Census 2021: Call for ONS “Lessons Learned” Review

Dear Rt. Hon. Michael Gove,

I write to you in your role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office with oversight of constitutional policy and enhancement, and leading cross government and public sector transformation and efficiency. In these specific responsibilities you are supported by Chloe Smith (Cabinet Minister for the Constitution and Devolution) amongst whose responsibilities include defending our democracy, and the Cabinet Minister of State for Efficiency and Transformation, Lord Agnew of Oulton, whom I have also copied into this email.

As we approach Census Day 2021, I am seriously concerned at what appears to me, profoundly undemocratic and troubling activities of an ideologically captured Office of National Statistics (ONS) which have undermined public confidence in the ONS expertise as our National “gold standard” data collation and dissemination agency, and culminated in a High Court challenge and win against the Office for National Statistics this week, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer.

The Census is one of the most important sources of official statistics and Biological Sex is well understood to be one of the most important variables for the purposes of policy, planning and medical and academic research. This is because Sex is an important predictor of outcomes across all areas of life, including education, wages, crime, and physical & mental health. Since 1801, the answer to the census question: “what is your sex?” has concerned a person’s biological reality with the option of one or two answers: male or female. And yet the ONS managed to find itself in court, arguing that Sex is an “umbrella term”, which includes “lived experience” and “self-identity”. Needless to say, this declaration was met with consternation by data-users, academics who do statistical research, and women’s rights campaigners, who have been warning the ONS of the dire impact of such an unjustifiable decision and even wrote an open letter to the Times newspaper highlighting their concerns in December 2019. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/census-fears-over-gender-identity-rmx0gmzxq

They warned that allowing people to answer the sex question on the census in line with their subjective gender identity, would have serious repercussions for the future of social science and for the fight to ensure equality for women, who currently amount to more than half the population in this country, and as the recent Pandemic has highlighted, continue to be overlooked in design and implemented schemes to protect jobs, due to a lack of equality analyses, which has failed to take into account the specific and well-understood

labour market and caring inequalities faced by women. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/jul/24/uk-working-mothers-are-sacrifical-lambs-in-coronavirus-childcare-crisis

Throughout 2020, data experts and even the ONS own regulators, including the Office for Statistics Regulation and the ONS Methodological Assurance Review Panel expressed reservations about the lack of engagement with “topic and method experts” https://mbmpolicy.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/letter-from-sir-bernard-silverman-to-sir-ian-diamond.pdf and encouraged the ONS to “address outstanding concerns raised by users within its further question testing and research on the guidance on the sex question. ONS should share the outcomes of this research in a transparent and open way”. https://osr.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Ed_Humperson_to_Iain_Bell.pdf

All were ignored and the ONS continued to charter a path on data collection that prioritised stakeholders representing a particular political perspective on gender identity, rather than having been selected for their expertise on data collection and analysis. https://fairplayforwomen.com/whos-behind-the-government-losing-sight-of-reality

In February 2021, the ONS regulator Office for Statistics Regulation emphasised the need for clarity about definitions and gave the example of criminal justice statistics as a place where recording of sex has become muddled by the undefined introduction of “gender”. https://osr.statisticsauthority.gov.uk/publication/draft-guidance-collecting-and-reporting-data-about-sex-in-official-statistics

Still the ONS persisted, and in response to further scrutiny and the potential of legal challenge from the Women’s Group, Fair Play for Women, with no official announcement, the ONS made the census live, so people could start filling it in. The ONS pushed through a policy, regardless of expert opposition or the law, and now insisted it was too late for a legal challenge.

Although the ONS withdrew last week from the legal proceedings, conceding that the meaning of sex in the Census should mean sex as recognised by the law, rather than gender identity, the ONS has now undermined its own credibility as a gold standard for data collection and been forced into an embarrassing and expensive climb-down (at taxpayer expense). As well as being in placed in a position where they are perceived to mis-state the law (the EQA 2010 lists Sex as a protected characteristic and a male or female of any age), commit or condone criminal offences by encouraging falsified input of data, and placing vulnerable adults at risk of harm, because of inadequate service provision due to a miscalculation of ONS provided data.

The ONS actions, and defiance of the Census (England and Wales) Order 2020, which says they must collect data on “Date of birth and sex” amongst others, is shocking, and I echo the call made by Janice Turner in yesterday’s Times for a public inquiry into the alarming policy capture of our public institutions by lobby groups. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-guardians-of-facts-surrender-to-ideology-9vzdp3s3v

Our Public Bodies are ultimately answerable to Parliament, and shouldn’t be enacting their own novel version of statute, contrary to the intent of our Lawmakers, who had no intention of using either the EQA or the 2020 Census Act as an ontological redefinition of biological sex.

