Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:41 pm on 17th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:41 pm, 17th July 2019

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his introduction, and I also thank the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Kevin Foster, for his willingness, once again, to work with me and our side openly on this important legislation, which is greatly appreciated. I have to note, when I look across the Atlantic and see the difficulties the racist President Trump is having about his citizenship question in the United States census, that the Minister here has surely shown how to get a census Bill through the House by working, as they say in the United States, across the aisle.

The aim of this Bill is to provide for voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to be asked in the England, Wales and Northern Ireland censuses. Crucially, this Bill renders questions concerning gender identity and sexual orientation voluntary, as the right hon. Gentleman has outlined. I think we can all agree that it would be totally inappropriate to compel someone to answer a deeply personal question about their sexuality or gender identity in the census. However, at the same time, these are vital questions that reflect better the modern UK and how we address the needs of a long discriminated against section of society.

Labour supports this Bill on the basis that any census must be LGBT+ inclusive. Recognising gender identity and sexual orientation as core aspects of personal identity in official statistics is a step forward in the fight for LGBT+ equality. It gives individuals the opportunity to identify themselves however they choose in this important civic event. Indeed, the Opposition support this change as a point of principle. This tick box clearly demonstrates that, as a society, we value LGBT+ inclusivity. As a party, we have always fought for minority rights. Progressive equality legislation is part of Labour’s history. Labour brought in the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010, and we introduced the minimum wage and Sure Start. We support this Bill in the spirit of inclusivity and equality, strengthening a proud history within Labour of fighting for minority rights.

This change is not only symbolically important, but practically necessary. Gathering the required data to properly understand and support the LGBT+ community is vital. Information derived from the census helps us to inform policy, plan services and distribute resources effectively to local government and health authorities, and enable these resources to be directed where they are needed.

Of paramount importance is the acquisition of accurate data to address inequalities facing minority groups. Accurate data about the size and characteristics of the LGBT+ community are currently severely lacking. Small-scale surveys struggle to grasp the whole picture, producing significantly varied estimates of the size of the LGBT population. Without an accurate picture of the size or nature of any minority community in society, how can we provide the necessary targeted support and services they need?

We are talking about a community that is in particular need of support: LGBT+ people have worse mental and physical health outcomes on average than the rest of the population. In particular, suicide rates for gay and bisexual youth are significantly higher than for their heterosexual counterparts. It is not just the youth who are suffering; older LGBT people suffer disproportionately from social isolation and a lack of social support networks. It is only through accurate data about minority populations that agencies can begin to properly address the inequalities faced by LGBT people. The census has the advantage of being a whole-population count and can therefore build a representative and accurate picture of the whole country.

Privacy is always a matter of concern when discussing these topics. I commend the work that has been done by the Parliamentary Secretary, his officials and the ONS to consider people’s privacy when a family member is completing the census form. Any member of a household will be able to request their own individual census form if there is information they do not wish to disclose to the householder, such as gender identity, sexual orientation or a change of religion. These are clearly issues that we must be aware of and sensitive to when carrying out a census.

Labour has a proud record of championing the fight for LGBT equality. We abolished section 28, equalised the age of consent and created civil partnerships, and it was with Labour votes that equal marriage became law. The Opposition are committed to taking radical steps to improve inclusivity in our society. The inclusion of a gender identity box in the census is an important step in this direction, but there is still a long way to go, particularly in the area of LGBT inclusivity. We are still not free from bigotry as a society. Issues such as lack of education, unequal access to public services and levels of LGBT hate crime and mental health remain barriers to full equality.

By way of illustration, recently in my own county, Bob Fousert, the chair of the police and crime scrutiny panel, attacked our deputy chief constable, Julie Cooke, for wearing a rainbow lanyard in support of LGBT rights. He said it was a political statement. Well, if standing up against hate crime is a political statement, then yes, it was a political statement. His appalling comments were condemned, including by David Keane, the police and crime commissioner. I wrote to Deputy Chief Constable Cooke, who leads nationally for the police on LGBT issues, to offer my support. Mr Fousert had to resign as chair—and good riddance. I recount this story because, in the same week that those comments were made, there was a well publicised attack on a lesbian couple on a bus in London and a vicious homophobic attack in Liverpool. We may have made progress in the last couple of decades, but we are not there yet.

The Opposition have been calling for a particular focus in this census on homeless LGBT+ communities. The position of LGBT+ homeless people warrants particular attention in this discussion, not least given the shocking statistic that up to 24% of the youth homeless population are from the LGBT+ community. Clearly, we are far from solving the issue of LGBT+ discrimination. Young homeless people continue to be one of the most disenfranchised and marginalised groups in society, but young LGBT people are particularly isolated. The Albert Kennedy Trust reports that LGBT homeless youth are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence, leading to their state of homelessness. In many cases, homophobia is the reason why they became homeless. LGBT+ homeless people are regularly at the receiving end of shocking levels discrimination and abuse.

Homelessness in any form makes people more vulnerable to other risks, such as mental health problems. The unprecedented rise in homelessness under the current Government is a national disgrace, yet more and more people continue to be forced on to the streets by the Government’s policies—from welfare cuts to a lack of investment in social housing. Homelessness charities have reported a rise in homelessness of up to 169% since 2010. The Government hold a direct responsibility for the perpetuation of this national crisis. It is time the Government looked to the root causes of rising homelessness, and invested in more affordable homes and stronger rights for renters.

What is more shocking is the direct ramifications that austerity cuts have had for the LGBT+ voluntary and charity sector, given that public funding provides such a large proportion of overall income. This in turn further isolates LGBT homeless people. Not only do the Government need to support specialist LGBT services to allow greater access to more safe, accessible and affordable accommodation, but, above all, to fight for wider recognition of the issues that LGBT homeless people face.

Labour has pledged to tackle the bullying of LGBT young people by ensuring that all teachers receive initial and continuous training on LGBT issues experienced by students and how to address them. Furthermore, we fully support changes to the new guidance for relationships and sex education to ensure they are LGBT inclusive. Therefore, we believe that this census must make a particular effort to give LGBT homeless people the opportunity to contribute to this important civic exercise. Their inclusion will enable us to build an accurate picture of the number of people from the LGBT community living without a permanent address. It is only through an awareness of the scale of the issue that support and aid can be effectively targeted towards the most vulnerable communities.

Furthermore, there is a particular danger that all homeless people, whether rough sleepers, sofa surfers or, especially, LGBT+ people, could be undercounted. There must be a particular effort by the ONS to ensure that those communities are reached on the day of the census. There are dangerous consequences of an undercount, which would play into the hands of those who would prefer to ignore the LGBT+ community and reverse progress towards equality.