New Scottish census bill conflates sex and gender – report

Holyrood committee says census should keep male/female binary sex options

Serious lack of consultation with women’s groups has led to the publication of legislation that is not fit for purpose and conflates sex and gender identity, according to a highly critical report on proposed changes to Scotland’s census.

The report by Holyrood’s culture, tourism, Europe and external affairs committee, published on Thursday, also recommends that the sex question in the census retains the binary options of male or female, despite calls from transgender equality groups to include a third non-binary alternative, ideally offering a write-in box for individuals to define themselves using their preferred terminology.

Last month, the Guardian reported on warnings from policy analysts and data experts that moving to a non-binary sex question puts at significant risk the reliability of census data, which is key to policy development, research and strategic planning of public services.

The census (amendment) (Scotland) bill, which prepares for the next census in 2021, proposes that new questions on sexual orientation and transgender identity should be voluntary, a move which is largely uncontroversial.

In its guidance for the bill, National Records of Scotland also proposed that the mandatory sex question should include a non-binary response option as well as male and female. This formula was recently rejected by the Office for National Statistics for the next census in England and Wales in favour of maintaining the binary male/female sex question and adding a voluntary question on gender identity for those aged over 16.

The committee convener, Joan McAlpine MSP, said: “The purpose of the census is to accurately reflect our society and gather vital information for the provision of public services and the development of policy. However, there has been a serious lack of consultation, with a range of women’s groups, which has led to legislation being published which is not fit for purpose.”

McAlpine added that “some of the language within the legislation has created confusion and a perception that the bill conflates issues around sex and gender identity,” and supported proposals from the LGBTI campaigners the Equality Network to instead use the term “trans status” to identify the new, voluntary question which enables trans people to identify themselves.

“To maximise response rates and ensure consistency, a majority of the committee concluded that the sex question should remain binary. People who identify as transgender or non-binary will still have the option of a separate question on their identity, which the committee agreed should be voluntary.”

But the Equality Network’s Vic Valentine, while welcoming the committee’s support for the general principles of the bill, warned that restricting the compulsory sex question to male and female answers “means that, once again, non-binary people like myself will not be able to answer the question correctly and honestly”.

Lisa Mackenzie of the policy analysts Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, which had previously warned that the 2021 census could end up using a different interpretation of “sex” than was present in current law, said: “Retaining a binary sex question that is consistent with the Equality Act 2010 is essential for enabling public authorities to fulfil their obligations under the public sector equality duty. It will also enable comparison with previous censuses, and align with the 2021 census in England and Wales.”

A National Records of Scotland spokesperson said: “The intention behind the Census Bill has never been to conflate sex and gender identity and we will consider the issues raised in the report.”


Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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