HC Deb 26 July 2000 vol 354 cc1133-76 4.52 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 12, after "religion", insert— 'or for giving a false answer to that question'.

The Bill seeks to amend the Census Act 1920, and it is anticipated that the census will take place in April next year. The Bill would permit a question on religion in the next census, and we have said that we would support it if answering the question was voluntary. The 1920 Act does not give the Minister the power to ask such a question, hence the private Member's Bill that is being introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and adopted in Government time.

Having said that we would support the Bill if answering the question were voluntary, we have our doubts about whether it will be voluntary. The long title of the Bill is to Amend the Census Act 1920 to enable particulars to be required in respect of religion. In my opinion, the particulars sought are still required in respect of religion. Despite the Minister's assurances, which I accept she has given in good faith, we have our doubts about whether that will be done on a voluntary basis.

I have taken the liberty of seeking a legal opinion from Mr. Leolin Price QC, the head of chambers at 10 Old square. He has considered the Bill, this amendment, and the amendment tabled in Committee, and has said: Not doing something which statute requires you to do is unlawful.

Clause 1(2) of the new Bill has the effect of excluding liability for any penalty for refusing or neglecting to state any particulars in respect of religion. It does not undo the requirement to provide the particulars. Failure to comply with that requirement is not made lawful; that remains unlawful, and an offence. Only the liability, or the penalty, is excluded. It is an offence not to provide the necessary information; all that has happened is that there is no penalty.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) ably argued that the question should be voluntary. For one reason or another, however, the Government chose to reject what I considered to be a well drafted amendment. We disagree with their decision.

The Minister may say that the question is voluntary. Perhaps removing the penalty gives the impression that it is. However, she will encounter a difficulty, in that the inclusion of a statement on the census paper that the question is voluntary is probably not in her gift, and would mean that she was acting ultra vires. The rejection of the amendment in Committee may well expose the Government to the possibility of a judicial review in the courts.

There will be people out there who, for some reason, will not want the question to be asked. Opinion is far from unanimous; indeed, there is a wide variety of opinion. Many groups have expressed their support for the question, but some consider it inappropriate, and I think it likely that it will be challenged in the courts.

The Bill amends section 8 of the Census Act 1920. Section 8(1)(d) states that it is an offence attracting a penalty of £10 to refuse to answer a question. The Bill removes that £10 penalty. However, section 8(1)(d) also states that it is an offence for any person to give a false answer to a question. The Bill does not remove the penalty for giving a false answer. If I, a member of the Church of England, write "None" in answer to the question on the paper, under the words "This question is voluntary", I am liable. I am committing an offence, because I have given a false answer to the question.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I note what my hon. Friend says about the answer "None", but if an individual answered "Not applicable", how would that be interpreted?

Mr. Ottaway

I must answer that on my feet, as it were, but I think that that would constitute a refusal to answer the question, and would therefore not attract a penalty. If, however, a Sikh wrote "Church of England", that would attract a penalty.

This is the difficulty in which the Government fined them. Let us leave aside our argument that the question is not voluntary, although the Minister believes that it is. The fact is that those who answer it inaccurately will incur a penalty. I cannot understand the logic of a Bill that, while purporting to make a question voluntary, imposes a fine for giving an inaccurate answer to that question. Is that really what the Minister intended? I shall be more than happy to give way if she wants to elaborate on that—but it appears that she does not.

That is a legitimate question for me to ask. I hope that the Minister will address it when she responds. Is that what is intended? If it is what is intended, in something important such as a national census, it is opening a can of worms and a Pandora's box of litigation.

5 pm

The Minister may say that I am nit picking, and ask who in their right mind would prosecute someone for putting an inaccurate answer down. Indeed, who would know whether someone had answered inaccurately? That is not the point. What is the point of deeming something an offence if there is unlikely to be a prosecution?

There is a second point. The question again gives strength to someone who seeks to challenge the Bill—or, more to the point, the order—by way of judicial review. I return to the opinion of Mr. Leolin Price QC. In his legal opinion to me, he says: The Bill in its present form is in my view unconstitutional. Parliament cannot, without flouting constitutional principle, adopt the Bill in its present form. But if it does, and if the Courts…have to recognise it as an Act of Parliament, that will not be the end of the matter. Apart from any possible effect of the Human Rights Act from October onwards, the draft Census Order, when available (prescribing the Census questions, including the religious questions) will be challengeable by judicial review—preferably by challenge to the decision to prescribe the questions, and preferably before any approving resolution of either House of Parliament.

