WPUK submission to UK Statistics Authority: Phase 1 Assessment of 2021 Census


We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the UK Statistics Authority’s Phase 1 assessment of the 2021 Censuses in the UK. We note that the Authority intends to assess the extent to which the census meet the professional standards set out in the statutory Code of Practice for Statistics.

Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a campaign group which was formed to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections in the UK. We believe that rigorous collection and analysis of sex-based data and high-quality research must be central to the development of any services, policies or actions which address women’s needs or which challenge discrimination and inequality on the ground of sex.

We are therefore clear that the 2021 Census must retain a binary sex question based on a clear definition of sex, not least so that public bodies can fulfil their obligations as part of the Public Sector Equality Duty. We remain concerned that guidance which accompanied the 2011 Census was introduced without due consideration of the potential impact on the quality and trustworthiness of data collected under the sex question. We are of the view that this guidance should be removed for the 2021 Census.

WPUK’s evidence on the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

We submitted evidence[1] during Stage 1 of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, which is currently under consideration in the Scottish Parliament. In our submission, we expressed concern about a number of issues relating to the Bill and the way in which plans for the 2021 Census in Scotland have been developed:

  • The conflation of the distinct concepts of ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’ on the face of the Bill;
  • Plans advanced by the census authority, the National Records of Scotland (NRS), to introduce a non-binary sex question; and
  • The failure of NRS to consult with women’s groups as part of their planning and question development work.

We were pleased to note that the Scottish Government brought forward an amendment at Stage 2 earlier this month to address the conflation of ‘sex’ and ‘gender identity’ on the face of the Bill, and that this amendment was accepted by the members of the parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising the Bill.

We were also pleased that the parliamentary committee’s Stage 1 report[2] recommended that the Scottish Government retain a binary sex question for the Scottish 2021 Census. (We were pleased to note that the Office for National Statistics has recommended the retention of a binary sex question for the 2021 Census in England and Wales, due to concerns about data quality.) The committee also criticised the NRS for its failure to consult with women’s groups.

 Guidance accompanying the 2011 Census

In our submission on the Scottish Census Bill, we also highlighted our concern that guidance accompanying the 2011 Census advised individuals who consider themselves to be transsexual or transgender to respond to the sex question based on their self-identified – not their biological or legal – sex.

Documentation[3] relating to the development of the 2011 Census reveals that this guidance was introduced on the basis of flawed advice provided by an independent consultancy. No equality impact assessment on the sex question was carried out, as it was regarded as “a disproportionate use of resources”.

The consultancy advised the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to issue guidance to trans people (“including those who do not have a Gender Recognition Certificate”), instructing them to respond to the sex question based on their self-identified sex. In developing the guidance, they also advised ONS to consult only with transgender advocacy groups.

It is therefore unknowable how many individuals read and heeded this advice and what impact that had on the quality of the data on sex captured by the 2011 Census.

Giving evidence on the Scottish Census Bill in December 2018, Professor Susan McVie of Edinburgh University said[4]:

I think that the General Register Office for Scotland got it wrong when it redesigned the census in 2011 and conflated sex and gender identity into one question. We are now trying to disentangle those things. Arguably, the measure of sex in the 2011 census data is not accurate.

Census data provides the baseline for other official statistics, such as health, education and criminal justice statistics. All of these data, in turn, underpin the ability of local and national government and public authorities to plan and deliver services, and meet their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.

Therefore, the introduction of this guidance in 2011 without due process or wider scrutiny is of great concern and we hope the Authority will see fit to take this up with the census authorities as they develop their plans for the 2021 Census across the UK.

10 May 2019

[1] https://www.parliament.scot/S5_European/Inquiries/CTTEA_CensusBill_WomansPlaceUK_CTEEA_S5_18_CB_21.pdf

[2] https://sp-bpr-en-prod-cdnep.azureedge.net/published/CTEEA/2019/2/7/Stage-1-Report-on-the-Census–Amendment—Scotland–Bill/CTEEAS052019R1.pdf


[4] http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=11847&mode=pdf


We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.