Current Affairs

MP presses for gay census question

Tony Grew April 5, 2007
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A frontbench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats has said he is disappointed that the government has decided not to include a question on sexual orientation in the next census.

The next national survey will take place in 2011.

It is conducted every 10 years by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), who announced last year that they did not think a question about sexual orientation would not be suitable.

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

“A question on sexual orientation would help to monitor equality legislation and improve service provision to lesbian, gay and bisexual people,” his motion reads.

Mr Williams, the MP for Bristol West, welcomed the decision to ask a question about civil partnerships, but said that is important to know how many gay people there are in the UK.

“There will always be some dispute as to the proportion of people that are gay, lesbian or bisexual – is it 5%? 8%? 10%?

“It is important that the make-up of society is understood.”

A spokesman for the Treasury minister responsible for the ONS, John Healey, declined to comment on Mr William’s EDM.

A spokesman for the ONS said:

“The Office for National Statistics recognises that there is some user demand for information on sexual identity but considers that the census is not suitable for collecting information on sexual identity for the first time.

The main priority for the Census is an accurate headcount. There are significant concerns about privacy and acceptability and the effect that such a question could have on the overall response.”

Mr Williams told

“I do not buy this argument that this is not a suitable question for the census, every census since 1901 has added questions – we now ask people about their race and even if people are white and Irish.

“In 2001 I wrote onto my census form that I am Welsh, because there was no way of recording that as I live in England, and that I am gay. “

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay equality organisation Stonewall, supports Mr Williams’ call for a census question on sexual orientation.

“We have raised this with ministers,” he told

“We think there is a serious risk that if the ONS is not required to behave professionally you will end up with many hundreds or thousands of young people deciding that their faith is lesbian just like in 2001 many decided they were Jedi.

“Appropriate questions have been tried in Scotland, where there were no problems.”

The ONS said:

“The General Register Office in Scotland has carried out a small scale postal survey which included a question on sexual identity.

“However, this produced a very low overall response rate and a very high proportion of people who did not provide useful data on sexual identity, either by ticking the ‘prefer not to answer’ box or by declining to complete the question at all.”

Mr Williams told that some reluctance to answer questions on sexual orientation could be overcome by making people aware of how census data is used:

“I can understand that some people will be reluctant to disclose, but information about individuals is secret for 100 years and it is only the aggregate statistics that are published

“There is a risk of under-reporting, but a PR campaign by ONS and campaigning groups to encourage people to register would counter that.”

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. A White Paper setting out the Government’s proposals is scheduled for autumn 2008.

“We are looking at the feasibility of including the question (or questions) on ONS social surveys, to allow for estimates of the size and characteristics of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) population to be produced.

“We are consulting on this with government and non-governmental organisations, including representatives from LGB groups,” said an ONS spokesman.

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