ONS with egg on its face as it is forced to change guidance

I supported Fair Play For Women’s campaign to challenge the ONS guidance on responding to the Census question What is your sex? and am delighted that the High Court found in their favour and that the ONS agreed yesterday to change their guidance. Legal sex now means what it always has meant… the sex on your birth certificate. Not on a passport which does not require any legal process to change. Dr Nicola Williams, director of Fair Play For Women, said after the verdict,

“Being male or female is a biological reality that affects all our lives. That’s why it’s important to collect accurate data on sex in the Census. Sex data gets corrupted if the ONS conflates sex with the idea of a feeling, called gender identity, under the question ‘What is your sex?’.”

 I was alarmed when I read nearly three years ago now that the ONS was considering permitting the response to the question of sex to be made on the basis of gender identity. Yes this had been allowed in 2011 when the guidance was online only and the census was mostly filled in on paper. Importantly then there was no separate question on gender identity in the Census and the numbers were considered few enough that permitting trans people to answer according to their identity not their birth sex would not corrupt the data. This should have been regarded as a one off.

The numbers of people coming under the trans definition have grown hugely over the past ten years. It used to mean transsexuals of which there were an estimated five thousand but today it now includes cross dressers and all variety of people who wish to describe themselves in other ways, rather than men or women and runs into the hundreds of thousands.

There is in the 2021 Census for the first time a separate question on gender identity. This is to be welcomed. Retaining the guidance on sex would result in gender identity being asked twice. As a social scientist and researcher this looked to me and plenty of others like a disaster for statistical reliability.  We would have ended up without the robust data on the trans population that supporters so rightly wanted and is sorely needed and we would have had the statistics on sex, particularly in certain age groups, skewed.  The Census is used for social and health policy development and referred to constantly by thousands of researchers and social historians. The careful wording of questions (and guidance) is fundamental to any well-designed survey and the ONS is generally regarded as the gold standard.

This fact has already led to other organisations, like the NHS and the GEO  following suit and conflating sex with gender identity in their own surveys and it has seeped into public policy.  I am not sure what happened round at the ONS but it looks increasingly as if it was influenced not by statistical authority but by political ideology and lobbying. This really isn’t good enough. The ONS has egg on their faces and it looks like they won’t be the only ones. Gender identity is not the same as legal sex.