The amendment is not based on any wish of the Conservative party to be difficult over the matter. We want the law to be put in satisfactory order before we give it our full support, and eminent banisters did not, in truth, have to spend a significant amount of time researching the background to the amendment, because it was so plainly obvious that the Bill was defective. We cannot say that a question is voluntary if giving an inaccurate answer to it attracts a fine. That is the thrust of the amendment, which I urge the House to support.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I have some sympathy with the amendment. The description that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) has given, and the opinion that he has quoted, seem to reveal a fairly fatal flaw in the Bill. What we will have under the proposed statute is an event for which no penalty applies, but which in itself remains unlawful. That does not seem at first sight to be good legislation. I should be grateful if the Minister reassured us that that is not the interpretation that should be made of clause 1(2), because it seems unsatisfactory.

I have two questions for my hon. Friend about the amendment. First, the amendment might in some sense be said to encourage people to give a false answer. I know that that was in the original statute, but I am not so sure that we should write in further encouragement to people to supply false answers with impunity as they move down the census form.

Secondly, I am not wholly persuaded that the amendment cures the flaw at the heart of the Bill. We are dealing with something that remains unlawful by removing only the penalty. The amendment does not seem to tackle that. What we should be doing, surely, is dealing with the unlawful nature of the offence itself.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right that amendment No. 1 does not fully cure the Bill's inadequacies. An amendment that I tabled in Committee, which was rejected by the Government, would have made the question genuinely voluntary. Unfortunately, however, hon. Members cannot table the same amendment twice. In amendment No. 1, therefore, we are trying as best we can to highlight the Bill's flaws, while acknowledging that it is the second-best route to remedying weaknesses that will be put on the statute book if the Bill is passed.

Mr. Fallon

The House will be indebted to my hon. Friend not only for the information that he has just supplied but for his efforts to improve the Bill's drafting in Committee. I am only sorry that I myself was not selected to share in that work.

It seems that we are in danger of enacting highly unsatisfactory legislation. Parliament either imposes a requirement or it does not, in which case the matter should be voluntary. I do not know how we can say that although it is unlawful to give false particulars or to answer a question improperly, no penalty can apply to those who do so. I do not see the point of passing such a provision.

My hon. Friends are right to highlight the problem and to tackle it. If amendment No. 1 is the only way of tackling it, so be it, and I shall have to bow to my hon. Friends and to their overqualified legal advisers. However, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway)—much later this evening, when he sums up the debate—will tell me how one deals with the point that the proposal may encourage the practice of supplying false information, and whether there is any other way of dealing with the problem that lies at the heart of clause 1.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

The census procedure must be accurate, and it must be wrong to provide inaccurate answers to the questions asked. I see no inconsistency in providing for a question that is wholly voluntary, giving the form-filler the option of answering it, and imposing no penalty on those who do not answer it. A person in that category is entirely distinguishable from one who provides bizarre or inaccurate information whose effect would be to defeat the object of the census itself, which is to provide accurate information that can be used for planning and other purposes.

Those who are particularly keen to provide information about their religion have said that they wish to do so, perhaps because they are proud of their religion or faith and wish to make it known. For them, there would seem to be very little purpose in inaccurately filling in the form.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Religion is a very personal matter, and it is quite possible for people to be unsure whether they are one thing or the other. Some people may be in the midst of a conversion, for example, perhaps thinking that they are religious when they are not. Such people may be worried about providing inaccurate information, particularly if the information that they provide is to be checked. I think that that issue goes to the heart of the problems with the Bill.

Mr. Foster

I am not entirely sure that most people are confused about their religious convictions. However, even if they were, the census is only a snapshot, recording the particular religion that people profess when completing the form. I believe that no one is likely to be prosecuted if he or she has a change of view after completing the form.

Mr. Bercow

I listened intently and with interest to the intervention of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). In relation to the scenario that he described, in reflecting on the percentage of those who may fall into that category, may I ask the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) how many noughts he thinks there would be after the decimal point before a figure appeared?

Mr. Foster

I suspect that the percentage would be very small indeed, and that very few people change their religion. Although I do not think that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was asking an irrelevant question, I think that the number of such people would not be important statistically. What is important is that the information given is accurate to the best of the form-filler's ability. I believe that the Bill provides for that, and I believe that it will happen. What is most important is accuracy, and the Government's ability to analyse the information.

Mr. Tyrie

The hon. Gentleman has laid great stress on the need for accurate responses. The Government spokesman in the Lords pointed out that if the question were voluntary, the information collected, not only on that question but on others, would be rendered valueless. He said: it has been shown that making a question voluntary seriously affects the response not only to the question itself where response bias could devalue the information obtained, but also as regards other questions because people are confused about some questions being voluntary and others being compulsory.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 January 2000; Vol. 608, c. 1717.] Is not the hon. Gentleman's point eroding the Government's idea of a part voluntary, part compulsory census?

Mr. Foster

I do not believe that that is so. All that the proposal will do is affect the sample. Obviously, the larger the sample, the more accurate the outcome. The only thing that will have an effect on its level of inaccuracy is people giving inaccurate responses. As in any opinion poll or survey there is wide variance, and the more people complete it, the more accurate it is. If fewer people choose not to complete the census because of its voluntary nature, it will not be as accurate.

