Is the census a survey of illicit affairs?

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Belgium's new socio-economic census is more interested in knowing whose bed you get out of in the morning, than helping officials shape government policy, reports Renée Cordes.

About 80 percent of Belgians and legally registered foreigners can now honestly say that they have done their civic duty.

More than 11 million of them have completed and mailed in the bulky questionnaire that arrived in their mailboxes this past autumn in an auspicious brown envelope, meeting the mid-January deadline.

The other 2 million or so who have procrastinated or threw out the envelope with the junk mail on purpose or by mistake should expect to receive the form for a second time in the next few weeks. Or you can fill one out on the web at http//

 Those who don't respond this time around can eventually expect a visit at their home from a researcher dispatched from the national statistics institute to conduct a personal interview - and a fine equal to the price of two movie tickets and a plate of nachos.

So what is all the hullabaloo about? Belgium's so-called new General Socio-economic Survey, the first of its kind since the country began counting the population more than a century ago.

The survey asks questions found in any old census forms, like name, address, number of children living the household (at least those born between 1 October 1996 and 30 September 2001).

But what makes this document different is that poses a number of questions - some of them quite personal -- about where people live, their commuting habits, educational background, cohabitation history and employment situation.

 "It's completely illegal," Huub Broers, mayor of Fourons village, Limburg, publicly declared. He lambasted the survey as a violation of privacy laws, echoing the arguments of many civil-rights advocates.

The answers are to be used to assemble statistics for government authorities at all levels as well as international institutions and social scientists, claim those in charge. The information may help government officials shape policy on mobility, housing and urban planning.

Two-hundred people have the unenviable task of tabulating the results, aided by machines equipped to read 80 questionnaires a minute.

From the start, the whole exercise has been mired in controversy. A number of critics are inflamed about questions which smack of Big Brother, like the one asking about whether your health is good or you suffer from a handicap.

Questions about when couples began living together or the place people leave from in the morning to go to work or school could almost be something straight out of the famous Kinsey sexual behaviour survey.

One Belgian newspaper wondered whether this particular question was asking about commuting habits or extra-marital affairs.

 As if that's not enough, Dutch surveys have been sent to French-speaking households and vice versa.

The survey comes in Belgium's three official languages, and there's also a translation in English for those who need guidance. But the English version is just for reading only, and all forms must be completed in Dutch, French or German. Those who don't speak any of these languages will have to enlist a friend to translate.

A teacher in Brussels who shall go unnamed told her class recently that she and her friends all have a pact to delay submitting their responses as long as possible.

"What's the worst that could happen?" she said, with full intention to wait until a researcher comes knocking at her door. She'll probably also have to pay a EUR30 fine, but that doesn't scare someone who also delays paying traffic tickets until the last minute.

Censuses are nothing new in Belgium. They've been conducted about every 10 years since 1846. Their main purpose is to correct information in the population register at commune level.

The data is also used to make adjustments in the make-up of the Belgian parliament; for example if the population changes significantly in a commune, an elected representative may have to go elsewhere.

Given all the problems surrounding the newest version, it remains to be seen whether it will be used again same time next decade.

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