Whose views count? Losing sight of sex in the Police Scotland ‘Your Police’ survey

grayscale photography of people walking near buildings

In a recent press article, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey police Lisa Townsend stated that police forces should collect data on both sex and gender identity.  The remarks were made as part of a wider commentary on sex and gender identity, which variously touched on issues such as prison searches, single-sex spaces, and the influence of groups advocating for gender self-identification.

“We need to capture all data that might be relevant. I have no problem whatsoever with officers recording gender identity. I think that’s actually a really useful thing to do, as long as we’re also recording sex. I don’t see how anyone with legitimate concerns could have a problem with that. We need data on sex, particularly around rape and serious sexual assaults – both to get a picture of perpetrators and to support victims, including trans people.”

The Commissioner’s concerns around data are relevant both to crime data (see for example, our petition on accurately recording rape), and to other types of data collected by police forces, including survey data.

This blog looks at data recording practices in relation to Police Scotland’s local policing survey, ‘Your Police’, which asks people about a range of topics, including how safe they feel in their local area, their concerns about crime, confidence in different aspects of local policing, experiences of contacting the police, and victimisation. The survey also collects a range of demographic information, although it does not collect data on sex. We argue that this omission is misjudged, given what we know about sex differences across a range of policing related experiences and outcomes, as well as Police Scotland’s duties under the Equality Act. We conclude that the current survey delivers an uncomfortable message about whose views count and suggest that Police Scotland amend this to collect data on both sex and gender identity. 

‘Your Police’ survey

On 30 April 2021 Police Scotland launched its latest ‘Your Police 2021-2022’ online survey, aimed at understanding the ‘views and priorities of Scotland’s diverse communities’. First launched in 2019, the survey seeks to engage with different communities across Scotland and is communicated via corporate social media and targeted communications, relying on people’s willingness to take part. In 2020-2021, the survey secured over 36,000 responses.

To capture data on the views of different groups of respondents, the survey asks a series of demographic questions, including age-group, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health, and religion. The survey also asks about the respondent’s gender identity (Male; Female; Non-binary (gender neutral); Other (please specify); Prefer not to say), and separately, whether the respondent considers themselves trans or has a trans history. The survey does not however, ask for the respondent’s sex.

Why doesn’t the ‘Your Police’ survey collect data on sex?  

In response to a query from a member of the public about the lack of a sex question, the Police Scotland Research and Insight Team stated that “we do not need to know someone’s biological sex characteristics. What is important, is how they identify their gender”.

The full response is shown below:

“We aim to ensure that the way in which we ask equality monitoring questions is as accessible and inclusive as possible. And, importantly, that we only ask questions where it is relevant to do so. For us, this particular question is important so that we are able to ensure our services (in this context, local policing) are relevant, accessible and inclusive for everyone.

We ask about someone’s gender identity, rather than their biological sex characteristics, because we know that the gender of a person (which may or may not be the same as they were assigned at birth) is a key factor which shapes people’s experiences of local policing. Understanding the views and experiences of Scotland’s diverse communities is critical for our approach to policing in Scotland.

As a key public service in Scotland, it is vital that we are inclusive to all; including people who are LGBTI, and those who aren’t. Having a question which asks about gender identity, rather than biological sex, is part of our inclusive approach. As we don’t deliver services where the physical sex characteristics of a person would change how we deliver those services, e.g. health services, we do not need to know someone’s biological sex characteristics. What is important, is how they identify their gender. For most people, their biological sex will match the gender identity assigned to them at birth. For people where this is not the case, we want to create an environment where they know that their experiences and views are welcomed and valued.”

The Police Scotland explanation is surprising on several counts, not least because sex is an established determinant across a range of policing related outcomes and experiences. We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that physical sex is no longer relevant to policing, as the Police Scotland response asserts. Further, as a protected characteristic, Police Scotland are required to take sex into account for equality monitoring purposes, and when developing its policies.

Does physical sex matter in policing?

“As we don’t deliver services where the physical sex characteristics of a person would change how we deliver those services, e.g. health services, we do not need to know someone’s biological sex characteristics. What is important, is how they identify their gender.”

A large body of research and data shows that sex matters in policing, including areas directly asked about in the survey. Given the weight of existing evidence and data, we think that the Research and Insight team is most likely mistaken when it states that Police Scotland do not “deliver services where the physical sex characteristics of a person would change how we deliver those services”. Whilst it is true that Police Scotland has adopted a range of policies based on self-defined gender identity, including crime recording practices, it seems implausible that, for example, policing responses for victims of rape or sexual assault do not take physical sex into account.

