Yesterday in the House of Commons, MP of Hove Mike Weatherley asked a very relevant and pressing question. He asked the Minister of the Cabinet Office:
what account the Office for National Statistics took of the proportion of the population who do not follow a religion in preparing the forms for the (a) 2001 and (b) 2011 Census.
The reply came in the form of a letter from Stephen Penneck, Director General for the Office of National Statistics (‘ONS’):
A question on religion was included in the Census in England and Wales for the first time in 2001 following the Census (Amendment) Act 2000. Responses to the question helped provide information which supplemented the output from the ethnicity question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent, in terms of their religion. The wording and design of the question and response categories were determined after extensive consultation with users and other key stakeholders and a programme of question testing. Information from the religion question is used to supplement ethnicity data to gain a general understanding of society; to inform service provision and resource allocations; and for fulfilling legal obligations to monitor inequalities.
ONS recognised that no single religion question could meet all user needs and after a programme of research and testing, ONS decided that religious affiliation – the number of people who identify with a religion irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice-was again the most appropriate concept to measure. Affiliation is a socially significant indicator in its own right that relates to a person’s cultural background and values.
This response is important because it lays out the important uses that census data is put to, and makes clear that the religion question does not measure religious belief or practice, but only cultural affiliation.
Yet, data from the last census has been repeatedly used as if it does measure religious belief or practice. If the policy-makers are going to continue misusing the data in the same was as they have over the last decade, it is vital that we ensure that all those who are not religious tick ‘No Religion’ on the forthcoming census, irrespective of any cultural affiliation they have.