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Ethnicity, National Identity, Language and Religion in the 2011 Census in England and Wales: background to consultation
This document provides more information about the aims of this consultation, some general principles of Census design, and the concepts of ethnicity, national identity, language and religion. It should be read in conjunction with the consultation questionnaire on ethnicity, national identity, language and religion.


Background and objectives

In May 2005 the Office for National Statistics (ONS) conducted a general consultation on the content of the 2011 Census for England and Wales. Many respondents commented on the topics of ethnicity, national identity, religion/belief, and language. The information obtained from this consultation helped to:    Determine the relative importance of each of these topics Inform the development of the questionnaire for the 2007 Census Test Highlight some issues for further investigation

The responses to the 2005 consultation are reported here:

The current consultation focuses particularly on ethnicity, national identity, language, and religion. It aims to seek views on users’ and stakeholders’ detailed requirements, particularly in relation to:    Acceptability of questions and terms Relative priorities for information given the space constraints Possible developments to the type of information collected by the Census in England and Wales ONS will analyse the responses, report on users’ and stakeholders’ detailed requirements and consider the extent to which these requirements can be met using the Census. The results will be available on the National Statistics website ( The consultation responses will help with developing questions for the 2009 Census Rehearsal and the 2011 Census. Any potential changes to the 2001 questions will first be tested for ease of understanding and completion, and



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a09e360c-3000-4929-805e-e60710e0e99f.doc acceptability to respondents. This testing will form a separate piece of research using qualitative and quantitative methods.

(Note: this consultation does not cover migration topics. If you require information from the 2011 Census on topics such as country of birth, year of arrival in the UK, country of citizenship or similar, you may wish to respond separately to the migration consultation. Details are available from Emma Wright:


General principles of Census design

The main purpose of the Census is to obtain accurate population estimates and basic demographic information for the whole population. Another major use is to provide data on small sub-groups of the population and for smaller geographical units.


Obligations to respondents

The Census is a compulsory exercise carried out on a self-enumeration basis. Each householder is required to complete all relevant questions on the Census questionnaire. This imposes constraints on the types of data that can be collected from the Census if high quality and accurate outputs are to be produced. So the UK Census Offices will not ask for any information that will place excessive burden on them or clearly compromise data quality. Given these issues the Census should, in general, not:  ask sensitive or potentially intrusive questions that result in an unacceptable level of item or unit non-response (i.e. people not filling in the question/not sending back the form)  ask questions that require a lengthy explanation or instruction to ensure an accurate answer – research has shown that people often do not read such instructions    impose an excessive burden on respondents seek information not readily known or that people are unlikely to remember accurately and which is, therefore, likely to be unreliable or enquire about opinions or attitudes


Space constraints

Unfortunately it is not possible to include response categories for every possible ethnic, national, religious or linguistic group in the relevant Census question because of the ONS 2 December 2006

a09e360c-3000-4929-805e-e60710e0e99f.doc space constraints of the form. We aim to cover groups which make up a reasonably large proportion of the population, and smaller groups for which there is an extremely strong need for information.


Change over time

As the composition of society changes it can be necessary to change the Census questions, and therefore the type of information collected, in order to ensure it accurately reflects the population of the day. This can lead to a loss of comparability with previous censuses and with other surveys that collect the same type of data. Some loss of comparability may be acceptable if it improves data collection and/or the relevance of the information in 2011, but a large or total loss of comparability is not normally desirable. If changes to the questions lead to a large or total loss of comparability, we must be able to justify it by improvements to the usefulness and quality of the information, and have evidence that people have less of a need to compare the information with previous years.


Ethnic group

A question on ethnic group has been included in two previous censuses (1991 and 2001). ONS recognises that ethnicity is complex and that people may define their ethnicity with reference to different factors. Any ethnicity question(s) in the census should, as a minimum, meet three core objectives:   be understood by and acceptable to the maximum proportion of the population possible, including those from ethnic minority groups meet the needs of data users, in particular the duty to monitor equality under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and any relevant equality legislation in force in 2011  provide the data in a usable format.


Ethnic group – a subjective characteristic

The legal definition of an ethnic group states that ethnic group is one which regards itself or is regarded by others as a distinct community by virtue of historical and cultural characteristics that will help to distinguish the group from the surrounding community. (More details of the legal definition can be found at the end of this document.) ONS 3 December 2006


Ethnic group is therefore treated as a subjective characteristic. This affects the measurement of ethnicity because a person’s identification with a particular ethnic group is treated as the defining feature of ethnicity.

