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Approved Census Bill allows voluntary questions for first time

14 June 2019

Voluntary questions will be permitted in Scotland for the first time in the 2021 census, following the passing by the Holyrood Parliament of the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

The bill will make changes to the 1920 Census Act to enable National Records of Scotland to ask questions on transgender status and history, and sexual orientation, on a voluntary basis. The final proposed questions will be laid before the Scottish Parliament for agreement before the census takes place.

The power to ask new questions on a compulsory basis already exists in the Census Act 1920, but refusing to answer a census question or neglecting to do so is an offence under s 8 of that Act. Under the new bill, these particular questions, aimed at improving data used for public service planning purposes, will be entirely voluntary.

Scotland’s next census will take place on Sunday 21 March 2021, subject to the approval of the Scottish Parliament. A census is organised every 10 years and collects information on households and individuals to inform public services, policy and research.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, commented: “Our country has relied on the census for over 200 years and it remains the best way to gather the information Government, councils, NHS and other users need.

“This is an important bill that will enable questions on transgender status and history, and sexual orientation to be asked on a voluntary basis for the very first time, with no penalty for not answering them.

“It is widely accepted that there are currently data gaps on sexual orientation and trans status. Including questions on these demographics in the census will provide valuable data for public service planning purposes and will help public bodies meet duties under the Equality Act 2010.”

Paul Lowe, Registrar General for Scotland, added: “National Records of Scotland are consulting extensively with groups all over Scotland to develop and test proposed questions to ensure they are supported by the public.

“By asking questions which reflect a modern, inclusive Scotland, we will ensure the census will continue to be a vital source of information for decades to come.”

  • Professor Susan McVie, chair of quantitative criminology at Edinburgh University's School of Law and a member of the Scottish Government's Board of Official Statistics in Scotland, has written to MSPs supporting the retention of a binary biological sex question in the next population census. She claims it is vital that sex and gender not be conflated, and that it is important for statisticians and researchers to have clearly defined data on both sex and gender identity, so that aspects of discrimination and inequality related to both can be recorded.