The report, Sex and the Census, which analysed the decision-making processes of the ONS and NRS using public documents and Freedom of Information requests, claims that both organisations failed to properly consult on potential changes to answering the question on what sex a person is, which would result in allowing people to “self identify” as the opposite sex and potentially skew the information collected.
Funded through Research England’s Strategic Priorities Fund allocation to Oxford University, and written by Professor Selina Todd, Dr Jane Clare Jones, and Lisa Mackenzie – one third of the Scottish policy collective MurrayBlackburnMackenzie – the report says it shows how the organisations “privileged the views of one group over and above those of others”.
However both the ONS and the NRS rejected the suggestion their policies had been “captured” and said they had undertaken “wide-ranging consultation and engagement” on the next Census, due to be held in England and Wales next year, and in Scotland in 2022.
The report, states that recent developments at the ONS and NRS have “led to changes to the sex question in the census" meaning the sex question now records ‘self-identified sex’, or gender identity, rather than biological sex”.
It adds: “These changes have been made in a way which lacks democratic transparency and accountability. We attribute these developments to a process of ‘policy capture,’ whereby public policy becomes skewed in favour of one particular interest group over and above others. In the case of the census, the demands of groups which claim to represent the interests of the trans community have been privileged to the detriment of women, but also to those who require robust data on sex to plan public services, allocate public resources and monitor equalities outcomes.”
In Scotland the Census Bill proved controversial after the possibility of a “third sex” question was mooted to allow non-binary people the opportunity of avoiding saying if they were male or female. There was also tense debate around whether transgender people should be able to answer the question as how they identify rather than their biological sex.
Holyrood's Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee which was dealing with the Bill recommended the sex question remain binary, which has been accepted by the government, although guidance to answer the question will allow transgender people to tick the box they identify with rather than their biological sex. There will also, for the first time, be a voluntary question about whether someone is transgender.
Similar arguments have been debated in England and Wales where the ONS is in charge of setting the questions, although the guidance to answer the sex question has not yet been finalised.
Report author, Dr Jane Clare Jones said: “Our analysis demonstrates that the Census authorities have reframed the long-standing sex question as a question about gender identity, not biological sex. They have persistently failed to recognise women as important stakeholders in the development of Census questions on both sex and gender identity. Nor have they involved expert data users in any meaningful way.”
Lisa Mackenzie of MBM, added: “Our report shows that, in developing the questions on sex and gender identity in the next Scottish census, NRS privileged the views and demands of groups claiming to speak on behalf of trans people as a whole over and above other interests, and expert data users.
"In doing so NRS lost sight of the main purpose of the Census, which is to collect robust, high quality data to inform public policy and the allocation of public resources. They also overlooked the needs and interests of women, losing sight of how they suffer disadvantage and discrimination on the basis of sex. The guidance that NRS are currently proposing effectively reframes the sex question as one about self-declared gender identity, thereby jeopardising the collection of robust, high quality data on sex.”
However both the NRS and ONS rejected the report’s claims. An NRS spokesperson said: “National Records of Scotland has engaged, and will continue to do so, with a wide range of stakeholders as it prepares for Scotland’s Census in 2022. A sex question has been asked in Scotland’s Census since 1801 and a binary sex question with self-identification guidance will be asked for the 2022 Census.”
A spokesperson for the ONS added: “The ONS is continuing to use the binary sex question asking if a person is female or male. This approach is unchanged since 1801.
“We undertook three years of extensive research, consultation and engagement with a wide range of groups and individuals in making the recommendations for the 2021 Census to ensure the best data is captured. The majority of people respond to the sex question without needing to access guidance. The guidance to be used for this question in 2021 is still under consideration and yet to be finalised.
“An entirely separate, voluntary question for people aged 16 and over who wish to identify their gender as different to their sex registered at birth is included elsewhere in the census.”