NEWS10 March 2021

Judge orders change to census guidance on sex question

News Public Sector UK

UK – A high court judge has ruled that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) must change the guidance for the sex question in the forthcoming census in England and Wales.

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On Tuesday ( 9th March), Mr Justice Swift ruled that the wording of the guidance on the question about a person’s sex should be updated to remove the words "such as” and “or passport” to make it clear that respondents should base their answer on their birth certificate or gender recognition certificate.

The judge also gave permission for the case to proceed to a full judicial review, to take place before census day next week.

The ruling follows a crowd-funded legal challenge from campaign group Fair Play for Women. The group claimed that the wording of the guidance allowed “sex self-identification through the back door”.

Taking place on 21st March, the census will for the first time include a question about gender identity in addition to the question about sex.

The ONS’ target concept of the question ‘What is your sex?’ is sex as recorded on legal/official documents.

The guidance for the question, published in the online census only, said: "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.

"If you are aged 16 years or over, there is a later voluntary question on gender identity. This asks if the gender you identify with is different from your sex registered at birth. If it is different, you can then record your gender identity."

The sex question has been asked in the census since 1801 and is used to monitor equality between groups of people of different sexes.

An ONS spokesperson said: "We are continuing to ask a binary choice, female or male, sex question on the census. This approach is unchanged since 1801. There is a new voluntary question on gender identity for people aged 16 years and over later in the questionnaire.

"As with previous censuses, most people will not need help to answer the sex question. For those that do, we are providing guidance, as we do for all census questions. In line with the court’s order to grant interim relief we are amending this guidance to advise they use sex as recorded on a birth certificate or gender recognition certificate."

The survey in England and Wales and the Northern Ireland census, which take place every 10 years, will be conducted predominantly online in 2021. Scotland has postponed its census for a year due to Covid-19.

Last month, the mayor of London and the chair of London Councils raised concerns over the census, saying that existing data collection barriers in the capital, including language issues and internal migration, will be "exacerbated" by Covid-19.