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Census: Test Questions

Volume 691: debated on Monday 30 April 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why, in the 2007 census test questions published by National Statistics, English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and Irish are provided as options for the national identity question when English, Irish and Other British are the options for the ethnic-group question; and why Irish is the only non-United Kingdom nationality given a specific option in the national identity question. [HL3237]

The information requested falls within the responsibilities of the National Statistician, who has been asked to reply.

Letter from Colin Mowl, Director of Macroeconomics and Labour Market, to Lord Laird dated 27 April 2007, replying in the absence of the National Statistician.

The questions for the 2007 test were developed based on consultation with users of census data. The census test provides the opportunity to test new and updated questions and the test questions are not necessarily those which will be included in the census in 2011. It is apparent that demands for information from the census are greater than are likely to be able to be accommodated and difficult trade-offs will need to be made.

After the 2001 census there was strong demand for information, especially on Welsh identification—and a national identity question was introduced into government surveys such as the labour force survey from 2001 onwards. National identity information is used to measure identification with different countries of the UK, as well as nations outside the UK. The question being used for the 2007 census test specifically lists the national identities of the UK and Ireland in order to meet specific user requirements and also to harmonise with proposals for the question to be asked in the Northern Ireland census. Other national identities are able to be recorded using a write-in box. We know that the question requires more development before it can be included in the 2011 census. However we need to know now that it would meet the user requirements before carrying out further question testing.

Another reason for measuring national identity is to separate it from ethnic group, to make it possible to record national identity as “British” at the same time as recording ethnic group as, for example, “Pakistani”. There was criticism of the 2001 ethnic group question because the only category for British was listed under the heading “White”.

A question on ethnic group was first asked in the 1991 census for the prime purpose of identifying areas with high levels of ethnic minority groups in order to help provide valuable information for planning and provision of services and monitoring racial disadvantage and social exclusion.

The categories identified in the current ethnic group question being used in the test have been developed from the frame of the 2001 census question which itself had resulted from an extensive programme of research and development. The question has adopted that mix of geographic origin and colour characteristics that testing had shown to be publicly most acceptable and from which the most useable statistics could be obtained. A separate “Irish” response category was included in the 2001 census ethnic group question as a result of representations made by census users, particularly from Irish community groups, for information to help monitor discrimination and measure health inequalities among the “Irish” population. Whilst ethnicity is clearly a dynamic characteristic when considered nationally—and the census must seek to reflect this as much as possible—an equally important criterion is the ability to compare the results from one census to another—and to that end the question must retain a degree of comparability over time.

We have recently conducted further consultation on user needs for information on ethnicity, national identity, and also language and religion from the 2011 census in England and Wales. This has focused in particular on assessing public acceptability of the descriptions of the ethnic categories. The relevant documents are available on the National Statistics website (see 155.asp).

It is likely that the ethnicity classification will be updated for the 2011 census but it is not possible to confirm what questions and response categories are to be included until the consultation and testing programme is complete and formal approval is given by Parliament in 2010. A White Paper setting out the Government's proposals including the wording of any questions about ethnicity and identity is scheduled to be published in 2008.