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What ‘lessons’ will the ONS learn from its trans census?

Census respondents were confused by badly-worded questions. Credit: Getty

September 25, 2023 - 4:33pm

The Office for National Statistics may have “hugely overestimated” the size of the trans population in the UK. It’s a claim that has significant implications for public policy, but it’s also a warning about what happens when the language of gender ideology is allowed to skew data collection. Reliable statistics about trans people are close to non-existent, leading to implausible claims about such matters as levels of suicide among trans-identified youth. So the failure of the ONS to get it right is particularly egregious.

The question of how many people are transgender or non-binary has long been controversial. Organisations like Stonewall have a vested interest in suggesting it’s as large as possible, once claiming it might be as high as 1% of the population. That could be 670,000 people, but data released earlier this year by the ONS, based on the 2021 census, put it at 260,000. Even that figure is now in doubt.

After the way the data was collected in the census was criticised by academics, an official review was ordered by the Office for Statistics Regulation. It has come up with a list of “lessons learned”, in the dry language of regulators, but Whitehall sources suggest the figures published by the ONS have got the size of the trans population badly wrong. Nor is it difficult to see how it happened: the ONS “tested” census questions among trans people, who are more likely to push for the use of unfamiliar vocabulary such as “gender assigned at birth”.

When the data was published in January, it seemed unusual. Cities like Brighton, which have a large gay and lesbian population, might be expected to have the highest number of trans people as well, but they didn’t. According to the ONS, the highest proportion of trans people was recorded in the London boroughs of Newham and Brent. 

Academics noted that these London boroughs also have a high proportion of people who don’t have English as their first language, and suggested that respondents had been confused by a badly-worded question: “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” It assumes that people have a “gender identity”, a proposition beloved by trans activists but hardly anyone else, and makes the fatal error of confusing sex and gender. 

There is no doubt that respondents were confused. The fact that the possibility didn’t occur to anyone at the ONS, who published the data without caveats, shows the urgent need for critical voices. The problem with the figures emerged only when it was examined by outside experts, who had already warned about the wording of some census questions. 

It means we still don’t have reliable data on the size of the trans population, making it difficult to predict the demands they will make on healthcare, for example. But it also shows that awareness of the threat posed by trans ideology is spreading, and the wilder claims of activists are being challenged.

Yet government departments, the NHS and publicly-funded organisations have systematically removed words like “woman” and “mother” in a foolish quest to be “inclusive”. The damage done to the reputation of the ONS by this avoidable fiasco is incalculable. It demonstrates, once again, that language that erases the reality of sex has no place in public life.


Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She was previously Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board. Her book Unfortunately, She Was A Nymphomaniac: A New History of Rome’s Imperial Women will be published in November 2024.

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Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago

It means we still don’t have reliable data on the size of the trans population
Yes we do: it’s zero
Gender identity is a pure invention resulting from a combination of the pseudo-science of corrupt, evidence falsifying, medical professionals such as Dr John Money, and the psycho babble of post modernist philosophy.

Last edited 9 months ago by Marcus Leach
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Hey Marco, she said reliable data – your angry and bitter opinions hardly qualify, now do they?!?!

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
9 months ago

When did you first become convinced that everyone has a gender identity and what was the specific evidence that convinced you it exists?

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Hey pal, you’re the one obsessed with trans and gender stuff, not me! I’m happy to let people be what they are. You should try it sometime.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
9 months ago

Fuckwit

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
9 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

He’s actually Jamie Wallis. He knows it no more exists than his clean driving record.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago

Pot meet my friend Kettle.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

Hey ‘Poo Fash, she said reliable data – your angry and bitter opinions hardly qualify, now do they?!?!

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

More flattery from Dickie!