My perception is that those to whom, owing to religious conviction, the matter is important will complete the form. Indeed, religious faiths are keen for their followers to be able to do so. For those reasons, although it is right that there should be the opportunity to say no to the question, it is also right that the people who are asked a question should answer truthfully.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

This is all becoming ludicrously confusing. What started as a fairly straightforward, if unacceptable, proposition that the state should pry into some of the most private aspects of people's lives through the vehicle of the census—I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would not want us to debate that at this stage, although I hope that we shall have an opportunity to do so at some length on Third Reading—has become a matter of important detail.

Even from the speeches so far, it has become obvious—I did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee—that this is a very confused and muddled little Bill. Not only is it unacceptable in principle, it is becoming unworkable in practice. In other words, it is the ideal Bill for this Government to try to slip through the House as quietly and surreptitiously as possible. As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we do not have quiet and surreptitious Bills at this stage of the Session, as all Bills receive equal and proper scrutiny.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

Will the right hon. Gentleman speculate on how the Government might want to check the accuracy of answers that people give to the question?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted something that I wanted to come to later. He will not want to deflect me from my introductory remarks—will he? He will recognise that we are at the throat-clearing stage, and that we shall come to the substance in due course. I am sure that, with his generosity of spirit, he would not want to hurry me through that process.

These are important matters and no one should be under any illusion that there is any levity in our approach to dealing with them. They touch on some of the most important aspects of the relationship between the Government and the authorities on the one hand, and the Government and the citizen on the other. Although the Government seem to treat such matters with the greatest levity, I hope that we on the Opposition Benches will never do so. In that I include Liberal Democrat Members, who I know take these issues seriously, as we have seen in the context of other legislation.

A series of questions must be addressed. I shall not dwell on the question of principle; that is a Third Reading matter. We are faced, under the amendment, with the question of practicability. What on earth will be the value of a census if it is to result from questions that are either voluntary, and therefore variable in the response that they elicit, and/or false—the matter of the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway)?

I should have thought that, up to now, the general assumption has been that the value of conducting a census is that the authorities gain proper knowledge of matters that are relevant to policy making, which allows them more effectively to discharge the responsibilities and duties of Government. I would question whether religion is one of those matters, but that is a subject to which I shall return later.

5.15 pm
Dr. Harris

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are many things one can learn about people that will make the job of Government easier. How people vote would be an extremely useful thing for Governments to know, but putting such a question on a form, even if answering it were voluntary, and saying that people will have committed an offence if the question is answered inaccurately, would make us pause for serious thought. Those who oppose the amendment have to answer the question: where will it all end?

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that theme—I might want to pick it up later, albeit not in the current debate—because it does indeed give rise to serious thoughts. If we can start by probing people's religious beliefs, where will we finish? However, as I said, that is a matter for another debate, probably on Third Reading.

Mr. Fallon

My right hon. Friend should not be surprised—the current Government might well want to count up the number of people who have lost faith.

Mr. Forth

I suspect that they would not want to count the membership of a group that is growing so alarmingly, as other sources of information have told us.

We must directly face the question of the extent to which the answering of the questions is voluntary, rather than compulsory, and hence what value can be placed on those answers. We must also examine the dimension embodied in the amendment, which is the result of people giving false information in reply to the question. Even having heard the eloquent introduction provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, I am torn about how to vote on the amendment. I can perceive its attraction, but I am bothered by the perversity of not having a penalty for providing false information in the context of something as important as the census. We shall have to think our way through the problem, and I shall probably do my thinking aloud, as is my custom; not only will doing so help me, but it might help other hon. Members.

My difficulty arises from the fact that, even if we do not dwell excessively on the extent to which reliable information is required in a census, which is linked to the question of whether or not answering the question is compulsory and penalties are attached, a new dimension altogether is brought to the fore when we consider the possibility of false information being provided. If people are going to be given the idea that they need not bother to answer the question, we have to judge the probability of a large number of people exercising their option not to answer the question and thereby entirely invalidating the data it provides.

In addition, the problem of differing answers has bothered me right from the start. I have heard it suggested that certain religious faiths are keen on the question being included. The implication of that is there is confidence that people of some faiths will be more eager to answer the question than those of other faiths. If answering the question is voluntary, not compulsory, that differential effect is likely to be exaggerated and will threaten to undermine the validity of the census itself.

Mr. Bercow

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his argument in respect of such practices applies to differential weighting not only between people of different religious faiths, but between people of religious faith and those of no religious faith?

Mr. Forth

I shall not be tempted by my hon. Friend's question, because I think that the matter is one for Third Reading. However, it is an issue to which I shall return, because we have not yet heard a satisfactory explanation of what the Government think will be the effects on their policy determination of the answers that they believe will flow from the exercise. To be blunt—I do not want to be delayed on this point now—what policies will be directed at people who have no religious faith as a result of the exercise? I shall return to that question. I flag it up and move on rapidly.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Forth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to lead me astray.

