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The next national census in the United Kingdom will take place on April 29th 2001. The main faith groups are hoping that it will include a question on religious affiliation and have been lobbying for this since 1996. The White Paper 'The 2001 Census of Population' (March 1999) proposed that such a question should be included for the first time in the census for England and Wales - Northern Ireland already has this question. In December 1999, the Government announced that a Private Member's Bill would be presented in the House of Lords so that Parliament may debate and endorse the necessary amendment to the Census Act 1920.


The main lobbying effort for the inclusion of the religion question in the next Census has been carried out by the Religious Affiliation Sub-Group of the Working Group on Content, Question Testing and Classifications, originally convened by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This Sub-Group has reconstituted itself independent of the ONS in June 1998, as the 2001 Religion Affiliation Sub-Group. Both the groups have been chaired by the Revd. Professor Leslie J Francis of the Centre for Theology and Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen. Members of the group include the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain (and prior to October 1997 the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs), Jain Samaj Europe, Network of Sikh Organisations, Inner Cities Religious Council, and the Inter Faith Network for the UK.

Professor Francis, with assistance of members, prepared a document ‘Indicative Business Case for a religious question’ in May 1997. A task of the group was to identify potential ‘users’ of a religious affiliation question (government departments and local authorities) and to persuade them as to the value of such statistics, so that they would include reference to it in their own submissions to the ONS. Meetings were held with these departments in June-July 1997.


Below are extracts from the document ‘The case for a question on religion in the 2001 Census’ prepared by Professor Francis:

"….The Religious Affiliation Sub-Group recognises that the census is a tool for departments of local and central government to help them implement their responsibility for the equitable allocation of public resources and the execution of government policy. Further the group recognises that census topics are assessed on their capacity to provide information that (1) is ‘required in order to implement or comply with legislation’; (2) would ‘result in benefit to the nation’.

The view of the Sub-Group is that the religious factor in society must be taken into account if these criteria and the broad aims of government are to be properly met. The inclusion of a religion question is entirely consistent with the Prime Minister’s approach to government ‘which draws its strength from the people’ and fosters ‘partnership’ and ‘social inclusion’. Hilary Armstrong’s belief that people should be involved in the ‘design and delivery of services’ and Richard Caborn’s pledge to involve faith communities at a local level in regeneration both echo this concern.

The failure to include a question on religion will give a signal that the government is not serious about respecting and including members of faith communities. Moreover, it may directly affect the acceptability of the census in disadvantaged multi-racial, multi-faith communities where returns were low in the last census…..

…Without census data on religion, the government cannot readily demonstrate its compliance with the law under sub-sections of Section 11 of the Education Reform Act 1988 (amended 1993) or Part III of the Children Act 1989. In addition, references to religion are made in the NHS and Community Care Act 1990 and the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Local Authorities require data on religious affiliation to assess whether they are fulfilling their duties under the Race Relations Act 1976. Census data on religion could also be crucial to the developments in future legislation, particularly in the light of current Home Office research into the nature and extent of religious discrimination and Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty enabling European Union institutions to bring forward proposals relating to legislation against racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination.

……Health and community care – part III of the Children Act 1989 puts an explicit requirement on Social Services departments to act with ‘sensitivity to ethnic group and religion’. The importance of this was strongly endorsed by a recent CCETSW/ICRC symposium on Social Care and Religion, at which two senior ministers spoke. However, without proper census data these clear affirmations of religion’s social importance are left unsupported. This contradiction persists despite a wealth of research literature clearly demonstrating the importance of religious differences in predicting demands on medical resources and health care. The predictive power of religion in terms of susceptibility to and recovery from a wide range of physical and mental illnesses is well documented and has important implications for service provision.

