Cross Justice Working Group on Race Data and Evidence minutes: March 2021 – Ethnic group classifications for data collection

Discussion paper for the meeting of working group on 31 March 2021.

Paper 3 - Ethnic group classifications for data collection - discussion paper for working group meeting 31 March 2021


This paper sets out the proposal that the 2022 Scottish Ethnicity Classifications should be adopted as the standard for data collection purposes across the justice system.  It recognises that moving to that standard will not happen uniformly across the system but that this should be the agreed standard which we all adopt longer term.

Background to the 2022 Scottish Census question

Ethnicity is a complicated and sensitive concept and can mean different things to different people.  People’s concept of their ethnicity, and the way that they choose to express it, can change over time. It is important that the questions that are asked in the census are acceptable to people and reflect changing views which at the same time allow for comparison over time.  Therefore the format and content of the ethnic groups question has changed with each census to reflect this and best meet user needs, while retaining an element of comparability over time and with the rest of the UK.

The measurement of ethnicity in the UK is influenced by the legal framework ( primarily the Equality Act 2010), which specifically refers to ‘racial grounds’ – namely colour, nationality, and ethnic or national origins. Different elements can be more or less important to individuals and the development of the question over time has tried to reflect these elements.

A question on ethnic group was first introduced in the Scottish census in 1991 and has been asked in 2001 and 2011 using slightly different questions each time. However, all of the ethnic group response options used in the 1991, 2001, and 2011 Census questions combined concepts of colour, nationality, and ethnic or national origins.

Following the 2001 Census, in 2002 the then Communities Minister promised to review the way that Scottish surveys classify ethnicity, to ensure that they reflected modern circumstances, met user needs and had broad community support. 

The Scottish Government worked in partnership with the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS), now National Records of Scotland, to conduct the review which spanned a number of years and a new recommended set of classifications was published in 2008. The classification was discussed extensively by members of the Scottish Parliament during consideration of the 2011 Census in Scotland and was subsequently amended for use in the 2011 census.

Given the amount of work which had gone into developing the question for 2011 – and the need to maintain consistency over time - the starting point for the development of the question for the 2021 (now 2022) census was the 2011 one.  There was extensive consultation and testing both among the general population and also community groups of interest in order to establish further user needs for specific categories and to test that new question formats would provide high quality data.  

The final version of the question which will be asked in the 2022 census is therefore  similar to the 2011 question but has  a small number of additional or changed categories. Further details on the development of the question, including testing is available.

Why use the Census 2022 question?

Whilst many public sector organisations in Scotland, including many in the justice system, use the census categories as the basis for their own collection systems, there are many who do not.  There are a variety of classifications in use, some of which are similar to the census classification but others which are not.  

There are many reasons for using other categorisations.  Often there is a desire to be able to monitor change over time against older categories and a change to using the census categories would risk losing that consistency.  Another common consideration is that it can be difficult and/or expensive to change classifications in the collection systems.  However the use of disparate classifications across a system such as justice means that even when data are collected, it becomes difficult to compare outcomes and experiences between different parts of the system and against the population as a whole.

In addition, it can also be difficult to compare justice data with data from other sectors.  Many organisations have moved to use the census categories as it provides a population baseline with which to compare.  The census question is also used in all major Scottish Government social surveys which again provide useful points of comparison.

Finally, the census question and categories have been arrived at following extensive consultation and testing.  That is not to say that the that the question is universally accepted or is perfect, but it balances the needs of many groups and delivers a set of categories which allow for comparison over time and with other parts of the UK (if desired).  Given the often disparate views which exist around this question, it is unlikely that any other classification will be accepted by all groups and therefore using a question which has broad agreement would seem to be the most sensible approach.


The working group are therefore asked to consider whether or not to recommend the 2022 Census classifications as the standard which all all organisations represented on the group should adopt as soon as practicably possible.  

If the group agree that it should be adopted, it is proposed that this recommendation is shared with the cross justice working group on workforce issues in order to help progress the consistent and systematic collection of workforce data across the sector.  

In addition, if agreed, it is proposed that the group ask the National Justice Board for formal endorsement to use the census classification as the recommended standard across the justice sector.  This was raised during a broader discussion around race and justice at their last meeting, and there was a desire expressed to work together to ensure consistent data collection across the system.

Justice Analytical Services
March 2021

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