This means the ethnic group labels and categories need to be meaningful, recognisable and acceptable to those to whom they refer. Ideally they should reflect the terms people use to describe their own ethnicity. This can lead to apparent inconsistencies in the category labels, as different individuals or groups may emphasise different factors when describing their ethnic identity, for example using terms relating to ancestry, geographical origins, nationality, country of birth, language, or physical characteristics such as skin colour (among others).


Ethnic group, race and related concepts

Although the census question has always used the term ‘ethnic group’ rather than race, the current legal framework (as set out by the Race Relations Act) is phrased in terms of race. However it protects people from discrimination on the grounds of several related factors: colour, race, nationality, or national or ethnic origins. This is because the impact of racial discrimination is experienced by individuals and groups because of their colour, race, nationality, or national or ethnic origins.

The combination of concepts in the 2001 ethnic group question can be seen as a result of the different concepts combined within the legislation. For example the answer categories of the 2001 ethnic group question combined concepts of race/colour (White and Black) and geographical/national origins (African, Asian and, Chinese, for example).

Users are invited to consider whether their need is for information on ethnic group (a cultural characteristic), or if they require information on other related concepts as well as or instead of ethnic group, for example race, visible minority status or ancestry. Classifications of race are generally based on a set of physical characteristics. Visible minority status is related to having a different appearance from the majority. Ancestry relates to historical information about where people’s forebears came from, though it also has a subjective element (in deciding how many generations of ancestry to consider).

Questions 5 to 29 of the consultation questionnaire relate to ethnic group. ONS 4 December 2006



National identity

National identity means a sense of belonging to a particular country or countries. It is subjective and self-perceived, and may differ from official nationality or country of citizenship. It is also conceptually different from country of birth. National identity has not been collected in any previous Census, but was first added to official surveys in 2001. A national identity question was introduced for two main reasons: in order to provide data on people’s identification with the different countries of the UK, and to improve the response to the ethnic group question. Testing of the national identity question showed that British-born people from ethnic minority groups were more likely to answer the ethnic group question if a national identity question was asked first, as it allowed them to state that they were British.

Questions 30 to 34 of the consultation questionnaire relate to national identity.



A voluntary question on religion was asked for the first time in England and Wales in 2001. The question in England and Wales gathers data on religious identity or affiliation, a subjective and self-ascribed characteristic. It does not try to assess religious observance or frequency of religious practice and it does not aim to determine the number of practising members of each religious faith. The form of the question in England and Wales differs from the Scottish and Northern Irish censuses, which ask two questions, one on the religion people were brought up in and one on their current religion.

The question used in the 2001 Census did not aim to collect information on non-religious belief systems.

Questions 35 to 41 of the consultation questionnaire relate to religion.



A question on Welsh language proficiency has been included in previous censuses in Wales. ONS proposes to continue to collect Welsh language proficiency in Wales in



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a09e360c-3000-4929-805e-e60710e0e99f.doc 2011. Proficiency in other languages has not been recorded in previous censuses in England or Wales.

There are many different aspects of language ability and will not be possible to include all of them in the Census. Before any language information can be collected we require clarification of the precise aspect(s) of language ability that are needed. If the requirement for language information is strong enough, ONS will carry out question testing to determine whether it is possible to collect language information using a selfcompletion census form, and if so, the optimum format for the question.

Questions 42 to 50 of the consultation questionnaire relate to language.



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a09e360c-3000-4929-805e-e60710e0e99f.doc Annex 1: Legal definition of an ethnic group According to the legal definition (set out by the House of Lords in 1983), ethnic group is a self-ascribed characteristic based on cultural identification. An ethnic group is one which regards itself or is regarded by others as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics that will help to distinguish the group from the surrounding community.

Two of these characteristics are essential:

1) a long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive; and 2) a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance.

Other relevant characteristics (one or more of which will commonly be found) are:

1) either a common geographical origin or descent from a small number of common ancestors 2) a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group 3) a common literature peculiar to the group 4) a common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it and 5) being a minority or being an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community



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Description: in may 2005 ons conducted a consultation on the content of the