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Wording of some census questions causes controversy

As Census Day approaches on Sunday 21 March, the Office for National Statistics has found itself in the dock, literally and figuratively, on the controversial wording of some of the questions in this year’s survey. Nick Terdre reports.

The ONS, which is responsible for running the census in England and Wales, was taken to court by Fair Play for Women, which accused it of conflating sex and gender identification in its enquiry about the sex of the respondent. Instead of collecting data on both the legal sex of respondents and the gender they identify with, the campaign group was concerned that in a late change of mind, the ONS was guiding people to reply to the question “What is your legal sex?” by reference to documents such as their passport.

FPW argued that the birth certificate is the only official document that records one’s legal sex. Other documents, including passports, can be updated without the need for a gender recognition certificate, which provides official acknowledgement of a change of gender.

The judge, Mr Justice Swift, accepted that FPW had a valid case for a judicial review of the matter, which will be held on 18 March, and in the interim ruled that the ONS should change its online guidance to indicate that the question should only be answered by reference to one’s birth certificate or gender recognition certificate.

Separately the census includes a later voluntary question on gender identity, which asks if the gender you identify with is different from your sex registered at birth. If that is the case, you can then record your gender identity.


Religion is another sensitive issue, and the wording of the question on religious affiliation – “What is your religion?” – has raised the hackles of Humanists UK. Andrew Copson, its chief executive, told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme this weekend that, “The leading and presumptuous nature of the question causes around half of the people who tick ‘no religion’ on other questions to tick a religious box or to skip the question completely.

“Now that matters because the undercounting of the non religious has consequences in government policy decisions locally and nationally in the allocation of resources where issues of religious belief are relevant.”

And that neatly sums up why ONS urges everyone to fill in their census form – it is an important source of data which is used to inform public policy decisions and help decide the funding which accompanies them. The more accurately the results reflect the situation on the ground, whether the number of the population, their socio-economic circumstances, ethnic make-up or whatever, the better feedback from the census can perform this role.

But although it is a legal requirement and non compliance is punishable with a fine of up to £1,000, many either cannot be bothered or are resistant to completing the census form. At the last survey in 2011, the response rate in Hastings in 2011 was 91%, somewhat below the 94% achieved in Rother which was also the national average.

Meanwhile local peace activists will join others around the country in protesting against the £65m contract awarded to US defence contractor Leidos for processing the census results by filling in paper forms upside down to make life difficult for the company’s automated processing systems.

“Lots of British people are likely to feel uncomfortable adding to the profits of a giant US arms company developing weapons of death and providing IT services to those who’ve been waging war in Afghanistan and around the world for decades,” said Peace News co-editor Milan Rai of St Leonards.

Jumping the gun

In the court case mentioned above it also emerged that many people have filled in their census return prematurely – around one fifth of households, or some 3m. This was possible because for the first time the ONS is aiming to receive most responses online, via a computer, mobile phone or tablet. Letters were sent to all households at the beginning of the month with a code giving online access to the form for each address, and the census website had already gone live.

All households should therefore have received a letter with information about the census. Paper copies of the form are available on request for those who prefer to respond in the traditional way.

Census support centres have been set up in

  • Hastings by Hastings Voluntary Action, at Central Hall in Station Road, TN34 1NG (phone 014 2444 4010, email;
  • St Leonards by the Seaview Project at Southwater Centre, Hatherley Road, TN37 6LB (phone 014 2471 7981, email, and
  • Rother by Rother Voluntary Action, 47 London Road, Bexhill-on-Sea TN39 3JY (phone 014 2421 4524, email

Or you can contact Hastings and Rother’s census engagement manager, Harry Farmer (phone (07452 942 713, email

After census day field workers will visit households from which no census form has been received to encourage them to fill one in and provide any help they might need. They will be issued with personal protective equipment and will follow the standard Covid advice, maintaining social distance and not entering anyone’s house.

Hastings profile

The 2011 census generated the following profile of Hastings.

Population 90,254, of whom 48.8% were male and 51.2% female.
Age distribution 17.3% were aged 0-14, 12.8% 15-24, 25.8% 25-44, 27% 45-64 and 17.1% 65 or more.
Ethnicity White groups accounted for 93.8% of the town’s residents, mixed/multiple ethnic groups 2.1%, Asian/Asian British groups 2.3%, Black/African/Caribbean/Black British groups 1.1% and other ethnic groups 0.6%.
Religious affiliation Christian 51.9%, no religion 36.6%, Muslim 1.3%, Buddhist and Hindu 0.5% each, Jewish 0.2%, other 0.7%, no answer 8.3%.
Long -term health problems or disability Day-to-day activities limited a lot 10.6%, day-to-day activities limited a little 11.5%, day-to-day activities not limited 77.9%.

This article was amended by Nick Terdre on 16 March 2021.

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Posted 09:51 Tuesday, Mar 16, 2021 In: Society

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