Back under the radar? A review of plans for the census

This blog looks at recent developments on the framing of the sex question in the next census.

The UK census is undertaken by three separate census authorities: National Records of Scotland (NRS); the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which covers England and Wales; and the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Authority (NISRA).

On 17 July the NRS announced that Scotland’s 2021 census would be postponed due to the impact of Covid-19 on its workload. The next census in Scotland will therefore take place in March 2022. Meanwhile in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland,  the next census will take place on 21 March 2021, as originally planned.

Sex question and guidance
All three census authorities have committed to the longstanding, compulsory sex question, which will continue to enable respondents to answer either ‘female’ or ‘male’. In addition, the census in England, Wales and Scotland will carry a new, voluntary question on gender identity.

The three census authorities also intend to include accompanying guidance which advises respondents to answer the sex question based on their self-declared gender identity, not their sex.

Data user concerns
In December 2019, 80 of the UK’s leading social scientists wrote to the three census authorities to register their concern about this proposed guidance. (You can read the full version of their letter here.)

The academics were clear about their support for the new question on gender identity. However, their concern was that, in guiding respondents to answer the sex question in line with their self-declared gender identity, the census authorities were effectively collapsing two distinct demographic variables into one.

Very little is known about the size of the UK population with transgender identities but what evidence does exist indicates that the population is likely to be concentrated in lower age groups. For instance, there has been a huge increase in the number of young women who wish to be identified as male, as can be seen by the surge in numbers of young women being referred to UK gender identity clinics. A large-scale Swedish survey in 2018 reported that over 6% of 22-29 year olds wish to be treated as members of the opposite sex. A survey by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales last year found that 2% of prisoners in adult male prisons identify as transgender.

We could therefore expect that there would be significant effects in the ‘sex’ data collected for some population subgroups. This was indeed the main concern voiced by the academics.

Recent developments
A recent freedom of information response revealed that ONS hosted a roundtable discussion about the guidance for the sex question on 24 June 2020. The names of those who attended are redacted but there were representatives from Stonewall, the LGBT Foundation, the Government Equalities Office (GEO), NHS England, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Fair Play For Women (FPFW), the LGBT National Health Adviser, and individuals from 11 UK higher education institutions.

Documents released in the same FOI response reveal an extended correspondence between Stonewall and officials at ONS. The tone and rapidity of the exchange of emails suggests a close relationship between the two organisations, not dissimilar to the relationship between the NRS and the Scottish Trans Alliance, as seen in correspondence released via another FOI request lodged last year.

By way of contrast, ONS took six days to respond to a query from the FPFW representative who attended the meeting and the UCL representative (which we have confirmed is Professor Alice Sullivan) did not receive responses from ONS to queries in emails sent on 9 and 17 June for three and two days respectively.

Prior to the meeting – presumed to be a video conference call, given the Covid-related restrictions in place at the time – the Stonewall representative sought assurance from ONS that “this is not a hostile environment for trans attendees”. They also suggested that ONS extend an invitation to a representative of another LGBT organisation, which ONS appear to confirm in response.

The minutes of the meeting indicate that ONS intend to proceed with further testing of the proposed guidance. It is to be assumed that this is now underway.

Also noteworthy is an admission made by ONS officials that the guidance introduced for the 2011 census was included “at the request of the LGBT community”. (We have previously documented how this guidance came to be adopted in the 2011 census, and how its introduction was not subject to any form of external scrutiny or due process.)

Intervention by the regulator
Earlier this month, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) wrote to the three census authorities, reviewing what progress each had made against OSR’s first assessment report, published in October 2019. Most notably, in his letter to ONS Deputy National Statistician Iain Bell, OSR director Ed Humpherson states:

“We are aware that some stakeholders have outstanding concerns with the guidance on the Census sex question. ONS has continued to engage with users and stakeholders about this and we recognise the efforts being made to provide answers or explanations on areas of concern. ONS should seek to address outstanding concerns raised by users within its further question testing and research on the guidance on the sex question. ONS should share the outcomes of this research in a transparent and open way.”

He notes in particular the need for the census authorities to address concerns about subgroup effects, as previously highlighted by Professor Sullivan and her co-signatories. (We have also written about the impact of a self-identified sex question on data reliability here).

“The assessment team thinks it essential for ONS to consider the concerns raised by users during its further testing and research on the guidance on the sex question, and consider the impact of data quality on the analysis of small sub-groups of the population.”

The regulator also advised NRS that it should continue to engage with stakeholders, particularly around areas of contention:

“NRS should continue to engage with stakeholders particularly in relation to areas of contention, meet any commitments it has made, and seek to provide answers or explanations on areas of concern, in a transparent and open way.”

Meanwhile in Scotland…
In Scotland data users have repeatedly raised concerns about the NRS’ proposed guidance on the sex question. A year ago, a group of Scottish academics wrote to the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs (CTEEA) committee of the Scottish Parliament, which was at that point beginning its scrutiny of the draft census order.

Correspondence published by the CTEEA committee shows that three of the academics met with NRS in October 2019 to discuss their concerns about the sex question guidance. The correspondence also reveals the academics’ frustration with NRS officials, and states that the draft minute produced by NRS ‘misrepresents’ the meeting, and omits parts of the discusssion. 

In June 2020, two Scottish academics – Professors Susan McVie and Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University – wrote to the Registrar General, Paul Lowe (the most senior official in NRS) to ask about NRS’ plans for involving data users in the development of the guidance in Scotland. In response, Mr Lowe stated that the CTEEA committee had already approved the guidance.

Professors McVie and Paterson sought to verify this with the CTEEA committee Convener Joan McAlpine MSP, who disputed the claim made by Mr Lowe, and confirmed that the Committee has no locus to approve the guidance.

At an oral evidence session with NRS officials on 17 September 2020, Ms McAlpine questioned the Registrar General on his misrepresentation of the Committee’s role vis-à-vis the guidance, asking him whether he would you like to take the opportunity to clarify that what you told them was not the case and that the committee does not have the ability to approve or disapprove the guidance”. In response, Mr Lowe stated that he had written to the two professors to clarify this position.

As of today…
As far as we can deduce, the sex question guidance in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has not yet been finalised, and is currently subject to further testing by ONS. But, whilst the census has been delayed in Scotland, the NRS appear to be treating the guidance as a done deal. Whether the recent assessment by OSR will prompt NRS to reopen discussion on the guidance remains to be seen. There is still also the possibility of ONS either altering or dropping its guidance as a result of further testing, which NRS will need to factor into its decision-making.

There is little more than six months to go before the census questionnaire lands in the inboxes and letterboxes of citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What is clear is that serious concerns on the part of the UK’s leading social scientists about the deliberate disruption being planned to the collection of information on a major population characteristic, in the country’s most comprehensive and expensive data collection exercise, remain unaddressed.