Time to fight for the principle of collecting data on biological sex

Today, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has published draft guidance entitled ‘Collecting and reporting data about sex in official statistics’. The guidance sets out what producers should consider when collecting and reporting data about sex, to meet the expected standards of trustworthiness, quality, and value, as outlined in the Code of Practice for Statistics.

Our own entry into the debate about gender self-identification and women’s sex-based rights was via our scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s draft Census (Amendment) Bill. The Bill as introduced to the Scottish Parliament in October 2018 conflated the distinct concepts of sex and gender identity. As the legislation progressed through Parliament, it became increasingly clear that in planning the questions on sex and gender identity, both the National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics had privileged the views of groups claiming to represent the trans community, over and above groups representing women and relevant data experts. Our further research in this area showed how the introduction of ‘self-identification’ guidance in the 2011 census had taken place at the request of LGBT groups, without wider consultation or scrutiny.

This work led us to review other large governmental datasets, and in June 2020 we wrote to the OSR to register our concern about the reliability of some of the statistics published in Criminal Proceedings in Scotland. We asked OSR to consider undertaking an investigation in both Scotland, and England and Wales, where Ministry of Justice technical guidance showed that sex was inconsistently recorded across the criminal justice system.

Later that summer, we were approached by OSR officials, who had begun work on draft guidance for public authorities on the collection of data on sex. Following our meeting, we wrote to them summarising our key concerns. We are publishing a copy of this letter today.

We are pleased to see that many of the concerns we raised have been addressed in the draft guidance published today.  We welcome the emphasis on transparency, impartiality and serving the public interest, on the need for consultation with data users and relevant subject experts, on the need for greater clarity as to what data represents, and consideration as to how data collection practice impact on reliability at a smaller sub-group level. We also welcome the expectation that data producers understand what data they can legally collect on sex, and comply with relevant legislation. In particular, we welcome the expectation that future changes to data collection practices are made in consultation, and that retrospective decision-making is acknowledged and explained:

‘Decisions about whether to continue, discontinue or adapt statistics about sex should be made in discussion with users and other stakeholders. If a change is made to data collection, or if information about a data collection practice emerges which makes it clear that the nature of the data may have been previously misunderstood, a clear explanation of the change should be published, with evidence of the rationale and, wherever possible, the analysis that informed the change.’

The OSR draft guidance makes clear the processes data producers must undertake whenever they make changes to the way in which they record data on sex. It does not however, take a view on the substantive issues that remain squarely in play: namely, how sex is defined, and the principle of the importance of collecting data on biological sex.

Over the last two years, we have observed many public bodies making bold claims about changing societal views and ideas about sex. These are never properly substantiated. No public body that advocates the over-writing of sex with gender identity as a concept with salience in public policymaking has justified why data on biological sex is no longer required. As we stated in our letter to the OSR: ‘We are not aware of any evidence to indicate that a person’s sex is no longer a key determinant of their life experiences and opportunities, from birth onwards, across a range of policy fields, including health, education and criminal justice’.

We think the burden of proof remains with those who advocate the abandonment of collecting data on biological sex in favour of data on some form of self-declared gender identity. And yet, we rarely, if ever, see the case being made.

It is now well documented that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has failed to make a case for reframing the sex question in the census as one no longer about respondents’ biological sex. Indeed, against a backdrop of obfuscation and long-standing partiality, it is difficult to see how ONS decision-making on the sex question guidance meets any of the expectations set out today by the OSR. In particular, their decision to publish a finalised version of the guidance for the sex question little more than five weeks before census day might have been designed to thwart the ability of campaigners to halt the process.

The principle that data on biological sex matters is critical and the debate must be had and in full public view.

The time for standing up to defend that principle is now.