The Office for National Statistics has announced it will start to ask a question about sexual orientation on surveys from next year.

Karen Dunnell, the head of the ONS, said:

“Better measurement of equality is essential, if we are properly to analyse, understand and address inequalities in society.

“The new survey question has been carefully designed through a programme of testing and consultation.

“Testing has shown that the vast majority of people are willing and able to answer the question.

“ONS puts great emphasis on maintaining confidentiality of data.”

From January all major ONS surveys of people over 16, such as the labour force survey and the integrated household survey (IHS) will ask if they are straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual or other.

However, the decision to include a question on sexual orientation is not an indication that a similar question will be added to the 2011 Census.

Questions on ONS surveys are voluntary, whereas the content of the Census must be approved by Parliament and it is compulsory to fill it out.

Stonewall had lobbied the ONS to improve its data gathering on the UK’s gay population.

“We believe that solid evidence is essential to good policy making,” a spokesperson for the gay equality organisation told PinkNews.co.uk.

“We are pleased therefore that at long last lesbian, gay and bisexual people will be counted in government statistics.”

Former Tory Home Secretary turned reality TV performer Anne Widdecombe condemned the ONS.

“‘I would ask them to mind their own business,” she told the Daily Mail.

“This is going completely over the top and is state intrusion of the very worst kind. It just goes to show the level of obsession there is out there with this subject.”

Survey participants will be shown a card and asked: “Which of the options on this card best describes how you think of yourself? Please just read out the number next to the description. Heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual, other.”

A spokesman for the ONS told PinkNews.co.uk earlier this year that they do not propose to ask a sexual orientation question in 2011 as they feel there are better ways to collect “timely and reliable” sexual identity information.

The ONS Sexual Identity Project was established in 2006 to “meet user requirements” for information on sexual identity. It has tested different versions of the sexual identity question.

A spokesperson told PinkNews.co.uk in February:

“If, as planned, the question(s) were asked from 2009 onwards in a large household survey such as the IHS, baseline prevalence estimates will be available about three years earlier than 2011 Census counts.

“Survey estimates can be updated annually, enabling regular monitoring of the size, distribution and changing social-demographic profile of the LGB population.”

The lack of a question on the Census has led to other social research organisations to exclude questions on sexuality, often citing the lack of a standardised question.

Most noticeably, the British Crime Survey fails to ask respondents about their sexual orientation, despite government and police initiatives around homophobic crime.

In June Home Office minister Vernon Coaker said the department is considering adding new questions to the Survey after a Stonewall report indicated that many homophobic incidents go unreported.

Speaking at the launch of Homophobic Hate Crime: The Gay British Crime Survey 2008, Mr Coaker said he would raise the issue with officials.

It has already been confirmed that there will be an option to record civil partnership alongside marriage on the 2011 Census.

Final decisions on the content of the 2011 Census will not be made until the consultation and testing programme is complete and Parliament gives formal approval in 2010.

Earlier this year it was revealed that just one in 100 people described themselves as gay in a recent ONS survey into British sexuality.

A further one in 100 described themselves as bisexual, 0.6 per cent said “other” and three per cent said they were not willing to declare their sexuality.

Some failed to to answer the question properly; responses included: “female”, “normal”, “not active” and “I am OK with my sexuality.”

ONS asked 4,000 people but admitted that the results of the survey were “not a reliable estimate” of the gay population.

Last year Stephen Williams MP tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons asking the government to ensure that a question is asked in 2011 about sexual orientation.