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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
The census and Big Brother

The moving spirit behind the modern UK census was a mild mannered immigrant from a poor family who saw the virtues in accurate data, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie

Louis Moss, who died at the age of 84 in October 2000, was the son of first generation Eastern European immigrants who had settled in London's East End at the start of the last century, fleeing persecution.

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In today's language, Moss's family would have been called "asylum seekers".

Moss, a committed socialist, was the first member of his family to go to grammar school and then to university, where he emerged as a gifted mathematician.

During the Second World War, he worked for the Ministry of Information and was one of a number of social scientists known as "Cooper's Snoopers" - named after the wartime Minister of Information Alfred Duff-Cooper.

Sinister

Their job was to keep tabs on the population to make sure that morale was not slipping and, also to gather accurate information on people in order in order to plan for food rationing and the war effort.

For some, all of this had a sinister side to it.

The idea of shadowy people from the all-powerful ministry minutely studying the lives of millions had overtones of the networks of spies and government informers who kept tabs on the populations of Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia.


Hippies protesting against the "authoritarian" Census process in 1971
Moss's boss Duff-Cooper is said by literary experts to have been the model for the original "Big Brother" in George Orwell's novel 1984. His Ministry of Information, which during the war had an official propaganda role, was the model of the Ministry of Truth in the powerful satire.

Accurate

In the 1950s Moss came into his own, breaking away from the Ministry of Information and its successor, the Central Office of Information, and helping to create the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.

Moss believed that accurate information about the age, health and habits of the whole population was the essential foundation for the welfare state, enabling governments to forecast economic development and plan the numbers of houses, hospitals and schools needed with great accuracy for the first time.

Mixed feelings

He was director of the social survey at the Census Office from 1941 until 1970 and then introduced, in addition, the General Household Survey - still the main source of hard information about the UK population.


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The GHS provides much more detail about such things as earnings and spending habits, but it is based on an accurate sample of the population, unlike the census - which is filled in by everybody.

Millions of UK citizens will fill in their census forms this weekend with mixed feelings.

Most appreciate that the information is vital for planning the numbers of schools, hospitals and social services. But many will feel a twinge of unease about invasion of privacy and revealing all to faceless government officials.

These mixed feelings go right back to Louis Moss's idealist state socialism, Orwell's fears about "Big Brother" snooping, and the roots of the census in its modern form.

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