British Sikh group begins legal action over UK census

A British Sikh group lobbying for Sikhism to be added as a separate ethnicity tick box in the next UK census in 2021 said it has begun its legal action against the UK government over its rejection of such a categorisation.

The Sikh Federation UK claims to have the support of 150 gurdwaras and Sikh organisations and had issued a “letter before action” to the UK Cabinet Office in May, demanding a review of the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) decision to reject the need for such an additional tick box.

After what it says is a “disappointing final reply”, the group has decided to proceed with its legal action in the UK High Court.

It said Leigh Day Solicitors, acting on its behalf, have submitted papers this week to seek the court’s permission to move to a full hearing.

“Given the wider public interest and need to move quickly with the census, we are hopeful the High Court will agree to an early full hearing. We note many cases are ‘settled’ following the decision of the High Court to grant permission,” said Bhai Amrik Singh, the Chair of the Sikh Federation UK.

“The Sikh Federation UK has been campaigning and advocating for the inclusion of a Sikh ethnicity tick-box in the UK census for more than 15 years and believe the Sikh community are close to securing a massive victory that will help address institutional racism and discrimination against Sikhs by public bodies,” he said.

The organisation believes that it would be “unlawful” for the Cabinet Office to lay before Parliament, later this year, a Census Order based on the proposals set out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in their December 2018 White Paper.

Sikhism is recognised as a separate religion in the optional religious question introduced in the 2001 Census. The UK’s Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 placed an obligatory duty on the country’s public authorities to monitor and positively promote race equality in the provision of public services.

According to some British Sikh groups, public bodies tend to only reference the ethnic groups used in the census and demand a separate Sikh ethnic tick box to ensure Sikhs have fair access to all public services.

The issue, however, has divided the British Sikh community, with the Network of Sikh Organisations among those who have been against such a separate tick box a “misuse of the word ethnicity”.

The ONS, which had consulted over the issue while preparing its White Paper to be tabled in the UK Parliament, has maintained that the country’s first digital census in 2021 will ensure that all groups are covered.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on any legal action. However, no group will be missed out in the digital-first 2021 Census,” an ONS spokesperson said.

“The ONS recommendations follow extensive research and consultation with groups and individuals and everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh will be able to do so. The religion question will have a specific Sikh tick box response option and everyone who wishes to identify as Sikh in response to the ethnicity question will be able to do so through a write-in option. We believe these proposals will enable public bodies to work with the Sikh community in shaping public services to meet their needs,” the spokesperson added.


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