……Education – under sub-sections of section 11 of the Education Reform Act 1988 (amended 1993) local authorities are responsible for identifying ‘such Christian denominations and other religions and denominations of such religions as, in the opinion of the authority, will appropriately reflect the principal religious tradition of the area’. This requirement refers specifically to area level and cannot be met without census data. Although the DfEE requests that schools monitor the religious identities of pupils, such data would be more meaningful if supplemented by information on the wider context. Particularly with the recent integration of the Muslim community into the state maintained provision of schools, developments in education will need to become increasingly sensitive to the distribution of faith groups."


…British Muslims, particularly British-born Muslims, identify themselves on the basis of faith rather than ethnicity or national origin.

The allocation of resources and the monitoring of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity alone is therefore no longer adequate. An objective of the 2001 census is to provide essential statistics for the more equitable allocation of public services and better planning on matters such as community relations, health care, education, employment and housing. Without a religious affiliation question, the 2001 census will lose a valuable data collection opportunity.

The inclusion of a religious affiliation question will also send a signal to the British Muslim community that their presence and contribution is recognised. Muslims resent being treated as the ‘invisible’ element of British society, whose needs and strengths stand unrecognised by public and civic services.


  2. A cognitive test carried out with twenty-seven people from non-white ethnic groups in March and April 1997 by the Qualitative Methods Unit in Social Survey Division

    The main aim of the test was to assess the acceptability and understanding of a revised ethnic group and a religion question…The purpose of the testing the religion question was mainly to find out how the Asian respondents in the sample would use it.

    Question format: Do you consider you belong to a religious group? No, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam/Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Any other religion , please write in below.

    Generally, respondents were neutral in their reaction to the inclusion of religion question…the question was popular with some Asian respondents, who felt that religion was important to their identity and wished to differentiate themselves from other religious groups.

  3. 1997 CENSUS TEST
  4. The 1997 Census Test (15th June 1997) included a question on religion. The question was designed to meet users’ stated requirements for information about the size and socio-economic profile of specific religious groups, in order to improve understanding of ethnicity and support service provision. The qustion format was as in the small scale test.

    Questionnaires were distributed to over 90,000 households in selected areas in Birmingham, Brent, Glasgow, Alton, Thame, Bridlington, Craven and South West Argyll. The test was voluntary and over 55% of households returned their form. This level of response is in line with the voluntary tests held before previous recent censusus.

    The response rate and the quality of responses to the religion question were good (statement of John Dixie, ONS). The completion rate of the religion question was 91.6%, which shows that the question is not objectionable to most people.

  5. 1998 CENSUS TEST
  6. This is a report on the findings of a qualitative test carried out between December 1997 and February 1998 by the Qualitative Unit in Social Survey Division. In-depth interviews using cognitive question testing techniques were carried out with 72 people from eight ethnic minority groups. The purpose of this test was to examine the acceptability and understanding of a revised religion question for the 2001 Census. Our aim was to establish whether the question was acceptable, how it was understood, whether it would give accurate answers, and how respondents came to give their answers.

    The following question was tested: What is your religion? Indicate a specific religion even if you are not a practising member of that group: None, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Islam, Jain, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Any other religious faith – please write in.

    All respondents answered this question for themselves and their households. No concern was expressed about the topic being included on the Census.


The next main test would be the 1999 Dress Rehersal, which would include the question and form design planned for the 2001 Census. This will take place on 25th April 1999. It will involve 133,600 households.


1. Raised by Graham Zellick, Vice Chancellor, University of London, in his letter to The Times, October 16, 1998:

"….Such a question would be objectionable in principle for two fundamental reasons. First, it is wholly inconsistent with our traditions of freedom and personal privacy to ask a question about a person’s religious beliefs, presumably (at least in theory) on pain of criminal prosecution for a refusal to answer….Secondly, in answer to the argument that it would be useful for these religious bodies to have reliable information about their supporters in order to plan their own welfare and educational services, it must be observed that it is improper to use the unique power of the State to ascertain information so that these bodies can carry out their own functions. It must also be wondered whether, given the difficulties surrounding definitions of religious affiliation, the statistics obtained would have any value whatever."

