Data Collection

Why the census sex question needs to be protected

The census does not exist to validate anyone’s identity. We all have a sex, we all know it, and on census day we all need to be honest about it.

Since 1801 the decennial census has asked us to state our sex. But never before has such a simple question generated such controversy. Yesterday, it ended up before a high court judge. With the 2021 census less than two weeks away, Mr Justice Swift ruled that the guidance accompanying the question should be changed.

The legal action, brought by the campaigning group Fair Play for Women (FPFW), arose after the Office of National Statistics (ONS) backtracked on a promise made by Sir Ian Diamond – the UK’s National Statistician. In January, Diamond was very clear on the Today programme, when he said, ‘The question on sex is very simply your legal sex.’

Sex matters. In the words of the ONS, ‘Sex, as biologically determined, is one of the most frequently used and important characteristics the census collects’

Therefore, Diamond’s shift to ‘legal sex’ should have worried any enumerator concerned about the accuracy of the census. Transsexuals like me might be able to change our legal sex with a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), but no government document can alter our biology. Even so, with only around 6,000 GRCs in existence, the impact on the data would have been limited.

But then ONS guidance released in February rang more alarm bells, saying ‘If you are considering how to answer, use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, gender recognition certificate, or passport.’

That is a nonsense. While medical reports are still needed for a GRC hence a new birth certificate, the sex recorded on your passport can be changed much more easily. HM Passport Office is satisfied with a letter signed by a GP stating that ‘a change of gender is likely to be permanent’. In my case I drafted the letter myself from wording that I had downloaded from the internet. It really was that simple.

But worse than that were the ONS’s weaselly words, ‘such as’, that threw the question wide open to interpretation. Such as a driving licence, perhaps? Or maybe a bus pass? Or even a library ticket? This was self-identification by the back door, reducing sex from a fact to a mere opinion.

The phenomenal campaign by FPFW – they raised £101,000 from 3,000 people in only 14 days to bring this action – exposed the vacuous nature of the ONS’s arguments: according to FPFW, counsel for the ONS apparently claimed that sex could be a matter of social identification, with a range of answers.

We can only speculate where this nonsense came from, but like so many other organisations, the ONS has dutifully signed up to Stonewall UK’s Diversity Champion’s programme, handing over £33,000 of our money since 2006 to enjoy access to ‘policy reviews by the Stonewall team’. That would be the team that congratulated the ONS on ‘clear and inclusive guidance on how to answer the Census sex question.’

Thankfully the judge thought differently and ruled that the guidance should be changed back to legal sex pending a full judicial review before census day.

Lisa MacKenzie, of the Edinburgh-based policy collective MurrayBlackburnMackenzie, noted that the ONS guidance had been quickly changed online:

The guidance should stay that way without the need for the full judicial review. Enough money has been wasted by the ONS trying to defend the right of people to make up answers on the census.

The women who brought this action need to be congratulated. But they are not the only beneficiaries. Made-up answers benefit nobody – transgender people like me need reliable data to inform service provision, and monitor our experiences. We may choose to identify as transmen, transwomen or non-binary but we cannot escape our sex.

Unfortunately, some trans people could not give a damn about the integrity of the data. Kathryn Bristow – co-chair of Green Party Women and a transwoman – was defiant, saying ‘I’m putting female, even though I don’t have a GRC’.

Transgender journalist Paris Lees was similarly truculent: ‘I want to be clear to the people behind this campaign: I won’t comply. I expect I’m not the only one. I won’t submit to your attempts to control me.’

How does the accurate completion of a census form control anyone? The census does not exist to validate anyone’s identity. We all have a sex, we all know it, and on census day we all need to be honest about it.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 10 March 2021: Why the census sex question needs to be protected.

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

One reply on “Why the census sex question needs to be protected”

It certainly seems to me that public resources and funding could be better allocated to transgender needs if accurate data is gathered about sex and gender identity, and not conflating the two.


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