September 5, 2011

IconWhy councils ask about your sexuality, and why you should be glad they do

The Government has announced an end to council diversity surveys, writes Milly Shaw. Or, as the Daily Mail preferred to phrase it, “town hall ‘sex snoopers’ will be banned from bombarding people with intrusive questions about their private lives.”

Residents seeking to access basic services are, according the tabloids, “grilled” about their sex lives, religion, disabilities and ethnicity, and have to reveal such detailed personal information “just to get their bins emptied or take out a library book”.

So well done Communities Secretary Eric Pickles! What a victory for common sense and decency, in this political-correctness-gone-mad world.

Except, of course, that it’s nothing of the sort.

Protecting personal data

Personal privacy has become a valuable commodity, and we know that companies want to know everything they can about us, either to better target their own sales, or to sell the data to other companies.

Sometimes we sign up willingly – trading shopping pattern information for loyalty card points, or using a free email service in return for eerily relevant adverts.

Other times we don’t give up this information so willingly. At the mildly intrusive end of the scale is the bike shop which demands your home address every time you buy something; at the other end is the thief who steals enough personal information to assume your identity and rob you of everything you have.

Community diversity

But what about councils? Why are they so interested in your personal life? They’re not trying to sell anything, so what’s in it for them? In a word, nothing. They’re not collecting information about your ethnicity, sexuality, religion or disability to make life better for them – they’re doing it to make life better for you and for the people who live around you.

Councils need to know who lives in the local community, so they ask people to complete a voluntary diversity monitoring form when using some council services.

Different groups of people have different interests and needs. If it’s a very elderly population, for example, maybe more money should go towards residential care facilities. If there is a large Korean community, then some council literature may need to be produced in Korean to reach more people.

Some of this information can be found on the census, but some won’t be seen there – for instance the census question about sexuality was optional, so doesn’t give a very accurate representation of LGBT people in the UK.

Asking questions about diversity while people are using public services is also a way to ensure that certain groups of people aren’t being excluded.

If 99% of library users say that they are heterosexual in an area known to have an LGBT population of 6%, then it raises questions about why more LGBT people aren’t using the library, and whether there is deliberate or accidental discrimination preventing them from using the service.

Privilege

The people who complain about diversity surveys are, invariably: white, straight, non-disabled, English-speakers. They suspect that the purpose of these forms is for minority groups to get special treatment, and they don’t like it. What they don’t understand is that they’re part of a group too, and their majority groups gets special treatment all the time.

Anyone who is part of any the majority groups is so used to the world being angled towards them that they just assume it’s the natural, normal way of doing things, and that everyone else agrees. And some people get upset when this privileged position is challenged, however mundanely.

It’s a terrible shame that councils will no longer be monitoring the diversity of the communities using their services – minority groups have just as much right to access public services as majority groups.

A voluntary box-ticking form may not be the most elegant way to collect information, and it may annoy a few people with no concept of what it’s like not to be in the dominant group, but it’s the best system we have at the moment.

Scrapping the council diversity surveys is not a victory against “town hall sex snoopers”, and it’s not a victory for personal privacy. The victors in this saga – the white, straight, non-disabled, English-speaking majority – are so blinded by their privilege that they won’t even notice how it’s a step backwards for equality, and how it will have a negative effect on everyone but them.

2 Responses to Why councils ask about your sexuality, and why you should be glad they do

  1. Liz says:

    Nice article. Valid points put across. I just wish more articles like this were read by the majority

  2. louise says:

    Great article – really good points, well made!