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Government faces legal challenge by Sikh community on Census 2021

Sikh Federation (UK) launches legal challenge to Census 2021 proposals with support of over 120 Gurdwaras and Sikh organisations.

Posted on 28 May 2019

The Sikh Federation UK has launched a legal challenge to the government’s proposals for the Census 2021, in particular the decision not to include the option of a tick-box for the Sikh ethnic group.
The Sikh Federation (UK) represents members of the Sikh community in the UK and has been campaigning for and advocating the inclusion of a Sikh ethnicity tick-box in the UK Census for more than 15 years. 
The Federation believes that it would be unlawful for the Cabinet Office to lay before Parliament a Census Order based on the proposals set out by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in their December 2018 White Paper. The draft Census Order is due to be laid before Parliament in autumn 2019.
The Federation believes that the process which preceded the ONS’ recommendation that a Sikh ethnicity category not be included in the 2021 census was unlawful. The ONS wrongly relied on results from a report from an external company, Kantar. Kantar’s analysis was based on a definition of the “public acceptability” criteria that was different from that previously published and which the ONS has promised to use when determining whether to include a tick box or not. 
In 2011, the UK-wide Census recorded approximately 430,000 Sikhs based on a non-mandatory question about religion. However, not all people who would identify as ethnically Sikh identify as religiously Sikh. Additionally, the non-mandatory religious question in the Census is unsatisfactory with over 4 million non-responses and 16 million specifying no religion in 2011.   
The Federation argues in their letter before action, which was sent last week, that any attempt to understand data on ethnic Sikhs using religious data would yield inaccurate results. If no satisfactory response is received to the letter, the group has said it will consider initiating judicial review proceedings.
The Sikh Federation’s own estimate based on engagement with their community is that there are approximately 700-800,000 ethnic Sikhs in the UK.  
The ONS states that the results from a census: “provides information that government needs to develop policies, plan and run public services, and allocate funding”. The Federation argues that it is vital therefore that the ethnic Sikh population of the UK is properly accounted for, so that the needs of the community can be met.
Bhai Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation UK, said: 
“Without public bodies monitoring Sikhs as a distinct ethnic group they cannot be aware of the barriers Sikhs face as a religio-ethnic community. As a result decisions are taken by local authorities and central government, on the basis of inaccurate data, that overlook the specific needs of this community.  We hope that the government will listen to our arguments and agree to apply a lawful approach to this decision without the need for the case to be fought in the courts.”
Rosa Curling, solicitor from law firm Leigh Day, added: 
“Our clients have identified a number of flaws within the process for determining whether to include a Sikh ethnicity category in the 2021 Census. They believe it is crucial that individuals are able to identify as ethnically Sikh in the next Census to ensure a more accurate picture of the community is taken. This will ensure public bodies are fulfilling their duties under the Equality Act when making decisions about the allocation of vital public services. Our clients have been in numerous discussions with the ONS and Cabinet Office over a number of years but now feel that they have no choice but to begin legal action.”
David Wolfe QC and Ayesha Christie of Matrix Chambers are instructed in this case.