Mr. Webb

I would not dream of it.

The right hon. Gentleman has talked about the quality of the data collected from the question that can be answered voluntarily, and how that might be biased. It is well known that poor data collected from any scientific survey are worse than none at all. Biased data are positively misleading. It might be better not to have such data and not to make policy on that basis than to proceed on the basis of biased and loaded answers that will be obtained in the way the right hon. Gentleman has outlined.

Mr. Forth

That must be the danger. I hope that the Minister will spend a little time to see whether she can satisfy the doubts in the hon. Gentleman's mind and in mine about the multilayering of inaccuracy that is starting to enter the process.

First, we have the doubts about the voluntary nature of the question and the differential effect that we are suggesting that that might have. Those doubts are increased by the question raised by the amendment; that is, that we might have people who, for whatever reason, start to give false information. We have people who will not bother to answer, because we are told that the process is voluntary. We have people who will answer correctly because they want to have a differential effect on the policy outcome of their answer. A third category has entered the equation—people who for reasons I cannot quite guess at now might want to give false information on the form for a different effect altogether.

The question that the amendment raises is whether we believe that the provision of false information will be sufficiently serious that it should warrant a penalty, or whether the provision of false information should be penalty free. This is where I find myself in a dilemma. I do not criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South for raising the question by means of the amendment, but I am left in a difficulty. I hope that the Minister will be able to help me. Does she judge that false information should be penalty free in this context? Perhaps she will say that, as the exercise is flawed anyway, some false information will not make very much difference.

If we have people withholding information by not answering the question, the Minister may ask, "What difference would positively false information make?" We are now beginning to see a subtle distinction appearing between non-information and completely false information. We are being told, apparently, that this will be penalty free. Surely it is a challenge to the concept of this part of the census, if not the census as a whole, if we are not careful. There is a real question about what is claimed to be the beneficial outcome of the exercise. That is, the extent to which the answering of the question is now voluntary, not compulsory, and the extent to which there will be no penalty attached either to the withholding of information or the provision of false information.

We must ask whether the exercise can be worth implementing. That may be the position only if the Minister will come clean and tell us—in more detail than hitherto—what she claims to be the beneficial policy outcome of the exercise. It has a flimsy basis because a multiplicity of weaknesses is appearing in the process. What is alleged to be the beneficial outcome of what is being proposed?

Mr. Bercow

I agree that it is difficult to fathom why individuals should want to vouchsafe false information. However, does my right hon. Friend agree with me—I think that it is relevant in terms of the purport of the amendment—that personal advantage is unlikely to be a motivating factor, given the many people who are expected to respond to the census and among whom any increased resources would over a period be spread?

Mr. Forth

I am not sure whether that is so. There may be no individual personal advantage to be gained, but there could be group or community advantage. That is one of the more worrying aspects of the measure. We must try to flush out from the Government whether it is conceivable that a group of people could seek not only to identify themselves through the process, but to magnify—perhaps it would be more accurate to say maximise—their numbers in order to gain the policy advantages that we must assume underlie the entire exercise.

It worries me considerably how many people will claim to be Church of England because they think that Church of England adherents will benefit in some way from the exercise. I doubt very much whether that is the case, but perhaps the Minister will tell us otherwise. Going back to the question raised earlier, people with no religion or no religious belief, or who belong to no organised Church or faith, are most unlikely to gain any advantage from the exercise, so why should they give the answer?

It may be important for other reasons, which I cannot immediately think of, that we should know how many people in the totality of our society are adherents of one or other faith, Christian or otherwise, and how many people describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist, secular or any number of other labels.

What would be the result? Is the question mere flim-flam? Is it all just for amusement? Is it purposeless, or is there some underlying reason that we have not yet been told?

Mr. Fallon

Is it not more likely that those seeking to maximise their numbers may be the smaller religions that sought to pass some threshold requirement for a particular policy or for a programme of national expenditure?

Mr. Forth

That disturbing possibility exists, and it brings me to my next point. How on earth will the accuracy of the information be verified or verifiable, making it useful as data? One can self-evidently verify whether someone has answered a question. The response is either there on the form or it is not. However, when we come to my hon. Friend's amendment and his introduction of the concept of false information, matters become much more complicated.

This may be a point that I should address to my hon. Friend rather than to the Minister, but I cannot imagine for the life of me what mechanism is likely to exist for the authorities to establish whether the information given on the census form in reply to the question on religion is accurate and correct, or whether it is misleading. If a Christian claims to be a Muslim, or a Jew claims to be an atheist, how on earth will we know? If we cannot know, that must call into question the extent to which my hon. Friend's amendment is meaningful. In that context, what is a false answer? Only the respondent can possibly know, in a matter of such intimacy as personal faith, whether the reply is accurate or not.

