A Chat With: Steve Stewart, ONS Census Engagement Manager

With the 2021 Census less than a month away, we spoke to Census Engagement Manager Steve Stewart about the introduction of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity and how completing the Census could improve lives in the city region.

So, first things first, tell us about you and your team and what it is you do to support the Census?

My name is Steve Stewart and I am one of three Community Engagement Managers in Liverpool, along with Gail Harrison and Kerry Brighton. Our job is to work with the many community, cultural and key population groups across Liverpool, to make them aware of the census, help people understand why it is so important and support them in filling it in.

And what exactly is the Census?

The census is an event & exercise that occurs every 10 years in the UK and has done every decade since 1801, with the exception of 1941 which was postponed due to WW2. Put very simply it counts all of the population on a pre-selected day in census year, in their homes, dwellings, locations etc – and asks questions to collect data. This information is used to future plan and fund all sorts of local and national projects and in the private, public and community sectors. The census has evolved in recent years and is helping to support and develop our more diverse and wider population groups.

Why does it take place every 10 years, who uses the data and why is it important?

The 10-year gap allows for tangible change and shift in our population to be recorded, which in turn provides a clearer picture as to how funding should be decided over the next 10 years. Great data collection equals better planning!

The data is collected by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – made sense of – and then used by national and local governments. It is then passed on and invested into local infrastructure and community planning, so the more people who fill in the census increases the amount of funding coming in!

Two new voluntary questions have been added to the census this year, along with more inclusive language and explanation also being provided around the ’sex’ question. What are the questions and why have they been added?

“This is a landmark moment in the history of LGBT+ people, as it is the first time in the world that a national census will ask for and collect data about people’s sexual orientation – and one of the first to collect data on gender identity.

This has come about because of the growing understanding about and awareness of sexual orientation and trans and gender non-conforming voices and issues. It is, at last, a significant step forward in promoting and supporting the recognition and visibility of LGBT+ people in the UK. This is why it is so important to complete the Census. it will pave the way for more advancements and progress.

Are there any limitations to answering these questions? 

In this Census the focus is on LGBT+ people who are 16 and older. The entire census can only be answered by those who are 16 or over, so that is entirely consistent across all questions. 

Why have these questions been made voluntary?

The main reason is based on privacy concerns, which might differ according to other identity characteristics. For example both younger people (at home with family) and older people living in shared accommodation, might have worries about disclosing that information with others in their household.

Is there a way for people who might not be out in their household to confidentiality record their sexual orientation or gender identity?

If someone in such a situation wishes to answer the question on sexual orientation and/or gender identity, they can privately and in confidence ask for a separate document on which to answer it.

This can be done by contacting our 0800 number and asking for an additional form with a new Unique Access Number. This can either be posted out – or sent via text message to the recipient. We anticipate that most will ask for a text message response to preserve their privacy and confidentiality, as there might be a chance that another person in the household could open a posted form.

What impact do you hope the introduction of these questions will have on the Census?

There are a number of reasons, not least of which are the emotional and moral benefits of feeling  accepted and counted as part of everyday society. This would include the visibility and profile of LGBT+  individuals, groups or communities at a local level, in the media or on a national platform.

Aside from providing accurate data, what benefits can come from whole populations completing the Census? What tangible impacts could it have on the LGBT+  community?

The census will demonstrate the ever-changing nature of our society and our communities. This will highlight and support the enrichment we all will enjoy, derived from diverse and different perspectives, cultures, practices, needs and dependencies. The higher the returns from LGBT+  groups and communities, the better the chances they have in greater representation and funding.

How many people filled in the census in the Liverpool City Region in 2010? What was the shortfall vs. population and what is the impact of this? 

The population of Liverpool has risen steadily in the last 20 years from 440,000 in 2001 – to 467,000 in 2011 – to 492,000 last year. In 2001, 89% of Liverpool residents returned their census forms – this increased to 92% 10 years later. We are still running below the national average of 95%. 

In simple terms this means we don’t receive the per capita funding we should get, which can run into millions of pounds of lost revenue. This then requires the city council to contest the figures and go through a process to reclaim it. Both Manchester and Liverpool have successfully contested and challenged census figures in recent years. 

The key population groups that do not respond as well as others are the ones we as a team work most closely with to support and guide. In particular, the response rates were lower amongst Liverpool’s young adult male population, Eastern European and Chinese communities, some BAME groups and in the city’s more deprived communities.

There was a call to delay the 2021 census until next year. Has this suggestion now been fully dismissed, or is there still a chance it could be pushed back?

The Census is going ahead on 21st March 2021. There will be significant methods, types and levels of support provided to ensure an excellent response rate.

What would you say to anyone who is thinking that they might not complete the Census or perhaps don’t see the point of it?

I’m reading a book called Legacy at the minute about the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team. In it, the players are asked to consider their legacy after they stop playing. It is summed up by an old Greek saying “plant trees you may never see – nor sit under”. I think this is why it is almost our civic duty to complete the Census, to help the generation that follows after us. that i think is a great philosophy and we all should embrace it. Stand up and be counted, and help shape the future.

You can find out more about completing the Census at  www.census.gov.uk


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