms to put "Jedi (Fundamentalist)", "Jedi (Reformist)", or whatever.
Big Society has always existed
I write as the parent of a profoundly disabled child who has a life-limiting condition. I have personal experience of the unfocused rush of energy and need to "do something" that comes with facing the shock and reality of a devastating diagnosis. David Cameron's "Big Society" reveals many things about his background and his experience of disability and death at close hand.
All volunteering arises out of seeing a need at close hand, and finding a way to fill that need, whether in the family, or in the wider community. It was always so.
Each level of society formed its own volunteering groups, from medieval guilds through to the Foresters, Rotary, Lions Club, Variety Club and many others. Victorian industrialists with a social conscience, and some aristocratic families with the "noblesse oblige" tradition, have contributed, and continue to contribute massively, to charities. However, since 1947, their giving has augmented the provision of the state, from which everyone benefits, and to which every taxpayer contributes.
There has always been a big society in the background, just getting on with meeting the needs of others. It hasn't needed coercion to join, or grand public statements.
If Cameron is successful in pushing through his Big Society, his government will be failing in its duty to provide the essential infrastructure of the country. Those of us who work hard for a living have a right to expect that the Government uses our taxes to guarantee continuity of services.
Volunteers must have sufficient income to live, so that the vast majority are either retired, or part-time volunteers. These people are not in a position to commit to the full-time provision of unpaid services, and they pick and choose the area in which they care to help.
Jedburgh, Scottish borders
How we ate in wartime
When I read the review by Diane Perkiss of the book The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham (11 February), I wondered if they could possibly be referring to the war I lived through. I lived on the outskirts of London and was evacuated four times to different places. I have checked with several contemporaries to see if their memories of food coincide with mine and in every case they do.
The quantity of food we were allowed diminished slowly. Bread didn't look very white and cereals differed in appearance from what we had been used to, but what were the "horrible powders and loathsome pastes including dried bananas" we were supposed to have had and also the "dehydrated mutton"?
I think the authors have forgotten to take into account the immense difference between the way we ate before the war and the way we eat now. Before 1939 we only ate food as it came into season so, for instance, we only ate peas during the short summer season or out of tins.
During the war fish and chip shops were always open and we had something called the British Restaurant which served very acceptable meals – and I was fussy! We had very little butter by the end of the war, but my mother managed without ever putting margarine on bread.
I also had a friend who went into the Women's Land Army and she was absolutely astonished to hear that they were kept in continual hunger and were given beetroot sandwiches to eat. It certainly was not her experience, nor that of anyone else she met.
AV will mean better MPs
The present system for electing MPs is ludicrous. Any MP or party can find itself elected on a third of the vote. Those elected find themselves jeered at by two out of every three voters that they pass in the street. AV reduces the enemy to less than 50 per cent.
AV makes everyone feel fairly comfortable with the candidate who finally is shown to have most acceptability, even if not most first votes. And that need for acceptability will make a good MP, rather than just lobby fodder for a set of opportunists at the head of a tribal society.
Under first-past-the-post those hoping to get elected will tell any old yarn, because every last vote is critical. Under AV the motivation is different. A candidate who tries to present a balanced personality and will listen equally to all voters stands a better chance than the partisan big-mouth.
David Cameron has been quite right to ensure that this gets debated, despite the anxious yelps of protest from a few of his older back-benchers.
Kenneth J Moss
The alternative vote may be imperfect. It is unlikely that there is any perfect voting system. However, AV does have one big advantage over first-past-the-post.
If we assume that electoral systems should encourage the public to vote, FPTP fails outstandingly. It has become abundantly clear that millions do not vote because FPTP has rendered their votes irrelevant, disenfranchising them regardless of whether they would support Labour, Lib Dems, Conservatives or Monster Raving Loonies.
Under AV millions of voters will feel their vote will not have been wasted.
Forests saved, parks in peril
Having just ditched the privatisation of the nation's forests after massive public protest, David Cameron is now proposing to revive his flagging political fortunes by privatising our parks along with most public services. After the forest debacle and with the dreadful record of previous privatisations, "more of the same" is a recipe for disaster.