What at first blush appears to be simple and straightforward quickly tends to become complex and difficult to fathom.

Dr. Harris

In case hon. Members consider the case to be purely theoretical, may I give a personal example? I was born Jewish, of a Jewish mother, and there are many people born of Jewish fathers who may be considered Jewish or may consider themselves Jewish. I consider myself Jewish culturally, but I do not have religious belief. I would be worried, as would others, about giving an inaccurate answer whichever way I filled in the form, especially if an inaccurate answer would leave me liable to some sort of penalty.

Mr. Forth

That, of course, is true. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help us as she takes us through the process—in some detail, I hope—and tells us how she envisages the mechanism will work, how the policing or verification of it will be carried out and how, in the absence of penalties, any of it will be at all meaningful.

The question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) raises another, perhaps unlikely, possibility—that some people may be persuaded to provide false information on the forms that would artificially boost the number of members that a faith appeared to have. I am not certain about the mechanism involved, but the motivation is clear enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) mentioned thresholds, and I hope that the Minister will say whether any such concept is involved in this matter. What are the policy implications? What number of adherents to a particular faith would be likely to spark a policy response?

5.30 pm
Mr. Bercow

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) made a good and challenging point. I do not want to be too introspective, but I too am Jewish, although my parentage is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. I identify passionately with the Jewish people and the state of Israel, but I confess that these days I go to synagogue only for funerals.

Mr. Forth

I hope that this does not get out of hand, but the Jewish faith is losing adherents at an alarming rate even in this brief debate. Perhaps I should sit down before the process goes much further.

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon should be noted, however. From the start, I have considered the measure dubious and rather offensive. I think that I know why the Government wants to introduce it, but I hope that the Minister will give the House the reason yet again. I hope too that she will tell us what will be the outcome in policy terms, and that she will give more detail about the mechanism by which the question will be posed, and answered without penalty.

How reliable does the Minister expect the information to be that will emerge from the penalty-free process? The amendment introduces for the first time the alarming prospect that the forms could be falsified for purposes that might be sinister. What is the link between the information that will be gained and policy formation? What might be the potential flow of resources into different communities, sects, cults or other groups?

A lot of important policy issues hang on this apparently straightforward amendment. I hope that we can go into more detail on Third Reading about the principle behind the Bill. I have not made my mind up about the amendment. I have listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, and will do so again if he succeeds in catching your eye again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall certainly want to listen to what the Minister has to say. I hope that she will be on good form.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Yet again, I follow the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It is becoming a habit. Last Friday, the right hon. Gentleman blocked the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill. He was within his rights to do so, but the Bill was extremely important to the Jewish community in my constituency. This Bill is important to them also, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not repeat his efforts to delay or block this Bill. That would inflict a double whammy on the Jewish community throughout the country.

I can only assume that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has not bothered to read the guidance notes to the Bill, which set out clearly how the matter can be resolved. They make it clear that people will not have to give information if they do not want to, and that an atheist can answer the question under discussion with the word "none".

Finally, the guidance notes state that people who belong to a religion that is not specified on the form can write the name of that religion in the space provided when they answer the question. For example, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) could take that opportunity to write his little essay about how he used to be an adherent of the Jewish faith but is no longer. People can use the space available to write what they like, and thus make the position clear.

Dr. Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore

No. I do not want to block the Bill. I want to make progress.

We are seeing a mountain being made out of a molehill. There are plenty of options for people who do not want to say what their religion is, or for those whose position is rather more complicated, because they can write in the box.

Mr. Ottaway


Mr. Dismore

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to people wanting to boost the Church of England somehow. They could either put "Church of England" or tick the Christian box, which embraces all the various denominations of the Christian Church.

Mr. Tyrie

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dismore

No, I will not give way.

We are seeing an attempt by the Conservative party, yet again, to block a Bill that is of fundamental importance to many people in this country, particularly the Jewish constituents whom I represent. I hope that Conservative Members will stop this nonsense and let the Bill go through so that we can make some progress. Let us not repeat what happened last Friday.

Mr. Tyrie

I shall have to begin my speech by addressing some of the points made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). [Interruption.] The Government Whip has suggested, from a sedentary position, that I stick to the amendment, which the hon. Member for Hendon was certainly not doing.

The hon. Gentleman made a series of points describing a Bill that we are content to support—at least I would be—in the Lobby. The problem is, that is not the Bill before us.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I can help the House. I allowed the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) considerable leeway in putting his arguments, many of which appeared to me to be more appropriate to a Third Reading debate than to this amendment. I fear that other right hon. and hon. Members may have been led astray by the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he would not want that to happen, and I certainly do not.

