Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom

Classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom

The classification of ethnicity in the United Kingdom has attracted controversy in the past: particularly at the time of the 2001 Census where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general.

Different classifications, both formal and informal, are used in the UK.


National statistics

The ethnicity data used in UK national statistics relies on individuals' self-definition. The Office for National Statistics explain this as follows:

Is a person's ethnic group self-defined? Yes. Membership of an ethnic group is something that is subjectively meaningful to the person concerned, and this is the principal basis for ethnic categorisation in the United Kingdom. So, in ethnic group questions, we are unable to base ethnic identification upon objective, quantifiable information as we would, say, for age or gender. And this means that we should rather ask people which group they see themselves as belonging to.[1]

The current ONS classification, which was also used for classifying ethnicity in the 2001 UK Census, is given below.[2] Slightly different categories were employed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as compared with England and Wales, "to reflect local differences in the requirement for information".[3] However, the data collected still allow for comparison across the UK.[3] Different classifications were used in the 1991 Census, which was the first to include a question on ethnicity.[4][5]

England and Wales Scotland Northern Ireland
White White
White Scottish
Irish Traveller
Other White British
Any other White background
White Irish
Other White
White and Black Caribbean
White and Black African
Pakistani and other South Asian
Other Asian
White and Asian
Black Caribbean
Any other Mixed background
Black African
Asian or Asian British
Other (South) Asian
Other Black
Other ethnic group
Other ethnic group
Not stated
Any other Asian background
Black or Black British
Black Scottish and other Black
Any Mixed Background
Other Ethnic Group
Any other Black background
Not stated
Chinese or other ethnic group
Any other ethnic group
Not stated

More detail on this classification is available on the National Statistics website.[6]

Proposed changes to the 2011 Census regarding ethnicity

There have been calls for the 2011 national census in England and Wales to include extra tick boxes so people can identify their ethnic group in category A as Welsh, English and Cornish[7][dead link][8] (at present, the tick boxes only include British, Irish or any other).

Some experts, community and special interest group respondents also pointed out that the 'Black African' category is too broad. They remarked that the category does not provide enough information on the considerable diversity that exists within the various populations currently classified under this heading. This concealed heterogeneity ultimately makes the gathered data of limited use analytically. To remedy this, the Muslim Council of Britain proposes that this census category be broken down instead into specific ethnic groups:[9]

The National Association of British Arabs and other Arab organizations have also lobbied for the inclusion of a separate "Arab" entry, which would include under-reported groups from the Arab world such as Syrians, Somalis and Yemenis.[10]

The specimen 2011 Census questions were published in 2009 and included new "Gypsy or Irish Traveller" and "Arab" categories.[11]


The police services of the UK began to classify arrests in racial groups in 1975, but later replaced the race code with an Identity Code (IC) system.[12]

  • IC1 White person
  • IC2 Mediterranean person
  • IC3 African/Caribbean person
  • IC4 Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Maldivian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, or any other (South) Asian person
  • IC5 Chinese, Japanese, or South-East Asian person
  • IC6 Arabic, Egyptian or Maghreb person
  • IC0 Origin unknown

This classification is still referred to on some police websites and police chase TV shows, e.g. "Driver is IC1 male, passenger is IC3 male".[13]

From 1 April 2003, police forces were required to use the new system described above. Police forces and civil and emergency services, the NHS and local authorities in England and Wales may refer to this as the "16+1" system, named for the 16 classifications of ethnicity plus one category for "not stated". The IC classification is still used for descriptions of suspects by police officers amongst themselves, but does risk incorrectly identifying a victim a witness or a suspect compared to that person's own description of their ethnicity. When a person is stopped by a police officer exercising statutory powers and asked to provide information under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, they are asked to select one of the five main categories representing broad ethnic groups and then a more specific cultural background from within this group.[14] Officers must record the respondent's answer, not their own opinion.


  1. ^ "Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data". Office for National Statistics. 2003. p. 9. Retrieved 20 October 2009. 
  2. ^ "Harmonised Concepts and Questions for Social Data Sources: Primary Standards – Ethnic Group". Office for National Statistics. April 2008. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  3. ^ a b "Population size: 7.9% from a non-White ethnic group". Office for National Statistics. 2004-01-08. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  4. ^ Sillitoe, K.; White, P.H. (1992). "Ethnic group and the British census: The search for a question". Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society) 155 (1): 141–163. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Bosveld, Karin; Connolly, Helen; Rendall, Michael S. (31 March 2006). "A guide to comparing 1991 and 2001 Census ethnic group data". Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  6. ^ "The Classification of Ethnic Groups". National Statistics. 2001-02-16. Archived from the original on 2007-04-06. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  7. ^ Fight goes on to include Cornish ethnicity and language in Census 2011 options
  8. ^ "2006 local govt abstracts". Retrieved 2011-08-23. 
  9. ^ Summary report: experts, community and special interest groups
  10. ^ Arab Population in the UK - Study for consideration of inclusion of ‘Arab’ as an ethnic group on future census returns
  11. ^ "2011 census questions published". BBC News. 21 October 2009. Retrieved 4 April 2010. 
  12. ^ Mackie, Lindsay (1978-06-14). "Race causes an initial confusion". The Guardian.,,106880,00.html. Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  13. ^ "Abbreviations Used". Freedom of Information Act (Sussex Police Online). Retrieved 2007-04-20. 
  14. ^ "Code of Practice for the Exercise by Police Officers of Statutory Powers of Stop and Search; Police Officers and Police Staff of Requirements to Record Public Encounters". Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 CODE A (HMSO). 

External links

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