The UK’s 2021Census recommendations on four new ethnic group ‘tick-boxes’ takes into account social and political context

The Office of National Statistics [The UK Statistics Authority] has released a white paper, ‘Help Shape Our Future”, which sets out its proposals for conducting the 2021 Census in England and Wales. One section of this specifically looks at the question of adding new tick-boxes of ethnicity, two of which are currently tick-boxes in the Religion category. These recommendations are based on the results of the ONS’s 2017 Consultation, where they committed to undertake a review of the ethnic group response options. Four groups would be reviewed to see if new options were needed they are: Roma, Somali, Sikh and Jewish [the latter two have previously been only under Religion]

Data on the ethnic groups was considered necessary by the ONS in order to “understand inequality, inform and monitor policy development, allocate resources and plan services”. The consultation with these groups included informal interviews at Roma community events, focus groups to understand the impact on the Gypsy or Irish Traveller community of potentially adding a “Roma” tick-box, and cognitive interviews with Black, African, Caribbean or Black British participants to understand the best way to obtain more detailed data on ethnically Somali individuals. Such engagement led to the conclusion that evidence was not provided that further forms of identification were necessary for Somali, Sikh or Jewish communities however there was some evidence provided which supported the usefulness of adding a “Roma” tick-box.

The consultation illustrates the sensitivities that arise when governments seek to acquire and record information of its population. While some members of these communities believe a tick-box gives them recognition and means that important data collection for resource allocation is done on behalf of their community, leading to possible policy development, others have viewed the possible inclusion of their ‘ethnicity’ as unsuitable, inappropriate or viewed it with suspicion due to a history of discrimination based on this ‘ethnicity’.

Adding a tick-box for the Roma community appears to be most grounded in the need for policy development. For example, the ONS describes how the UK’s National Health Service has highlighted that the data that is available suggests that the group “experiences considerably worse health, and lower life expectancy, than average. There is also a need for Roma data for school place planning, planning housing developments, meeting language requirements, and in understanding the community’s higher unemployment rates and lower educational outcomes compared to other communities. There is “consistent support” within the community for a “Roma” tick-box.

Similarly, the Somali Community representatives and stakeholders consulted believe that the significant disadvantage that the Somali Community was experiencing in housing, employment, health and education could be helped by better data on the ethnically Somali population. However, the focus groups saw that the inclusion of a specific “Somali” tick-box, as the only African ethnicity to have a tick-box, raised suspicions among Somali participants with higher literacy levels,  who questioned why this data was needed and suggested that it “reflected a history of discrimination against the Somali population”. Black African participants also questioned why Somalis were singled out, raising concerns as to the fairness of this. Furthermore, many participants felt that a specific tick-box would stop them from being able to identify themselves as African, an important part of their ethnic identity. Again a reflection of the importance of taking into account the social and political context in which censuses operate, participants said that they “often felt they were denied this identity by other groups of African heritage who suggested they were “not really African” due to differences of language, hair and religion.”

Consultation with the Jewish community also reflects this importance, with the inclusion of a “Jewish” tick-box considered “highly unacceptable”, since it was “perceived as a negative attempt to “single out” the Jewish population and evoked comparisons to World War 2 Germany”, with personal experiences of present-day anti-Semitism meaning many were reluctant to disclose their Jewish identity in certain social situations, as well as an official form.

Research within the Sikh community has suggested that the existing Sikh religion tick-box will capture virtually all Sikhs in the UK. However the Sikh Federation (UK) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs have criticised this strongly, suggesting such a decision has opened itself up to ‘legal action and a claim of institutionalising discrimination against Sikhs’.

Another group angered by the ONS are campaigners from the Cornish Nationalist Party, as reported in the BBC, who had called for a tick-box akin to that of Welsh, Scottish and Irish. The ONS said that the calls were “very localised and not strong enough to justify its inclusion in the nationwide census” Dick Coke of Mbyon Kernow (the Cornish National Party), said such a decision was “illogical, prejudicial, disrespectful and just plain wrong” because “The Cornish are recognised as a national minority though the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, just the same as the Irish, Scots and Welsh”, and so arguing that they are the only national minority denied a tick-box.

The ONS also recommends including questions about sexual orientation and gender identity for those aged 16 and above.  This will ask whether someone considers themselves straight, gay or bisexual. The questions will be voluntary on the form. Research by the ONS found that 30 percent of the survey population did not support the inclusion of the new sexuality questions, however they said that the questions “will make it easier to monitor inequalities” in the minority groups.

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