Government White Paper on The 2001 Census The Religion Question & What Needs to be Done

23rd March 1999

The MCB welcomes the proposal in the White Paper ‘The 2001 Census of Population’ (Cm 4253) to include a question on religion in the next decennial census planned for 29th April 2001.

Up to now, resource allocation based on ‘race relations thinking’ has not adequately addressed issues of social exclusion and discrimination in Britain today. The White Paper is therefore an important signal to public institutions that the religious dimension should be taken into account if service delivery is to be optimal and sensitive to real needs.

Battle not yet over

This is a significant achievement for a lobbying effort by the religious communities that began in 1996. However the battle is not yet over, because the White Paper states that such a question would require a change in legislation (to the Census Act 1920) and before deciding such a step, “the Government would want to be satisfied that the inclusion of such a question in a census commanded the necessary support of the general public”. Moreover the White Paper proposes that the religion question should not be included in the Census form for Scotland.

MCB Participation

The main lobbying effort for the inclusion of the religion question has been carried out by the Religious Affiliation Sub-Group of the Working Group on Content, Question Testing and Classifications, originally convened by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This Sub-Group has reconstituted itself independent of the ONS in June 1998, as the 2001 Religion Affiliation Sub-Group. The MCB has participated actively in the work of this Sub-Group which is chaired by the Revd. Professor Leslie J Francis of the Centre for Theology and Education, Trinity College, Carmarthen.

‘Bizarre’ exclusion of Scotland

Scotland’s Muslim community, estimated to be about 40,000, have voiced surprise on the White Paper’s proposal to limit the religious question to England and Wales only (Northern Ireland has had a such a question since 1991). Bailie Bashir Maan, Labour member of Glasgow City Council and member of the MCB Central Working Committee has described the exclusion as “bizarre”. In a statement to ‘The Scotsman’ (10 March 1999) he said “It is discriminatory and I don’t see any sense in it, especially when the question will be asked in Wales where there is a much smaller ethnic population. The question of religion is important because it allows local authorities and government agencies to cater for the specific needs of different religious groups. I believe the Muslim community in Scotland is being let down.”

Action required

The MCB will be calling on the Muslim community throughout the United Kingdom to lobby their MPs to support the required change to the Census Act 1920. The MPs will be asked to ensure that room is made in the parliamentary timetable for this legislative change – there is a real threat that a shortage of time in the Houses of Parliament, and the Scottish Parliament, could be used as an excuse for foot dragging the matter on for another decade.

The MCB believes that the inclusion of a religious affiliation question in the Census, and the availability of demographic and related data for better planning of services, will be a positive message to the British Muslim community that their presence and contribution is recognised. Muslims resent being treated as the ‘invisible’ element of British society, whose needs and strengths stand unrecognised by public and civic services.

Additional information:

Fact sheet available from the MCB web site – ‘Islam in the British Isles – some key events and dates’

Census 2001 Briefing, including objections to a religion question and the responses – see ‘Briefings’ on the web site: