WPUK, Sex and the Census: a brief timeline

WPUK Petition: Sex and the Census

WPUK, Sex and the Census: a brief timeline of our campaigning work on the accurate collection of sex data

2017 – Accurate data collection on sex central to WPUK campaign; ONS proposes to make the census sex question non-mandatory; WPUK launches petition in opposition

WPUK Campaign – sex matters in data collection

We first raised concerns about the impact of self-declaration of sex on data gathering at our launch in 2017. One of our initial five demands was for:

‘Government to consult on how self-declaration will impact upon data gathering – such as crime, employment, pay and health statistics – and monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap.’

Our 2019 resolution on this subject states:

‘Sex matters. 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 sex discrimination and inequality.’

ONS proposal to make the sex question non-mandatory and our campaign to oppose this

In September 2017 the ONS recommended making the census sex question non-mandatory. In October 2017 we launched a petition opposing this.

The Times reported on our campaign with quotes, supportive of our view, from Professor Jonathan Portes, Professor of economics & public policy, Kings College, London; Sir Michael Marmot, global authority on health inequality and Professor Danny Dorling, Oxford University Centre for the Environment.

The ONS appeared to notice, as, at the last minute, we were invited to attend Population and Public Policy Forum – Census 2021.  ONS presenters were at pains to assert that sex data would be collected.  We took this to be a commitment to mandatory, binary and accurate collection of sex data and tweeted positively about the meeting on this basis.

WPUK tweet sex and the census

2018 – WPUK submits evidence to Stage 1 considerations of the Census (Scotland) Bill

In February 2018 we confirmed our interest to ONS in talking to them about the England & Wales census…and waited….

In the meantime, in November 2018, we submitted evidence as part of the Stage 1 considerations of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. In November 2018.

2019 – More waiting; more correspondence; a draft copy of the census guidance; and further submissions

Correspondence with the ONS and Submission to the UK Statistics Authority

In February 2019, we wrote again to the ONS to reiterate our continued desire to be included in consultation about the census guidance… and waited…

In the meantime, in May 2019 we made a submission to the UK Statistics Authority’s Phase 1 assessment of the 2021 Censuses in the UK [Appendix 8]

Correspondence with the ONS and the Office for Statistics Regulation

On 3 June 2019, and again on 13 June 2019, we requested an update from Iain Bell regarding the guidance on the sex question. We received a response on 14 June 2019 with a copy of the draft guidance for the census.

We immediately wrote to Marie McGhee at the Office for Statistics Regulation outlining our urgent concerns regarding the draft guidance on the sex question in the 2021 Census.

Submission to the Public Accounts Committee

In July 2019 we made a submission to the PAC Inquiry into Challenges in using data across Government. In our submission we again raised our concerns about the draft guidance for the sex question in the 2021 Census.

2020 – WPUK launch Sex and the Census report with Oxford University; host a webinar; and challenge the EHRC

Sex and the Census Report

In October 2020, together with Oxford University we launched a report on Sex and the Census, as part of the project The Political Erasure of Sex.

Women count, count Women: WPUK & the Census

We hosted a webinar with Professor Selina Todd, Oxford University; Professor Alice Sullivan, UCL; Lisa MacKenzie, MBM Policy Analysis; and Jane Clare Jones, Institute of Feminist Thought. Almost 600 people attended and thousands have since viewed the video. The recording can be viewed here on our YouTube channel.

Make the Census make sense

Following this, we asked our supporters to write to Sir Ian Diamond, National Statistician and their own MP. Many supporters forwarded the standard reply they received from Sir Ian Diamond’s office.

Correspondence with  the National Statistician

On 20 October 2020, World Statistics Day, we wrote to the National Statistician restating our concerns about the proposed guidance to the sex question in the 2021 Census.  You can read this letter and the ensuing correspondence here on our website.

EHRC misprepresents the law?

In December we commissioned a legal opinion. This concluded that the EHRC misrepresented the law in its submission to the Scottish Government. The EHRC had incorrectly stated that requesting, gathering and collating data on individuals’ biological sex could be in breach of the law.

You can read more about this legal opinion on our website; it was also reported in Scottish Legal News.

Correspondence with the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Office for National Statistics levelled a similar line of argumentation regarding the collection of data on biological sex in the 2021 census. We therefore had concerns that they had received the same or similar advice from the EHRC.

On 7 December 2020 we wrote to Rebecca Hilsenrath, CEO of the EHRC, to request that the Commission withdraw the statement made to the Scottish Government, pending a review of its position. They declined.

You can view our full exchange with the EHRC on our website.

2021- Sex and the Census mailout; Call to Action; ONS Census guidance published and Sex and the Census joint campaign launched

Sex and the Census mailout and call to action

In the first week of February 2021 we sent printed copies of the Sex and the Census Report to all MPs, MSPs, MS and MLAs; to Lords chairing relevant APPGs and who had expressed an interest in the subject; and to individuals at the Office for National Statistics at Drummond House. We called on supporters to lobby their MP, bring their attention to the report and ensure accurate collection of sex data in the 2021 census.

ONS publishes census guidance

On 12 February, five weeks and two days from Census day, ONS finally published their guidance for the sex question in Census 2021.  As we had feared, the guidance for the sex question conflates sex and gender identity. Despite our communications to ONS over a period of over three years, this guidance will harm the integrity of the sex data.

We are a grassroots campaign, run on the donations of supporters and with no office and no paid staff. We did our utmost to alert the ONS to the needs and views of citizens, especially women, for accurate sex data to be collected in the census; and our objection to the sex question being answered on the basis of gender identity.

Sex and the Census 2021 – Joint campaign

On 21 February we launched, with fourteen other campaigns, Sex in the Census 2021, a campaign to legally protest the census guidance.


6 March 2021

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.