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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs 3:09 pm, 17th July 2019

It is probably worth noting that much of the debate on this Bill has not been about its content, which concerns inclusivity for LGBTQ people in the census. That is a good sign that the issue is not controversial and that common sense has been used and a consensus has been reached across the House. I hope that Steve Double and my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas have the opportunity in Committee to pursue the issues that they have raised during this debate.

I am proud of the steps that the House has taken to strengthen LGBTQ equality, including the amendment tabled to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill last week by my hon. Friend Conor McGinn to extend marriage equality to Northern Ireland. I am proud of the record of the last Labour Government, who were at the forefront of advancing progress for LGBTQ people with the equalisation of the age of consent, the repeal of section 28, the introduction of equalities legislation covering things such as access to goods and services, and the introduction of civil partnerships.

We cannot pretend, however, that LGBTQ people do not face disproportionate discrimination and prejudice in their day-to-day lives, including in schools, in employment and in access to goods and services. The number of homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, including stalking, harassment and violent assault, has more than doubled in England and Wales over the past five years. LGBTQ people have worse health outcomes and are more likely to suffer from poor mental health than are the population as a whole. That is particularly true of the trans community, with roughly half of trans people in Britain having attempted suicide at least once. It is vital that the Government match their commitment to visibility for LGBTQ people in the census with a commitment properly to fund our public services, which provide essential support to marginalised groups across the country. The addition to the next census of the new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity is a welcome step, and it represents a significant victory for the LGBTQ community.

When it comes to statistics, the LGBTQ community are a hidden population. In the absence of comprehensive national population data for these groups, charities such as Stonewall are forced to rely on little more than estimates. Those estimates are frequently derived from smaller-scale surveys, and as a result, they vary widely. The data collected under the census will be vital to local authorities and other services in providing accurate estimates of the overall size of the LGBTQ community and providing geographical concentrations, which will be crucial for service planning. At a national level, it will have a significant impact on policy development, equipping regulators and Government bodies with accurate data to develop programmes of work that have a positive impact on LGBTQ people.

In a society where many LGBTQ people struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity, there are challenges involved in ensuring that the data collected by the census is accurate. Given the personal and sensitive nature of the questions, a proportion of respondents will always prefer not to disclose their sexuality, even on a confidential form. We must be cognisant of the risks associated with an under-count of the LGBTQ population, because it could play into the hands of those who would attempt to reverse progress towards equality.

Furthermore, the fact that census responses are often completed by one member of the household represents a real barrier to disclosure for individuals who are not out to their families or those they live with. I understand that the Minister has thought about that and informed my Labour Front-Bench colleagues in recent meetings that he wants to establish a process whereby people in that position can fill in the census separately and privately, overriding the household response. We support that proposal, and I urge the Minister to ensure that such an arrangement is accessible to everyone, given that the privacy concerns will be felt by people of all ages and in a range of settings.

It is crucial that statistical agencies continue to engage with organisations that represent LGBTQ people to ensure that robust solutions are found and communicated. Privacy concerns must be fully addressed, and officials must work with LGBTQ communities to convey the importance of being counted and build trust in the census process—what is counted counts.

The drafting of the questions and the accompanying guidance must also be subjected to extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders from across the LGBTQ community and women’s groups. The Minister has informed the Opposition that the ONS is consulting, and we welcome sight of the draft guidance, but if he could provide more information to the House, it would be very much appreciated. As I have made clear, the Opposition welcome the Bill and believe it is an important step towards building a society in which LGBTQ people are truly accepted, included and counted.