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

Perhaps those who work within the ONS are themselves caught up in the “gender wars”, which might explain how they’d be tone deaf to the problematic nature of the questions in their surveys.
The recruitment strategy of the ONS requires a thorough review, although it’s likely the majority of those engaged in this institution have been recruited from the very academic institutions which promote a biased attitude, and also unlikely that can be easily remedied within a generation.
Unfortunately, this simply adds to the sense of public institutions no longer being fit for purpose; of having an agenda rather than providing as close to an objective service as possible.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The explanation is that the ONS is just like every other public sector body in Britain in 2023 – run by people who are ignorant, completely out of touch with the real world and very, very stupid.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

As you will know, the whole idea of polling is extremely difficult to judge. At the birth of polling in the US, it took a while for people to understand that you could predict something for millions of people by asking a thousand. What question to use and how to target the right selection of people is fraught with dangers. With something new, like the Trans phenomenon, it is clear that it will take a while to get it right – but not a generation. Perhaps a year or two at the most.
It is easy to test a hypothesis; you just change the question slightly, pick another set of people, and then you would be able to see the probabilities changing with your choices. Your post implies that you need to recruit different people to judge the sensitivity of the question. This misses the point. A poll is a poll is a poll. It is not about your political viewpoint or your background family life; it’s just a job.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

It might be considered that “As you will know…” renders the rest of your comment redundant, but thanks anyway, i enjoyed reading your opinion.

Last edited 9 months ago by Steve Murray
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I suspect that polling is becoming less reliable over time as people become more casual about lying.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Not sure why you got so many down votes?…for pointing out how the ONS could have avoided poll/census questions that give false positives.
That the ONS will already be aware of this would indicate that they did indeed want to inflate numbers for certain elements of the population.
Do they ask specifically if you are Autistic or Downs or just ask you to fill in as appropriate?

Also, I notice my comment is “Awaiting for Approval”. This is very poor English and should say either “Awaiting Approval” or “Waiting for Approval”.

Last edited 9 months ago by Nigel Clarke
Tom Scott
Tom Scott
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

A few sackings would no doubt help.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

When I worked for the NHS my role for a while was to evaluate grant funded schemes and programmes who received money from a “partnership” of public sector bodies (LA, NHS etc), governed by a Partnership Board comprising of directors and senior managers.
One grant recipient was a registered charity purporting to provide support services to a minority ethnic community. Even a cursory evaluation uncovered that they were not using the money for legitimate purposes and, quite possibly, were an entirely fraudulent organisation. As was expected of me, I presented the Board my report with the recommendation they give no further funding. Literally nobody said a word. Nothing. They didn’t even acknowledge the report before them, let alone discuss its contents. After perhaps 20 seconds of silence, the Chair thanked me for attending (not for the report, I must stress, just for attending) and moved on to the next item. It goes without saying they continued funding the organisation.
This group of directors and senior managers had been literally rendered speechless and powerless by progressive groupthink. Specifically the fear of the consequences for their careers and standing if by even discussing the irregularities of this organisation they were seen by implication to be criticising a vulnerable minority group.
I expect this is what happened at the ONS where there are many excellent statisticians, demographers etc who will have known the trans question was garbage. They won’t have spoken up because who wants to be the one risking their career and standing by pointing out the Emperor has no clothes.

N Satori
N Satori
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Alarming – yet not surprising. A charity racket is too easy perpetrate simply because the ‘good deed’ of giving (be it by government grant or personal donation) is seen as sufficient in itself. To question how the money is used or whether the recipient is honest – well that’s just mean spirited and in poor taste!
By the way, can you say which ethnic community were able to frighten the Partnership Board into uncritical acceptance?

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

It was ostensibly a community group for Black African immigrants.

I am duty bound to say, because its true, that the vast majority of groups we funded were well-intentioned and conscientious. The worst you could say about them is that they were largely pointless and the money would have been much better spent on more nurses, fire hoses, and street cleaning equipment.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

“Black African”
What a surprise that you target this group with your baloney story.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

*It was ostensibly a community group for black African immigrants.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

I got a good laugh reading this little piece of fantasy writing!
“The power of my words and my truth struck them speechless!!!!”
Good stuff! I bet you do some really excellent fan fiction too!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

The cognitive dissonance is strong in you, Dearth Socialist.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Why do people continue to use my ( and 2 in 5 of the population) disability to mean stupid or ignorant. Please stop using tone deaf in this way. Nobody uses other disabilities to mean stupid or ignorant any more, so why do you still use “deaf” in this way?

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
9 months ago
Reply to  MJ Reid

Should read 1 in 5 not 2 in 5.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I have got into the habit, whenever I have dealings with officialdom, of prefacing our exchange with a spiel along the following lines:-
There are two genders, nobody has ever had a sex change, so-called “transwomen” are male transvestite fetishists, men need to stay out of female-only spaces, teaching kids gender ideology is child abuse, gender-affirming care is pimping for sadistic paedophilia, it’s ok to be White, and White lives matter.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
9 months ago

Yet government departments, the NHS and publicly-funded organisations have systematically removed words like “woman” and “mother” in a foolish quest to be “inclusive”.

