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Harmonized Measures to Track Equality: United Kingdom

UK Office of National Statistics developed guidance on harmonized measures of identity

June 6, 2023
Author: Amanda Lenhardt

In 2008, the United Kingdom (UK) government set out to harmonize standards for the collection and reporting of statistics on ethnic, national, and religious identity. In 2020, an Inclusive Data Taskforce was established to improve inclusiveness of the government’s approach to collecting, analyzing, and reporting data and evidence on equality and inclusion. This task force highlighted further areas of improvement to address barriers in the reporting of identity in official statistics.

The collection and analysis of data on identity is challenging, and in many contexts, political. In 2008, the UK government confronted these challenges by seeking to harmonize statistical measures of identity used in census data collection and by other government departments tracking their distributional effects. Previously the only ethnicity statistics regularly available in the UK were based on people’s country of birth, a narrow interpretation of decreasing significance for many people in the UK.1

Workshops and consultations to develop harmonized definitions and measures of ethnic, national, and religious identity were held between 2008 and 2010 involving the Office of National Statistics (ONS), government representatives from the UK’s devolved nations (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Data Standard Working Group, other government departments, and academics.2 Guidance documents and a set of Harmonized Primary Principles were first published in 2011, and subsequently updated in 2013 and 2015.

In 2020, the UK’s National Statistician (head of the NSO) convened an independent taskforce of academics and civil society (CSO) leaders with expertise on equalities to revisit these measures and offer recommendations on how to improve the inclusivity of UK data and evidence. The taskforce consulted a wide range of constituents over nine months through an open online consultation, roundtable and in-depth discussions with government and CSO representatives, academics, and members of the public with lived experience of equality issues.3


There is no UK-wide legal requirement to collect data and information on ethnicity, nationality, and religion, however Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity when carrying out their functions relating to Northern Ireland.4 This requirement applies to equality of opportunity “between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation; between men and women generally; between persons with a disability and persons without; between persons with dependants and persons without.”5

The UK Harmonised Concepts and Questions for Social Data Sources provide detailed instructions for data collection, use, and interpretation related to ethnicity, national identity, and religion among other identity factors. The definitions and categories offered in the guidance are intended to facilitate consistent and inclusive data collection to help track equality on the basis of identity in a robust and consistent way. The measures are tailored to each of the UK’s devolved nations to allow for alternative understandings of ethnic, national, and religious identity. In Northern Ireland, for example, questions do not ask respondents to choose between Northern Irish/British and Irish identities, in compliance with the Good Friday Agreement.6 There is also a category identifying the Irish Traveller community and specific requirements for collecting data on religion to allow for the measurement of sectarianism.7

Research was carried out as part of the UK’s 2011 census to determine the effectiveness of the identity categories, the sequencing of questions, and the application of survey questions. This research found that the use of tick-boxes was effective in making data collection systematic, minimizing the burden on respondents and making data processing more efficient.8 It was not possible to list every ethnic group that emerged from consultations, therefore principles for prioritization were developed based on public and expert consultation, testing, the need for information on specific groups, clarity and comparability.9 The research also found that the sequencing of questions on identity was an important factor in public acceptability of the questions, recommending that a question on national identity be followed by a question on ethnicity, to be followed by a question on religion.


There is no financial information for this policy. One review noted that it can be difficult to find resources within government to implement survey and data harmonization, but balanced this out against cost savings and efficiency “by avoiding ‘reinventing the wheel’ by utilizing pre-existing harmonized principles.”10


There is limited evidence available on the effect of the UK’s harmonized measures of equality beyond the government’s own assessments. It can be challenging to measure the impact of this type of policy. While statistical measures of identity are a critical input to policies aimed at addressing inequalities, these will indirectly affect equality and inclusion in ways that often will not be immediately clear.

Overall, the UK’s ongoing commitment to developing inclusive standardized measures of identity to track inequalities demonstrates success in its own right. Measuring ethnic identity, national identity, and religion is challenging, but is instrumental to understanding the nature of inequality and to monitoring policies and programmes aimed at addressing it. The UK ONS appears to be confronting these challenges and opening the process to inputs from affected communities.

The 2020 Inclusive Data Taskforce found that trust and trustworthiness is a continuing barrier to participation in data collection, concluding that there was a general sense of distrust in government among groups facing exclusion that could result in them being underrepresented in ongoing data collection. 11 They also identified accessibility challenges for some groups. The Government Statistical Service Harmonisation Team published a work plan in 2022 detailing ongoing activities to address these and other issues. 12

The ONS has provided training and capacity building to support civil society and other public sector actors to use this data to help drive social change.13 Some civil society organizations actively promote the use of ONS data to track inequalities. The National Council for Civil Society Organisations advocates using “publicly available data to gain new insights into the inequalities and disparities in the communities we serve.” ONS data have been used by civil society organizations to highlight inequalities on the basis of race and ethnicity in health,14 income and employment,15 housing,16 and education.17