LONDON: The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs has launched a year-long campaign to lobby for the Sikh community to be added as a separate ethnicity tick-box in the next UK census in 2021.

The move comes after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) rejected demands that ‘Sikh’ should be a separate ethnic identifier on the grounds that it would “not be acceptable to a proportion of the Sikh population”.

In a recently released White Paper, titled ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’, the ONS state that it had always provided an ‘other, specify’ box within the ethnic group question to allow respondents to answer as they wish to (such as defining their ethnicity as Sikh).

“The 2021 Census will continue to include a religion question, with a specific Sikh response option,” the ONS said, adding that a survey of Gurdwaras on the acceptance of a Sikh ethnic group tick-box “showed a high acceptance for inclusion”. It added, “Leaders of Sikh groups have provided information which has fed into the analysis. There are differing views within the Sikh population as to whether a specific response option should be added to the 2021 Census, and views on each side are passionately held.”

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs accused the Office of National Statistics (ONS) of ignoring “overwhelming” Sikh community support for such an additional category in order to ensure fair treatment of British Sikhs and address racial discrimination.

“The ONS with its latest proposals in the White Paper has now opened itself up to legal action and a claim of institutionalising discrimination against Sikhs,” said Labour MP Preet Kaur Gill, Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs.

“MPs, with the support of Gurudwaras, Sikh organisations and the community, are starting a year-long nationwide campaign to put this right and a Sikh ethnic tick box to be added when the Census Order 2019 is presented in the House of Commons,” she said.

Bhai Amrik Singh of campaign group, Sikh Federation (UK), said, “The ONS has gone to great lengths to maintain the status quo and continue with reinforcing the institutionalised discrimination of Sikhs by public bodies. We are aware of some of the pressures that have been exerted on them.”

“However, these are proposals and the final decision on the Census questions rests with Parliament. Gurdwaras, Sikh organisations and the community are resourceful and will work with the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) on the year-long campaign launched on Saturday. Legal action against the ONS remains an option.”

Singh added that campaigners are confident of securing the support of nearly 350 MPs from across the political spectrum, including ministers and shadow ministers: “We will be successful in securing an amendment to the Census Order when it is presented to Parliament in autumn 2019.”

Population figures according to ethnicity are crucial for various political, social, cultural and economic purposes, including distribution of government funds. Over 80,000 Sikhs reportedly used ‘Other’ in the 2011 census to identify themselves, and mentioned ‘Sikh’ on the forms.

“The recommendations fully recognise the need for good data on the Sikh community, both in terms of the need for high quality data from the census and also wider across all public services. Everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh will be able to do so,” said John Pullinger, UK’s National Statistician, who has also written to the APPG for British Sikhs with assurances.

The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO), which campaigned against such a separate ethnicity tick-box, has welcomed the conclusions of the White Paper.

“The ONS has conducted significant research and consultation on this matter across the British Sikh community over a long period of time. They revealed focus groups conducted showed, ‘younger second-generation participants wanted to express their Sikh background through the religion question as this is how they expected Sikh identity to be recorded’,” the NSO said in a statement.

The ONS has also stressed that its “Digital First” census in 2021 will have a new “search-as-you-type” facility on the online form, which will allow anyone to identify as being of any particular ethnic identity, including Sikh.

“The ONS will also utilise the Digital Economy Act 2017 to help ensure data on the Sikh population is available across public services – not just census collected data,” it said.

The date for the next UK census has been confirmed as March 21, 2021, subject to parliamentary approval.