But it’s not clear at all that this is a quest to be inclusive. It’s more likely to be fear-driven. In Ireland the nation’s top gender doctor Professor Donal O’Shea has said his career is on the line because he opposes the setting-up of an activist-led gender medicine service which could end up being dangerous for patients. I could see the same thing being true in the NHS.

Last edited 9 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
9 months ago

Let’s be inclusive by excluding a huge portion of the population. Well that makes sense!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

It is true in the NHS. Google the Tavistock Clinic.

Richard M
Richard M
9 months ago

The assault on women’s rights to protected spaces is sickening.
The assault on reason is grotesque and in some respects more dangerous. All our freedoms ultimately depend on it.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

The irony of the far right now deciding that they want to protect women’s rights is comical.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

The irony of the far left now deciding that they want to endanger women’s safety is tragic.

Last edited 9 months ago by Richard Craven
Waffles
Waffles
9 months ago

The problem is that to work in the public sector (including the military), you have to think exactly the same as everyone else, using the exact same words to say how much you agree that, for example, women have ding dongs.

“Diversity” has therfore come to mean “people who look different but think exactly the same”.

Diversity of appearance, homogeneity of thought.

Any normal person could have seen the massive error steaming towards the ONS, but they were all so caught up in Wokeism they were blind to the obvious.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

I’m shocked I tell ya – shocked.

Edward H
Edward H
9 months ago

I know how many people are ‘non-binary’, but if I said, then I’d probably be cancelled.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

I’m sure you spend a lot of time thinking about it…
Tell us Eddie, when did your obsession with the trans community begin? Does your wife know about it?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

This sounds kinda transphobic to me.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Why don’t you explain that for us, Jimbo?
Are you feeling triggered?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

Clearly you think an obsession with trans people is a label to discredit someone with.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think an obsession with anyone else’s genitals seems unhealthy.
You obviously don’t. Care to explain to us why you spend so much time worrying about the intimate lives of other people?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

I’ve never accused any one of having an obsession with genitals and I certainly wouldn’t label them if they did.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You are the one with the obsession. You and your little friends who spend all day worrying about what other people may be getting up to.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago

Just when I start thinking leftists might not be complete idiots after all, I encounter one of your infantile posts. Thank you for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

My obsession with the “trans” community began when a close relative was captured by it. This young teenage girl now wants to live as a boy, is not in school, is cycling through a series of male names, and is at risk of puberty-delaying drugs, cross-sex hormones, and eventual mutilation. Damn right I spend a lot of time thinking about this. But you think it’s funny, so whatever.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
9 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

I tried to calculate what percentage of the non-binary population are also gender-fluid. I divided the one population by the other and multiplied by 100. My calculator gave me NaN.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
9 months ago

The census was available in 50 languages. but I am guessing that the gender identity question would have been even more confusing when translated. The ONS said that they tested the question, but the problem is that they were expecting this sort of proportion because it is very similar to the proportion “found” by an earlier NHS survey.
The areas with the high proportion of apparent “trans” folk have a high proportion of non-native English speakers, but do they also have a high proportion of asylum seekers? A well-known dodge in various European countries is for asylum seekers to claim to be trans, as this can improve the chances of success of their asylum claims.
In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents gave their religion as “Jedi”. There had been lots of collusion between Star Wars fans prior to the census because of an urban myth about a religion getting official recognition if more than some proportion of the population were of that faith. Admittedly, for gender ientity, colluion doesn’t explain the geography, but it shows that collusion can have an effect nationally.
The Scots decided to have their own Census arragements the result was a very low response rate, very long delays in producing any results and major data processing errors. All this has rendered the Scottish census useless for practical purposes. So we don’t have to get hot under the collar about the phrasing of an inddividual question.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

A younger generation of bureaucrats who love the idea of transgendrism and will do everything in their power to foster it throughout society. One assumes they are not big readers and yet they must have read a lot of Judith Butler at university.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
9 months ago

Very good article, but can we please start quarantining the word “trans” inside quote marks.

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
9 months ago

Unherd’s obsession with trans continues…