Mr. Tyrie

I just wanted to clarify that I shall not be dealing with the principle of a voluntary Bill which, as I said, I would be prepared to support, or the usefulness of the information when it has been collected, although I have my doubts about that. Nor shall I be discussing the cost-effectiveness of the measure, even though there are good arguments that survey data might provide such information more effectively and cheaply.

I shall, however, report on where we are—this is, after all, the Report stage of the Bill. I have to report that the Bill is in a mess. It is a bad piece of draft legislation, and I want to explain briefly how we have arrived at this point. Only by doing so will I be able to explain why the amendment in my name has been tabled.

The measure was introduced in the House of Lords. Their lordships thought that religion was a private matter and that answering the question should be voluntary. They therefore removed the financial penalty. On Second Reading, I asked how people would know, when they filled in the form, whether answering the question was voluntary. In Committee, the Minister gave me the answer. She assured me that the question that was proposed would be dealt with through the regulations, and said that the wording would be "What is your religion?" She went on: Underneath the question will appear the statement "This question is voluntary".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 5 July 2000; c. 13.] I pointed out, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), that that would conflict with the long title of the Bill, which makes it clear that the Bill amends the Census Act 1920 to enable particulars to be required—not requested—in respect of religion. Therefore, there is a clear conflict between the Minister's desire to add the word voluntary to the census form and the long title of the Bill which makes it clear that completing the form is a requirement.

When I raised that point in Committee, the Minister said not to worry, and that these matters have been checked.—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 5 July 2000; c. 16.] I assume that legal advice was taken on this point. However, I have taken the trouble to obtain some legal advice of my own in the meantime. The legal opinions that I have received on this issue are clear. I should like to read out a small part of the legal opinion that I received from the Vice-Chancellor of London university, Professor Graham Zellick, which I shall make available to the Minister after the debate. He says: It would not be lawful to state on the form that the question was voluntary as the Minister proposes (in Standing Committee). As there is no power under the Act, as amended by the Bill in its present form, to include voluntary questions, to provide for such a statement in regulations would be ultra vires, the statement itself on the form would be unlawful and both would therefore be open to challenge by way of judicial review. I received a similar response from the National Secular Society. It said: Were the Government to persist in describing the questions as voluntary, which we are confident would be ultra vires, it would be laying itself open to an adverse judicial review decision at any time before the census. That is how the Bill now stands, given that the Government rejected the amendment that I tabled in Committee and without the amendment.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that the amendment would only partly address the Bill's defectiveness. Therefore, it could be described as a probing amendment, but it is the only means whereby we can draw to the attention of the House the fact that the Government wants to put a bad law on to the statute book. I make it absolutely clear that I cannot support the Bill in its current form.

The Government wants to put shoddy legislation on to the statute book. Eminent lawyers agree that the Government's action would be unlawful if they were to describe the question on religion on the census form as "voluntary". The same eminent lawyers have told us that the Bill would be subject to judicial review and, therefore, that anyone or any pressure group could wreck the census by going to judicial review.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to stray into arguments that he might wish to put on Third Reading if he were to catch the eye of the Chair. He must speak to the amendment, to which I thought he had finally returned a moment ago.

Mr. Tyrie

The amendment is intended to show the weakness of the Bill. I shall draw my remarks to a close by saying that it seems incomprehensible to me that the Government are not prepared either to accept the amendment or to table an alternative. The only reason that I can provide as to why they are not prepared to do so is that they have a huge legislative logjam in the Lords. If the amendment were accepted, the Bill would have to return to the Lords and that logjam would become significantly worse.

I am not prepared to vote for a Bill that is fundamentally defective just to help the Government out of the logjam in their legislative programme. That is not the way to run a country. I will not dispute the principle of whether the question should be added to the census form—the Bill has had its Second Reading—but I cannot understand how any reasonable person can expect independent-minded Members of Parliament to put such poor legislation on to the statute book.

Dr. Harris

I associate myself with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), although I would have made similar points on Third Reading if I had caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also associate myself with the dilemma faced by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) because the amendment is difficult to support if one believes that accurate information should be given in censuses. However, the Bill is so flawed that I am minded to support it at the moment because it removes what would be a great injustice.

I did not intend to speak to the amendment, but I should tell the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that someone with his constituency should be more careful before traducing another hon. Member's private religious or cultural opinions; doing so by name, and then refusing to take an intervention that would have put the matter right. The trivial way in which he dealt with my dilemma about the difference between cultural and religious Judaism was insulting. His refusal to allow me to ask him to reconsider by taking an intervention during his rambling rant was even more unfortunate. When he reads the record tomorrow, I hope that he will reflect on what he has said.

5.45 pm

People feel strongly about religion and cultural matters. That is one reason why the promoters of the Bill want it to be enacted. The amendment displays the heart of the problem in the Bill, however, in that it is neither one thing nor the other.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I have enjoyed some of the tortuous argument that I have heard so far. The purpose of the Bill is actually simple and clear. It seeks only to change the Census Act 1920 to permit a voluntary question on religion to be included in the census of England and Wales. Subject to secondary legislation, that question could be included in the next census in 2001. That would bring census legislation in England and Wales in line with that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where legislation already permits a voluntary question on religion.

