28 February 2019

S5M-16038 Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Some invitations are more welcome than others, and that is one of them.

I have not been part of the consideration of the bill until now. I am a data user of censuses, but I am also a user of censuses. In other words, my interest in genealogy means that I read a census every week, but the censuses that I read are all 100 years old. That is of some, limited interest to today’s debate.

The Scottish Parliament information centre tells us:

“The information on equality groups in the Census can be used to monitor discrimination and to plan public services.”

That is, of course, correct, but during the debate we need to bear in mind that the census is a statistical survey. It is not about identifying the responses and needs of individuals; it is about identifying the needs of communities—often quite small communities—to ensure that public services are provided appropriately.

SPICe also says:

“The information collected must be ‘authoritative, accurate and comparable’ for all parts of Scotland”.

There is a difficulty in that description of what we are trying to do. The information should certainly be authoritative, it should perhaps be accurate and it should almost certainly be comparable. Retaining the question on whether someone’s birth identity is male or female helps with comparability, but we must remember that, at birth, the parent registers the birth and the gender of the infant.

I have an example from exactly 150 years ago. A child called Keith—I will not use the second name, because there will be living descendants—was registered, as we would expect, as a male, but in the census three years later and in every subsequent census, Keith was shown as female. In 1905, Keith married a man and gave birth to children. An error was probably made in 1869, when Keith was born. When someone dies, there needs to be medical information on their death certificate, but there is no medical requirement to provide information about gender to someone who is registering a birth. Therefore, there are some difficulties with the authoritative aspect of the census information. As the example that I have given shows, it is possible for someone to have something on their birth certificate and to put something else on the census. There has always been that possibility.

Who fills out the census? In broad terms, it is the head of the household. I welcome the indication that there will be a way for individuals to provide information that they might not want to share with the head of the household at that point. However, the question is voluntary, so we will not get the information from everybody for whom there might be a particular answer, and we will not necessarily get an answer from people who do not choose to use the separate system that allows them to respond individually.

That opens up a much broader question—for which I have no direct answer—of how, statistically, we can rely on information from a self-selected group, using a self-selected description. It is possible to deal with that, but I hope that the National Records of Scotland finds out, perhaps through sampling, how the answers that we get represent the underlying reality, because the statistics that come from the census are important for the planning of services.

Voluntary questions were introduced in the 1891 census, when for the first time there was a question about whether someone spoke Gaelic, which they did not have to answer. There is nothing new about a voluntary question, and we can do that in the bill, as we did then.

I trust my colleagues as we take the bill forward—I will not be playing any part in it. It is important that there is a clear distinction between physical sex and how people wish to be recognised and treated. The human right in our society to be able to choose how one is treated goes to the heart of this debate, and I very much welcome the fact that a tiny legal provision—it is really only a couple of lines in a very small bill—will leverage big consequences for quite a lot of people in our society. It is right and proper that we take this forward in the way that we are planning to and that we continue to engage to make sure that the questions that we ask give us answers that, statistically, help us to respond to a wide range of diverse needs that we did not recognise and certainly did not talk about in the past.


Stewart Stevenson
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