In relation to feeling safe in public, the 2019/20 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) reported that 65% of women felt ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ safe walking alone after dark in their local area, compared to 90% of men. Data from the European Social Survey (ESS) showed that in all 29 countries included in the survey, men reported feeling safer than women while walking alone in their local area after dark, and that in Britain, 32% of women felt unsafe or very unsafe walking alone at night, compared to just 13% of men. Recent data from the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OLS) also shows significant differences between men and women’s perceptions of personal safety.

Experiences of victimisation vary by sex for some crime types, with particularly sharp differences for crimes such as sexual assault. In 2020 Police Scotland recorded 1,636 female victims of rape and 103 male victims. Data from the 2019/20 SCJS shows that 6.1% of women had experienced at least one form of serious sexual assault since the age of 16, compared to 0.8% of men (Table 7.14a), while 16.2% of women had experienced at least one incident of either indecent exposure, sexual threats, or unwanted sexual touching, compared to 3.6% of men (Table 7.01a). Similarly, the OLS survey found significant differences in men and women’s experiences of harassment. In relation to SCJS defined partner abuse, over a fifth of female respondents (21.2%) reported having experienced physical or psychological abuse since the age of 16, nearly double that of male respondents (11.2%) (Table 9.6). Recent analysis by Karen Ingala-Smith, using ONS data, shows that that 87% of people killed by current or former partners between 2009 and 2020 were women,

While research generally points to higher levels of overall confidence in policing among women, compared to men (for example, Matthews et al, 2020), there are marked differences in levels of reporting sexual crimes to the police, compared to other crime types. For example, of those 2019/20 SCJS female respondents who had experienced forced sexual intercourse since the age of sixteen, 24% said that the police were informed about the most recent (or only) incident (Table 7.26a). The most common reason for not reporting was fear that it would make matters worse (47%). A further 15% stated that the police would not take it seriously, and 13% stated that the police could have done nothing about it (Table 7.27a). By contrast, 48% of those who had experienced violent crime and assault in 2019/20, said the police had come to know about the matter (Table 3.26).

Protected characteristics and the Public Sector Equality Duty

we do not need to know someone’s biological sex characteristics

Sex is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Gender identity is not a protected characteristic. As part of the Public Sector Equality Duty, the Equality Act requires all public bodies to; eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment, and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not; and to foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. In addition, under the Scottish Specific Duties, Police Scotland is required to publish equality outcomes and report progress, and to assess and review its policies and practices, in relation to the protected characteristics.

Data from the ‘Your Police’ survey is used to develop the Police Scotland Annual Police Plan (2021: para. 2.1) and to monitor public confidence during the pandemic (2021: 8). However the approach to data collection in the survey makes it impossible to assess the protected characteristic of sex for these purposes.      

Whose views and experiences count?

We have previously documented how the views and demands of some interest groups are privileged over and above others in the policy making process, to the detriment of women. That the Police Scotland response cited above uncritically refers to gender identity as ‘assigned at birth’ and asserts this ‘is a key factor which shapes people’s experiences of local policing’ is suggestive of the same dynamics; of organisational thinking influenced by those advocating for the adoption of self-declared gender identity in public policymaking.

A failure to seek the views of all relevant groups is likely to have practical consequences in at least two ways. Firstly, and most clearly, there is a data shortfall. Whilst aimed at capturing the views of Scotland’s diverse communities, as currently framed the survey omits the views of people with the protected characteristic of sex. While public confidence is a Strategic Police Priority (SPP) for Police Scotland, its major annual survey tells us nothing about people’s views and experiences, based on their sex.   

Secondly, we think the current framing is likely to influence who responds to the survey. While some people strongly believe that everyone has a gender identity, which may be different from their sex at birth, other people reject the concept, viewing it as rooted in retrogressive sex-based stereotypes. As confirmed in the judgment in the case of Forstater v CGD Europe and others, both positions are protected beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. However, in only asking about only one concept, instead of both, it is likely that some people, in particular women, will object to the framing and choose not to take part.

The assertion that ‘we only ask questions where it is relevant to do so’ delivers a particularly uncomfortable message about whose experiences and views count. Given that the survey “can be amended to include thematic and timeous questions when the need arises” (Police Scotland, 2021: 12), Police Scotland should revise the survey to collect data on both sex and gender identity;[i] that is, to recognise that both sex and gender identity can be relevant to people‘s experiences, and to make its data collection practices consistent with its responsibilities under the Equality Act.


[i] This would follow the precedent set by changes to the sex question in the England and Wales census, after data collection had begun. Following a legal challenge brought by the campaign group Fair Play for Women, the High Court ruled that the Office for National Statistics must change the guidance accompanying the sex question in the England and Wales census, which had effectively framed the question in terms of self-defined gender identity. The change was made, despite around three million households having already returned their census forms.