A tale of two letters: whose views count?


Since November 2018, an intense debate has broken out over whether the sex question in the 2021 census should be framed in terms of self-declared gender identity, legal or biological sex. We have previously argued that we think that this lack of consensus is due principally to the approach taken to question development by the National Records of Scotland (NRS), whereby the sex question and guidance was co-produced with a small number of transgender advocacy groups, without wider consultation prior to the publication of the draft Bill. Indicative of the heat around this debate, one of the Scottish Government-funded organisations consulted on question development from an early stage recently launched a petition describing those arguing for an approach based on legal sex as “very loud anti-trans lobbyists”, and asserting that their intention was to “roll back over 30 years of trans people’s rights to privacy and dignity”. The petition arguably avoids being defamatory only insofar as it avoids naming specific people or organisations which have made submissions to the Committee, with whom the organisers disagree.

Drawing on a recent Freedom of Information response, this blog looks at whose views count in the debate on the sex question, and what this means for the standards of trustworthiness and transparency in the census.

Two letters

Within the last six months, the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs (CTEEA) Committee tasked with scrutinising the Draft Census Order has received correspondence from a number of organisations and individuals, ourselves included, making the case for different approaches to the sex question. Two letters in particular, have received substantial media and parliamentary attention.

The first is a letter organised by Dr Kevin Guyan, co-signed by 53 ‘individual researchers, academics, practitioners and data users’, which argues for a sex question with guidance that directs people to respond based on their self-identified gender (see media coverage here). Very few of the signatories to this letter provided any details of their area of academic expertise.

The second is a letter organised by Professor Alice Sullivan co-signed by eighty quantitative social scientists, including ten Fellows of the British Academy, which argues against the conflation of sex and gender identity, and against the inclusion of guidance (see media coverage here).  All the signatories to this letter provided information on their area of academic expertise, and all came from backgrounds clearly relevant to a debate about the validity and reliability of population data.

Whose views count?

At the time of writing, the Scottish Government continues to support a self-identified approach to the sex question, although this has been subject to considerable critical scrutiny by CTEEA Committee members. In particular, members have pressed NRS on why it has not taken into consideration the relevant expertise of the signatories to the Sullivan letter. In response, officials and Ministers have drawn attention to the pro-self-identification letter in terms that suggest they regard it as having at least equal weight.

Concern about the relative weight being placed on representations from academics was summarised by CTEEA Convenor Joan McAlpine in a question to Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop:

The Convener: In your letter to the committee, you respond to my question about which independent academics and other data users who use census data to support their research have expressly stated their support for a self-identified sex question. You mention public authorities, although it is not clear that they actually requested a self-identified sex question. However, on the issue of independent academics, you refer to a group of 50 who wrote to the committee on 20 September 2019, and you also refer to the Equality Network, LGBT Youth Scotland and Stonewall Scotland, which are not independent academic research organisations.

I would like to compare the letter that was led by Professor Alice Sullivan with the letter from the 50 academics you mention. The letter from Professor Alice Sullivan was signed by 80 senior academics—mainly social scientists, and mainly professors—who work with population data. The signatories include professors of research methodology, professors of public health, professors of medical sociology and professors of demography and statistics. However, although the signatories of the letter that you highlight include some professors—and I am sure that a small number of them use population data—it also includes academics from departments of creative writing, Atlantic studies, theology, computer science and linguistics. The signatories do not consist of population-data users; they are activists. They are entitled to their views, and I am sure that they are accomplished in their fields, but they do not compare to people whose specialism is in using population data. It seems strange that you have ignored one group of experts and preferred another group of activists when making your decision. (SP OR 30 January 2020 col. 6, our emphasis).

Trustworthiness and transparency

NRS have now confirmed in a Freedom of Information response seen by MBM that for the letter whose signatories mostly did not declare their areas of expertise it undertook no analysis “to establish the relevant expertise of each signatory in relation to the use of population data”. This omission raises serious concerns about the approach to evidence within government, and runs counter to the standards expected of the census authorities. It shows that NRS failed to undertake basic due diligence on a letter before it was used by officials, and Ministers were presumably briefed to refer to it, to support the Scottish Government proposal, while at the same time discounting the views of professional statisticians and population data users.  Any person with access to a search engine can quickly establish the point made by the Committee convenor; that however passionately they feel about this issue, very many of the signatories come from academic disciplines which will not expose them to working with population data.

The standards expected of the census authorities are outlined by the Office for Statistic Regulation (OSR) in the preface to its ongoing assessment of the 2021 UK Census. This states that “It is essential that the data and statistics from the 2021 Censuses…  are reliable and provide valuable insights, meeting the rigorous standards of trustworthiness, quality and value outlined in the Code of Practice for Statistics.” The development of the sex question is specifically highlighted in the preliminary assessment report, which recommends that ‘Census offices should be open and transparent on their decision-making processes and in their decisions on Census questions and guidance, particularly in relation to any areas of contention’.

We would suggest that it is difficult to reconcile these standards, particularly around trustworthiness and transparency, with the selective approach taken by the NRS to representations made to it described here. Instead of relevant expertise, decision-making by all three census authorities appears to be steered by an agenda associated with advocacy for a particular position.  As a result, the UK is now at a serious risk of losing the capacity to gather data that, for decades, has provided the building blocks for policy-makers and researchers to monitor and tackle discrimination based on sex.

A wider issue is also raised beyond this issue, which is how far the Scottish Government feels obliged to research any representations put to it, and how far it weights these not by evidence of expertise, but by how far they align with what it wishes to hear. Of course, this is not a new point, for the Scottish Government or any other. But the failure admitted here, to devote any effort to investigating the credentials of the signatories to a letter, the existence of which has then been used to dismiss out of hand an intervention from an evidently expert group, provides an unusually stark example of a sin of omission in the policy-making process.