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 has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.