Twenty years of compulsory competitive tendering and the "marketplace" approach to social services have laid bare the folly of the privatisation dogma. The poor quality of outsourced NHS services such as cleaning and catering and the disastrous performance of Railtrack and Metronet add to the case against more commercialisation.
By reinventing the Thatcherite wheel, Cameron has got it wrong, yet again.
If it takes only half a million signatures on an online petition plus the support of Chris Bonnington and Archbishop Rowan Williams to reverse government policy, can we now look forward to some real changes?
The fact that our publicly owned forests have been saved for the present is most welcome, but it is also time to demand some more fundamental U-turns from David Cameron. We need policies that will protect essential public services, which will end tax avoidance and which will stop the taxes we pay being squandered on Nato's disastrous war in Afghanistan and on nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Throughout the country ordinary people are protesting daily against the Coalition's vicious and unnecessary assault on jobs, pensions and services. On Saturday 26 March, many more than half-a-million of us will be in London demanding alternative policies. Will Cameron be listening?
Littleborough, Greater Manchester
Pole-axed by ME
Anyone who has had glandular fever and has lived with recurrent mild re-runs of the illness (a form of ME) for years afterwards, will throw their hands up at your report about ME sufferers just needing "to get out and exercise" (18 February).
Doubtless there is a category of people who rock up at their GPs' surgeries complaining of constant fatigue and who perk up no end after running around a bit. It doesn't follow that they have been cured of ME. It suggests they didn't have it in the first place.
Many ME sufferers can manage several hours at the gym each week with no ill-effects. What distinguishes them from those without the condition is a limit to their exercise tolerance beyond which they relapse into debilitating exhaustion – pole-axed for days, often with accompanying sore throat and swollen neck glands. It can then take weeks for them to work up to functioning normally again.
Exercise is a good thing in moderation but what ME sufferers need is for the scientists to go back to their labs and do some proper research.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Israeli example to Arabs
Ian McEwan was absolutely right to criticise Jewish settlements on the West Bank (News, 21 February) when receiving his literary prize in Jerusalem. Hopefully the emerging democracies in the Arab world will soon be able to emulate Israel's openness.
It is certainly true that Jews have maintained a very long presence in Israel/Palestine (letter, 18 February). But for much the greater part of that time they were there as a small minority. It was only with the artificial boosting of political Zionism and the incorporation of Zionism into the terms of the British Mandate (1922-48) that they became anything approaching a majority.
Jews have existed for 2,500 years as a community on the Greek island of Euboea/Evia (also known as Negroponte). No one has ever suggested that that island should become an exclusive Jewish state.
Joy Helman is right to assert that: "There is a simple truth about Jews, Palestine and whether or not a historical, biblical presence then confers an entitlement now. It is that the Jews never left" (letter, 18 February). She is wrong not to mention, however, that neither did the Arabs.
Best of British
Can anyone at the Foreign Office tell us what sort of proof William Hague would accept to establish whether or not British tear gas is being used in Bahrain? Does British tear gas smell different to that made by others? And on the same subject, are our bullets a different shape? Or is it simply that British hypocrisy is more intense, of a larger calibre, and has notably greater fire-power than that of other weapons suppliers?
Perspectives on summer time
A big boost from lighter evenings
As the Government awaits additional public and corporate support for the "Lighter Later" campaign ("UK moves closer to European time", 21 February), I am keen to add another dimension to the debate. GyroHSR can reveal that moving the clocks forward – and keeping them there – would boost UK plc by up to £18bn.
Our study demonstrates that the average UK worker loses up to 100 hours over the six-month period after the clocks go back to mark the end of British Summer Time. Lapsed concentration and general de-motivation equate to half a working day every week – three and three-quarter hours. (Research was conducted through One Poll with 3,000 respondents.)
We urge the Government to recognise the damaging effect that the end of daylight saving hours has on the UK workforce – particularly as it continues to call on the private sector to help generate more jobs and greater revenue.
Gyro HSR, London SW10
Darkness at dawn
It is proposed to change the clocks to summer time all year round. From those who want us all to rise in the gloomy darkness of November and December, and from those who want us all to go to bed in June and July before the sun sets, good Lord, deliver us!
D A Shearn
Midsomer Norton, Somerset