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22 October 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:48am

How do you persuade everyone in the country to give you their personal data?

Outreach workers are already approaching worshippers at the East London Mosque about the next census, which is in 2021.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It’s a rainy Friday afternoon at the East London Mosque, host to the biggest Muslim community in the country. Women and young children file into the Maryam Centre, where women pray, do classes and access services, in time for prayers at 1.45pm.

As the Imam’s words echo through the building’s speakers, the “largest peacetime operation in England and Wales” is also quietly underway.

The congregation of 7,000 are being asked census questions. The next mass population survey, which happens every ten years, isn’t until 2021 – but Tower Hamlets, the London borough that is home to the mosque and much of the mainly Bangladeshi population who worship here, is one of the “rehearsal” areas.

Along with neighbouring Hackney, Carlisle in the north west, and Wales’s Ceredigion, this area is a good place to test-run some of the biggest challenges when carrying out such a large-scale operation.

Cross-borough communication, ethnic minority communities, dense populations, language barriers, broadband coverage and second-home prevalence are all features the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are considering when rehearsing in these four areas.

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There are other considerations, too, for Sabiha Khan, a census adviser who has been embedded in this community for two months. With an iPad, laptop, stacks of leaflets in various languages, paper census forms and a shiny pile of Celebrations chocolates to tempt people over, she stations herself in the mosque every Friday to engage worshippers in the census process.

“The Imam always plugs it on a Friday,” she grins, emerging from the prayer hall herself in a glittery grey jumper and lilac headscarf.

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“I’m a trusted face, I’m here now, they are aware of it and they know the importance of it.”

Census data is vital for effective policy-making and spending decisions across the country. For example, census data from 2011 on Muslim populations in hospital catchment areas provided the Muslim Council of Britain with the evidence base to urge for better spiritual provision in hospitals for Muslim patients.

Khan usually has a “general conversation” with women who approach her desk about how the census works, and what the data supports (advocacy for spending on education and healthcare is important to many of them), before asking them to fill in their questionnaires.

Sufia Alam, who has been centre manager at the Maryam Centre for five years, says census data has “done wonders” for Muslims in this area, particularly in terms of combating high unemployment rates among Muslim women, and “focusing funding to areas of health deprivation”. “It’s so important to know the stats,” she says. “For how we can organise our community, and what we’re lacking, the community needs.”

Census data is collected by the ONS, a public agency independent of the government. Personal census data – that is, any information that could identify an individual – is protected by law and not shared with any other government departments, councils, or private companies like marketing agencies. This data is kept confidential for 100 years.

However, some people are apprehensive about giving their information to a state organisation. “There are the odd people who don’t want to take part at all,” says Khan. “A lot of the time it’s about the data.”

Her theory is that communities such as this one can be a challenge when collecting census data, because of distrust of the government.

“A lot of these people come from war-torn countries, whether they’re new here or they’ve been established here for the last ten, 20 years, or Bangladeshis in general who arrived in the Seventies, which was purely to do with war – they came away from a government they disliked,” she tells me.

“So they still have that mentality – they still link it. ‘Why are they asking about my bedrooms?’ ‘Is it going to affect my benefits?’ That’s the reason why some are sceptical and don’t want to do it – in a lot of the migrant communities.”

Alam recalls this attitude the last time round, in 2011, when she was working for a different women’s centre in the same area.

“In the last one, people were sceptical,” she recalls. “They still are in terms of giving out their personal information – ‘Where’s that going? What’s the source? What are they going to do with these stats?’”

Since the last census, the country has seen how hostile environment policies towards migrants have affected ethnic minority communities – the highest-profile example being the Windrush scandal exposed last year.

Some people Khan has encountered have been apprehensive. “I believe from what I’m seeing, a lot of it is to do with the government, and the way it’s developed with Brexit and all these issues factoring into being apprehensive about it.”

This year, there has been a row in the US regarding Donald Trump’s abortive attempt to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire. The question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” has not appeared on a US census form for the entire population since 1950.

The Supreme Court blocked its inclusion, and critics called the President’s attempt politically motivated, and warned it would put immigrant households off complying, for fear of their data being used against them.

Is there a particular fear of such misuse among ethnic minorities here?

ONS community partnerships manager Emily Stidston says any scepticism here is the same as everywhere in the country, and “everyone’s a bit different”. “We have to reach everyone, and make sure we’re there – ethnic and religious communities and we’ve also got to reach, say, my nan. We’re working with Age UK, Disability Wales, the Royal Association for Deaf people… It’s not just confined to smaller communities like this.”

Just the previous day, for example, Stidston was in Hackney with an LGBT youth group, discussing the new themes that will appear on the census in two years’ time: voluntary questions about sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Trust is really important – there’s something coming through someone’s letterbox, if we do this kind of engagement with people we’re better able to support communities through barriers they’re facing.”

Back at Khan’s stall, she’s doing a roaring trade, with women queuing up to find out what they need to do, or to complete the online form with her help. “I can understand but I can’t read and write in English,” a woman tells her. “My neighbour did mine ten years ago, but now I need help.”

One mother of four is keen to sit down with Khan and take a full 25 minutes to fill in the form on the spot, because she’s so passionate about the improvements to London housing such data could bring. She rents a two-bedroom flat for six people, and told Khan, “I’m going to do it, it’s important, I’m happy to do it even if it’s long.” Later, the woman brings Khan a plate of food to thank her.

After contemplating her visitors’ chocolate tastes – there are only Mars Bars left over at the end of the day – Khan tells me why she is so keen to reach them all.

“The census is important, it influences the policies we make,” she says. “If the community’s not represented, they’re going to get left out.”