Sikh Ethnic Tick Box for the UK 2021 Census – ONS assesses evidence and says 'No'

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“It is difficult to see what additional benefit that data collected through a Sikh ethnic tick box would bring. ONS research has already suggested that the existing Sikh religion tick will capture virtually all Sikhs in the UK.”  


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its White Paper titled, ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’ in which it does not propose adding an additional specific response option to the 2021 Census ethnic group question’ for the Sikh community (3.105).

ONS has done a thorough job in garnering evidence through a 2017 survey commissioned by ONS in Hounslow and Wolverhampton (areas with high numbers of Sikhs) to test differences in responses to Sikh religion and Sikh ethnic tick boxes, focus groups and conducting their own data analysis, which they have supplemented with information provided by community representatives. In their decision, the ONS have sought to reflect the diverse views within the UK Sikh community on the matter. Given the initial furore that occurred in early summer 2018, when press statements  were released making claims that the Sikh ethnic box was going to be implemented, and from previous consultations with experts, ONS appears to have recognised that it must take into account a wide range of views, rather than just those from a few ‘representative’ Sikh bodies and leaders of Sikh gurdwaras, to make an informed decision. More importantly, they have fairly considered the evidence (or lack of it) for the need of a Sikh ethnic tick box.

The decision has been condemned by the Sikh Federation (UK) and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs who have long been campaigning on the issue and have claimed to have the support of most Sikhs in the UK, using 112 letters of support from Gurdwara leaders to back this up (out of approximately 300 gurdwaras in the UK). They have claimed that ONS ‘has misrepresented the survey of Gurdwaras'.

Sikh Federation (UK) and the APPG for British Sikhs have also alleged that the ONS for over 20 years has discriminated against the Sikh community, and that with this decision has opened itself up to ‘legal action and a claim of institutionalising discrimination against Sikhs’. This claim of discrimination is a serious one, and one that will concern the ONS. Those pursuing this allegation will need to be clear about the evidence base for such a claim. In 2003 ONS issued guidelines in "Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data" (2003) on how public bodies can supplement their data sets, using Sikhs as an example. John Pullinger’s letter to the Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs Preet Kaur Gill MP dated 14th December 2018 also outlines how ONS will work with public bodies, local authorities and the community to ensure that the data on the Sikh community is collected.

It is difficult to see what additional benefit that data collected through a Sikh ethnic tick box would bring. ONS research has already suggested that the existing Sikh religion tick will capture virtually all Sikhs in the UK. Most importantly, faith data in public institutions such as the NHS is already collected and is likely to provide a richer source of information. For example, a quick google search shows a plethora of workforce monitoring reports and data on religion collected by public bodies:

Medway NHS foundation Trust  

Ministry of Justice

Transport for London

This demonstrates that the rationale of why the Sikh community actually needs an ethnic tick box is a flawed one and the APPG for Sikhs has failed to provide any robust evidence on this matter. Moving forward, Sikh organisations should focus on working with the ONS and other public bodies to mine and meta-analyse the faith and ethnicity data already available to establish what, if any, need there is for further data collection and analysis, and also to encourage them to use this data more effectively. The current ethnicity classification used by ONS is by no means perfect and in coming years, may need a complete revision. However, adding a simple tick box to the current classification will not improve statistics for Sikhs and may actually damage what is already there and in the pipeline as promised by the ONS.