Mr. Forth

I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that anything is desirable simply because it happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Surely the point of devolution—and of English devolution, should we ever have it—is that if we think that something in Scotland and Northern Ireland is daft, we will not do it.

Mr. Sayeed

I quite agree. I am not suggesting that we should have this provision in England and Wales simply because it exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I would point out, however, that this has been the law in Northern Ireland since 1969, and it has worked very well.

Before I discuss the amendment, I should like to make one point. I am indebted to the Minister and the Government for providing the parliamentary time necessary to enact—I hope—the Bill. Without that, it clearly would not have progressed.

Clause 1 makes it clear that particulars in respect of religion may be included in a census without any liability to penalty for anyone who refuses or neglects to state them. That is clear. The question on religion is in effect voluntary, subject to an Order in Council providing for such particulars to be stated in the census return and to subsequent regulations setting out the wording. That is where the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) was wrong: the precise wording is not in the Bill, but will be given in later regulations, probably subject to the negative procedure.

In response to requests by me and other hon. Members, the Minister gave clear assurances in Committee that the wording of the census question on religion would make it clear to the person completing the form—the most important person—that the question was voluntary. The wording will be set out in the regulations that will be laid before the House once the Order in Council has been made.

The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) aims to remove the penalty for giving deliberately false answers to the question on religion. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) that that is neither necessary nor desirable.

Clearly, removing the penalty for anyone who fails to provide the particulars with respect to religion, makes any question on religion in the census voluntary. Only the criminal sanction in section 8 of the 1920 Act makes the census compulsory in the first place. However one wraps it up, removal of the sanction makes the response to the question on religion voluntary. As the Bill stands, therefore, an individual may decide to answer the question on the form or may freely decide not to do so, without any fear of a penalty. It is entirely up to the individual.

However, it is reasonable to expect that anyone who freely chooses to answer the question should do so accurately. False information is worse than no information. I remind the House that the person who fills in the form is required to sign a declaration that it has been completed to the best of his or her knowledge and belief.

Mr. Fallon

My hon. Friend is enlightening the House as to the reasoning behind the clause. Is he saying, therefore, that to supply inaccurate information when answering the question is still unlawful?

Mr. Sayeed

I am saying what it says on the form—on past and, I presume, future forms. The form must be completed to the best of a person's knowledge and belief. A person may make a genuine mistake, but it would be foolish and unnecessary deliberately to permit falsified information.

Mr. Tyrie

Will my hon. Friend explain how one could make a mistake about one's religion?

Mr. Sayeed

I think that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) demonstrated how a person might be confused. I cannot say whether he would be confused when completing the form.

There is a sanction against supplying false information. It would run completely counter to the ethos and purpose of the census if we suggested in any way that it was permissible to give inaccurate information deliberately.

Mr. Fallon

Therefore, it is my hon. Friend's proposition that giving any inaccurate information deliberately must remain unlawful.

Mr. Sayeed

The simple answer is yes.

Dr. Harris

It is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that there is a difference between being confused and being in a dilemma. I am not confused about either my cultural background, my birth background or my religious beliefs. It is merely that, because of my birth I was considered Jewish by my school and offered exemption from Christian religious education, but if I were asked whether I was a Jew by religion and followed those tenets, the answer would be no. Either way, knowing exactly what I am doing and making a conscious decision, I am liable to give the wrong information. It depends on the basis of the question—whether it refers to my birth religion or my religious faith.

Mr. Sayeed

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman has it wrong. All that he has to do is not answer that question, which the Bill at present permits.

Mr. Tyrie

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

Mr. Tyrie

If the person completing the form has a strong religious belief but leaves the answer to that question blank, would that be unlawful?

Mr. Sayeed

No. The Bill specifically permits someone not to complete that part of the form.

The amendment is not necessary. A person's freedom of choice about whether to answer the question on religion is established under the Bill as it stands. The amendment would not enhance that right in any way.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how he expects the Government to check whether people have filled in the form honestly and accurately? Is he expecting a Government agency to ask people their religion anonymously, face to face?

Mr. Sayeed

I was about to deal with some of the other comments made on Report. My hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) have disputed the use of "require" and prefer "request". The demand is not new; it was made in Committee. Professor Zellick expressed a similar view.

Professor Zellick is well known as someone who is strongly against the Bill. In a letter in the Jewish Chronicle of 16 July 1999—when the question was mandatory—the professor said: The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, in a recent paper on the issue, recommends that Britain should adopt the practice, as in the few other countries where such a question is asked, of making it voluntary. That would certainly remove the main objection to the Bill.

