Draft guidance under consideration for 2021 census sex question: summary of proposals

 1. Background and timing

In early 2020, the UK census authorities will finalise the questions they propose to ask in the next census, which will take place on 21 March 2021. Draft census orders will be laid in both the UK and Scottish Parliaments in the new year.

We have written extensively about the development of questions on sex and gender identity over the past year. We remain concerned that guidance proposed to accompany the sex question will make it a question about gender identity, despite the fact there will be a new, voluntary question on gender identity in the census in England, Wales and Scotland.

This blog sets out the draft guidance being considered by each of the UK census authorities.

2. England and Wales

Draft guidance being considered by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) advises respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity. The guidance also incorporates DSD conditions (a rare set of congenital conditions that do not denote a separate sex).

ONS sex question
ONS sex question guidance

The ONS’ question on gender identity is framed in the following way:

Screenshot 2019-12-10 at 12.40.54.png

This question will also be accompanied by guidance for respondents:

Screenshot 2019-12-10 at 12.41.53.png

 3. Scotland

There are two versions of draft guidance being considered by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). Version one advises respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity. Version two advises respondents to answer based on their legal sex, which for most people will be their biological sex but also includes those who have changed their legal sex following acquisition of a Gender Recognition Certificate (in Scotland, this is thought to be around 500 people since 2004).

NRS sex question v1.png
NRS sex question v2

4. Northern Ireland

The draft guidance being considered by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) advises respondents to answer based on their self-declared gender identity. NISRA also incorporate DSD conditions into the sex question. (Unlike England, Wales and Scotland, the 2021 census in Northern Ireland will not carry a question about gender identity.)

NISRA sex question

5. Concerns about 2011 guidance

Giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament on 13 December 2018, Professor Susan McVie of the University of Edinburgh expressed concern that the impact of the guidance that accompanied the sex question in 2011 was not known. Professor McVie told the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs (CTEEA) Committee:

“It is a fundamental property of research that, in designing a questionnaire, you need to be extremely clear about what you are measuring. Possibly controversially, 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.” 

A group of Scottish academics wrote to the CTEEA Committee on 11 September 2019 to express concern about the NRS’ proposed guidance for the sex question in the 2021 census.

On 12 September 2019, officials from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) gave evidence to the CTEEA Committee. During this evidence session, Amy Wilson, then Director of Statistical Services at NRS, conceded that they did not know what impact the 2011 guidance had had on the data collected:

“I do not think that we know how it affected the data in 2011. From looking at the data and the quality assurance that we have done, there is no evidence to suggest that we started to see trends that were different from anything that had happened in the past. However, you are right—we do not know how the guidance affected people and we do not know how many people actually looked at it in 2011.” 

We have written previously about the background to the 2011 guidance here.

6. Views of those with DSD/intersex conditions

The draft guidance being considered by both ONS and NISRA refers to individuals with intersex conditions or Differences of Sex Development (DSDs). During the passage of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2019, a charity which represents the families of those with DSDs submitted evidence to the committee responsible for scrutinising the draft bill. They expressed concern that the policy memorandum that accompanied the draft legislation conflated a medical condition (DSDs) with identity characteristics (i.e. gender identity).  Subsequently the draft guidance being proposed by NRS does not refer to those with intersex conditions.

DSDF quote