I appreciate a public inquiry as called for by the Organisation Sex Matters may take some time to arrange, given we are in the middle of a global pandemic, however, in the immediate absence of that wider public inquiry, (https://sex-matters.org/take-action/sign-our-letter/) I ask that a “Lessons Learned” Review, similar to the one ordered by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel (after the troubling policing of Women last week in Clapham Common during the vigil for Sarah Everard), be conducted. It is my understanding that HMIC, the policing watchdog that independently assesses the effectiveness and efficiency of police forces is conducting this inquiry and the report is due within a fortnight. I see no reason why such an effort cannot be duplicated by the Office for Statistics Regulation (ORS) who regulate the ONS, to conduct a ‘lessons learned’ review into how Sir Ian Diamond & the rest of the senior leadership at the ONS became so ideologically captured.

The “lessons learned” review can find out:

· WHY Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership were so willing to corrupt data on biological sex, a key demographic variable & waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer money to placate Stonewall.

· HOW did Sir Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership become so eager to prioritise Gender Validation OVER the Office for National Statistics’ core mission of robust data collation & dissemination?

· WHY did Sir Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership team dismiss the advice of their own regulator, The Office for Statistics Regulation, which recently emphasised the need for clarity regarding the definition of Sex?

· WHY did Sir Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership team dismiss the advice of Sir Bernard Silverman, Chair of Methodological Assurance Review Panel, UK Statistics Agency, who felt moved to remind the ONS in October 2020, of the emphasis The Code of Practice (https://code.statisticsauthority.gov.uk) places on strong requirements for the views of groups in all these categories (stakeholders, users, and topic and methods experts) to be understood and addressed.

· Did Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership team VIOLATE paragraph Q2.2 of The Code of Practice for Statistics by failing to have due regard for the procedural standards set out in the code of practice for engagement with stakeholders?

· Why did Ian Diamond & ONS Senior leadership team not recognise the 2021 Census risks being taken with data quality, due to the methodological weakness their initial guidance on the Sex Question introduced?

· Could they have recognised these risks earlier if they’d paid more attention to the concerns raised by 80 academics, experts on data collection and analysis in December 2019, as opposed to lobby groups who represented a particular political perspective on gender identity?

· What assurance can the ONS give now to their regulator (OSR) on the trustworthiness, quality and value of their data on the Sex question, given what seems a deliberate ploy to make the Census live a month ahead of time in response to FPFW initial request for ONS guidance to follow the law?

· WHY did the ONS facilitate an environment whereby Data Experts and Academics were subject to campaigns of vexatious complaints, no-platforming, and even threats of violence simply for asserting the reality and social salience of sex, which is a variable of critical importance in practically all applied uses for census data and is a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act? https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/stonewalls-new-boss-nancy-kelley-let-census-expert-be-no-platformed-ljsnw6v3r

When you have Ministers & Public Institutions who are meant to uphold and enforce the law, misrepresent and mischaracterise the law, you undermine the law and create a dangerous state of affairs where other sectors and eventually, the public, too, has contempt for the law.

It now appears several Trans influencers rushed to fill in the Sex question incorrectly with their lived sex, not biological or legal sex as the corrected guidance, and the 2020 Census Act, requires, and advised their Trans followers to do the same? Transgender charities also appear to be advising people to “ignore” the High Court ruling that sex must not be self-identified on the 2021 Census? E.g. Mermaids, a charity which supports transgender children, said in a blogpost: “It is not mandatory to read the ONS guidance before completing the census. Individuals must answer to the best of their knowledge and belief. “You should not feel pressured to give an answer that you know to be false.” https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/03/19/ignore-high-court-filling-census-transgender-charities-imply/

It is my belief that the ONS and its senior leadership have acted in severe breach of the Nolan Principles, as well as serving as the antithesis to the Code of Practice for Statistics. I therefore call on either yourself, or Lord Agnew in his capacity as Cabinet Minister of State for Efficiency & Transformation, with responsibility for PUBLIC VALUE, PLANNING and PERFORMANCE, as well as delivering cross-government efficiency and public sector transformation improvements, to give this matter your utmost attention, so as to restore public trust in Public Institutions that present evidence; the processes by which data is analysed; and the impartiality of the rule of law for all UK citizens. An open letter to trustees and chief executives: you’re being taken for a ride:


I look forward to your response on this matter of policy capture and its impact on UK democracy, at the earliest opportunity. What the public needs to see is more robust data that can give medical researchers, publishers & policy makers confidence in ONS Statistics.

Yours Sincerely,

Artless Feckleblossom


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