Matt Western – 2020 Speech on the Census

Below is the text of the speech made by Matt Western, the Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington, in the House of Commons on 6 May 2020.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare). Let me start by saying that I welcome the order. I am sure that there is almost universal support for a census. Although I support it, I am interested to know more about the decisions the Government have made in arriving at it.

The purpose of the order is simply to provide direction for next year’s census on the population of England and Wales. It includes the date of the census, the area to be covered, what is required in the return, who is included and the particulars that may be requested and from whom. I remember my first census back when I was eight years old, and just how excited I got. I do not understand quite why, but I just appreciated the scale of this enormous exercise.

Given the fact that we have one coming up next year, we must recognise the importance of this data collection in giving some snapshot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said, of the nature of our society and the people that we are. For a nation and for the purposes of good governance, I have always believed this data to be of huge importance and believed in the value of the continuity of measurement decade after decade.

What is also important, beyond the standard information, is the ability to use the census to update it and ensure its relevance in relation to social and economic change. Ten years is a long time to wait for these changes, and I suggest that a few that are being proposed are long overdue, given that we are now in the third decade of the 21st century. Let me come to identity in a moment, but may I just say that it is good to see the introduction of a new question capturing past service in the UK armed forces, which has been added? It should go some way in recognising the lives of our fabulous forces personnel.

On identities, I want to support the addition of two new voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity. At last, LGBTQ people will be acknowledged, and that is most welcome. However, I also see there will be the continuation, for those not included in the existing tick boxes, to allow that to be expressed through the write-in option on both paper and online questionnaires. Interestingly, for the first time, an additional response option of Roma will be included under the ethnic group question, which is also welcome. In addition, the national identity question allows respondents to record multiple ​identities across the tick boxes and write-in box. But other than those changes, the proposed questions appear to be much as in the previous census 10 years ago.

Perhaps surprisingly, there has been no inclusion of a Sikh tick box, despite the House of Lords ruling in the Mandla v. Dowell Lee case of 1983 that Sikhs are an ethnic group, not simply a religion. The Sikh community is important to the UK in every sense, and I commend the speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and for Erith and Thamesmead. In my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, the community accounts for a significant and welcome share of our population and our community.

The Minister will be aware that there has been a long-running campaign by the Sikh Federation and, indeed, the whole British Sikh community for this change to be introduced. The concerns among the community, as has been widely shared this afternoon, are that, if Sikhs do not have a Sikh ethnic tick box response option, they will continue not to be properly monitored by public bodies and face possible discrimination in schools and the health sector, where there are known disparities, as well as in housing and across the public sector more generally. As has been evidenced in the current covid-19 crisis, there is no systematic collection of data on the number of Sikhs tested as positive or the number that, tragically, have died, despite the significant number who are actually working on our frontline.

I appreciate that this is a statutory instrument and is unamendable as such, so there will not be any opportunities to change the proposals. I simply want to ask the Minister why the decision was reached to exclude the Sikh identity as a tick box and what steps the Government will take to ensure the Sikh community is properly accounted for in data collection, ensuring the fair allocation of resources and provision of public services.