Response to Professor Zellick by Professor Francis, Chair of the Census 2001: Religious Affiliation Group (letter not published by The Times):

"….The opposition to a question on religion in the next census expressed by Graham Zellick in his letter of October 12, is based on two fundamental misapprehensions. First he argues that it would contraven our rights to privacy, and second, that it would be an abuse of state powers to use a census to gather information for the benefit of religious bodies.

In response to the first point, it should be made clear that the proposed question would ask respondents to state their religious affiliation, if they have one, not to disclose information about their private beliefs and practices. The census, by its very nature, elicits a great deal of private information, but with the guarantee of confidentiality.

In response to the second point, it should be made clear that far from serving the agenda of religious bodies, the primary reason for asking about religious affiliation is to predict needs in all areas of government concern, from health care and social welfare to education and employment and thereby to ensure the equitable allocation of public resources…"

2. Raised by David Coleman, Reader in Demography, University of Oxford, in his letter to The Times, 12th January 1999

"….Religious faith is a private matter, not to be pried into by compulsory public inquiries. Most of us, even if religious, do not structure our lives around religion, which is the active pursuit of an increasingly small minority. It follows no important demand from the general public interest and relates to no general problems.

The main reason for its proposed inclusion is the desire by ethnic minority populations and their pressure groups, particularly Muslims, to be able to number and to label themselves publicly. This may be in their short-term interest, enabling them to argue for more group related privileges and facilities and exercise power over and above that available to them as citizens.

But it is not in the national interest for the census to encourage people to segregate themselves from the rest of the population and to emphasise their differences from each other. That way lies a new, creeping statistical apartheid which can hardly serve the integration of minorities of immigrant origin or encourage feelings of common citizenship in a secular society. If Muslims and Sikhs want information about their adherents, they can do their own research….It was bad enough having a question on our ethnic origin in the last (and forthcoming census). I hope that public opposition to this further divisive proposal will persuade Mr Straw and the Government to think again."

Response from Dr J Sherif, Muslim Council of Britain’s representative on Census 2001: Religious Affiliation Group (letter published in The Times, 21st January 1999)

Dr David Coleman is unfair in singling out the Muslim community and other ethnic groups for criticism (letter, January 12). The need for such a question reflects the wishes of the main faith communities in the United Kingdom, including the Christian Churches. An interfaith group, chaired by Revd. Professor Leslie J. Francis, has prepared a 'business case' in support of the proposal, using guidelines provided by the Office for National Statistics. Several government departments, such as the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions, have indicated that statistics on religious affiliation would be very useful in their work, as it would lead to better resource allocation. So rather than creating a climate of "statistical apartheid", better data on religious affiliation will help addressing issues of disadvantage and exclusion in society. Australia, Canada and New Zealand are some countries that have included such a question in their Census. Is there evidence that this has "encouraged people to segregate themselves"?


A representative of the MCB’s ReDoc (Research & Documentation) Committee attended a one-day workshop organised by the Office for National Statistics in May 1999. Following this briefing, the MCB initiated a campaign to ensure that if a religion question was asked, the results would be in the public domain. The ONS’s original proposal was that the free publication called the ‘Key Statistics’ would aggregate non-Christian faiths into a general ‘Other heading. The detailed data by faith groups would then only be available at a cost in other customised reports from the ONS. The MCB objected to this, and also to the proposal that the Census ‘Standard Tables’ relating to religion should be limited to cross-tabulations by age and gender only. The MCB submitted a detailed response to the ONS and also sought the support of census data users. The MCB’s position is that the Census relies on public cooperation and British Muslims and other minority faiths will undoubtedly be more responses to a Census containing the religion question. This is because the Census is seen as a landmark opportunity through which society can be better informed on the multireligious and multicultural make up of our society. If the ONS does not publish the results of the religion question in detail then this will be regarded as a failure of the Census. For the 2001 Census to make its mark on the social climate of Britain it should reflect the popular campaign for the religion question.


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