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Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 20:39 GMT
A picture of ethnic Britain
A sari shop on the Belgrave Road in Leicester
Almost 9% of people describe themselves as non-white

What does the census tells us about the different racial and religious groups in Britain today?

To trained observers and academics this latest batch of figures will not have come as a surprise. It is as they predicted.

Britain is a multi-cultural mix of diverse communities. In years to come it will continue to expand in a slow but steady way.

The first myth blown is that Britain is being over run with ethnic minorities. Far from it in fact.

Almost 9% of us describe ourselves as non-white compared to under six percent 10 years ago. If you take away mixed-race identities that figure falls to just under 7.5%.

A far cry from the headlines in the run up to the 2001 Census which predicted that by 2010 white people would be the ethnic minority in places like Leicester and Birmingham.
The census is interesting in telling us where people have settled and continue to live

This fact was used by far right groups to whip up a spectre of Britain losing its indigenous racial identity.

In fact in Leicester fewer than four in 10 (36%) are ethnic minorities. Compare that with the 29% in the previous census in 1991.

What we do not have at the moment is the breakdown of ethnicity in age groups. That might reveal whether in some places there are more white people who are older and more younger ethnic minorities. This would help us to predict the future racial make up of a town or city. Having said that other factors need to be considered such as migration patterns for example.

What all this tells us is that we really do need to be more questioning of cold hard statistics - no matter how official or accurate.


There is also little surprise in the religious make up of Britain. It confirms what many have been saying for years. While secular we remain a majority Christian country.

What do we look like? How do we live?
Just as expected Muslims are the largest faith group among ethnic minorities. They are in fact the second largest religion in Britain today.

But the almost 1.6 million will be seen as significantly lower than the two million estimated by Muslim groups.

Professor Muhammad Anwar from the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick says the figure is likely to be around the 1.8 million mark because of more Eastern Europeans fleeing places like the former Yugoslavia.

He believes the census evidence helps Muslims who want to see tougher laws to protect them.

"We need to look at the policies and treatment of Muslims. The current policies are inadequate and non-existent. Muslims don't have any legal protection and there needs to be something like a religious discrimination law."

In the current climate and possibility of war, Professor Anwar feels their loyalty to Britain will be questioned. Their numbers show they have settled here and are playing an active role in British life. But Professor Anwar says their voices are not being heard.

"Only the views of a tiny tiny minority are ever heard and put into the headlines. The vast majority is not heard. Also Muslims are seriously under represented in decision making panels and when public appointments are made," he says.

Ethnic mobility

The census is also interesting in telling us where people have settled and continue to live. Closer inspection of these figures, once they are published, is likely to reveal that Indians remain the most mobile of ethnic minority groups.

Prince Charles meets Muslim children during a visit to Leicester
Muslims are the largest faith group among ethnic minorities
The key to this is the history and pattern of immigration and migration and settlement in Britain.

For example, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis settled in places like Oldham and Bradford where there were jobs. The main sources of income were the cotton mills and textile factories.

As they closed so did the job opportunities. Hence the disproportionate levels of unemployed Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in socially deprived areas.

Indians have historically been better qualified and have made use of their skills to open businesses in different places around the UK. They have thrived better in Britain compared to their more disadvantaged cousins.

As Professor Anwar points out: "Indians have been here longer than Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. They have made progress because of where they have settled. If you settle down in run down areas the job opportunities are poor and you won't get many chances to change."

Mapping the future

We should be cautious about interpreting this set of data. I say that because they are almost two years out of date and things will have moved on. Also statistics can be made to say anything.

For example it has been reported that Bradford has the largest population of Pakistanis. It might have in percentage terms but in actual numbers Birmingham has more - 104,017 compared to 67,994.

For the next 10 years these will be our 'official figures' on which policy decisions are made.

What we do not have at the moment is the breakdown in health, education, housing and social needs among the different ethnic groups.

This is when the statistics will be most useful. As the information is analysed and interpreted the census gives the government ammunition to make informed decisions about where resources should be targeted and what action is needed.

But with that comes responsibility and a fundamental question: Will the figures be used to make sure there is equality in the services and provisions provided in communities that need most help?

Key stories


UK breakdown


See also:

21 Nov 02 | Race
22 Jan 03 | Wales
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