Mr. Tyrie

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Sayeed

No, I will make a little progress first, but then I will give way to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South suggested that the use of the word "required" in the title of the Bill, in section 8(1)(d) of the 1920 Act and the schedule to it implies the notion of compulsion. Thus, while the Bill provides for the lifting of the financial penalty for non-compliance under section 8(1) of the 1920 Act, it does not make the question voluntary. In other words, it would still be a legal duty to furnish the particulars, but it would not be a criminal offence to neglect or refuse to do so. I trust that that is an accurate reflection of his argument.

I too have discussed the matter with those who understand the legal arguments. I understand that the position of the Treasury solicitors is that the use of the word "required" in this context does not imply a statutory duty—[Interruption.] may I explain why—any more than the use of the word in the question, "What size of shoe do you require?" implies anything more than a request.

Mr. Tyrie

Does that not mean, therefore, that the 1920 Act was voluntary because that was the word used in the long title to require people to fill in census forms?

Mr. Sayeed

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question because I was about to deal with it. The use of the word "required" in the schedule to the 1920 Act makes the census compulsory. It is the removal of that sanction specifically in respect of religion that makes the question voluntary.

Mr. Edward Davey

I think that the House is perturbed by what the hon. Gentleman said about the advice of the Treasury. Subsections 3(b)(c)(d) and (e) of the Census Act 1920 use the word "requiring". Indeed, that is the way that people are required to give information. Therefore, the advice from the Treasury would seem completely to go against what is in the Act.

6 pm

Mr. Sayeed

As I have already said, the use of the word "required" relates to the schedule of the 1920 Act. It is not relevant to the Act's provisions because it removes the penalty.

Mr. Tyrie

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sayeed

No, I want to make progress.

I was a little surprised to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South say that the Economic Secretary was acting beyond her competence in giving certain assurances to the Committee. I believe that a Minister who gives assurances to the House or a Committee acts in good faith, and I expect a Minister who gives such assurances to follow those assurances through. Certainly, given the size of the Government's majority, there is little doubt that they can effect most legislative changes that they wish to make. The Economic Secretary's assurances were that, subject to the Bill becoming law and subject to an amending Order in Council, the 2001 census form would include a clear note setting out the voluntary nature of the question about religion. An Economic Secretary has the authority to give those assurances, as he or she—in this case she—is responsible on behalf of the Chancellor for making the appropriate regulations that would provide for the wording of the revised census form. I cannot see that the Economic Secretary is acting ultra vires, as was suggested.

Finally, I come to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I always enjoy listening to him as he is an extremely polished speaker. However, he sometimes reminds me of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—against whom I stood in an election way back in 1983—as he always sounds so very plausible until one starts to analyse exactly what he says. My right hon. Friend started by asking whether we might get inaccurate figures, and then went on to state that we were likely to get inaccurate figures. He ended by asserting that the figures will definitely be inaccurate. As I said, my right hon. Friend reminds me of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield because what is a possibility at the beginning of a speech is a certainty by the end. I have asked about the reliability of figures coming from a voluntary question, and was told that census officials expect that introducing such a question on a voluntary basis may affect the level of response to a certain degree, but that evidence suggests that that would not be to an extent that would compromise the integrity and value of the information obtained. I believe that that answers the points raised by my right hon. Friend.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Melanie Johnson)

I have seldom listened to a debate in which so much of what several contributors said amounted to so little. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) that something that may perhaps happen rapidly can become a flood of something that definitely will happen. That is exactly what we have witnessed this afternoon in several Members' discussions of the amendment.

I shall try to confine myself to the amendment. When the Bill becomes law, and subsequent to Parliament approving a draft order adding religion to other particulars already approved for inclusion in the 2001 census, the Government will make regulations under section 3(1) of the Census Act 1920, amending the provisions that came into force on 27 June, which set out the census forms to be used in England and Wales, including the question on religion and the statement that that question is voluntary.

It has been suggested that there would be no power under the 1920 Act, even if it was amended by the Bill, to include a voluntary question in the census, and that to provide for such a statement in the regulations would be ultra vires. I can assure the House that the legal opinion that my officials have taken on this matter confirms the view of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire that the removal of the penalty for anyone failing to provide particulars on religion makes the census question on religion voluntary, as only the criminal sanction in section 8 of the 1920 Act makes it statutory to comply with the census in the first place. Removal of the sanction in relation to religion can only have the effect of making the response to that question voluntary.

If the optimum value is to be obtained from the considerable investment in the census, it is important that the response to each question should yield the most accurate information possible. Several Opposition Members are concerned about that.

Mr. Edward Davey

Before the Minister addresses that point, will she confirm that the statutory cover for making regulations to enable the words, "This question is voluntary" to be added after the question, "What is your religion?" comes under section 3(1)(f) of the 1920 Act, which gives the Minister powers to make regulations with respect to the forms to be used in the taking of a census. Are those the correct legal powers that the Minister will use to make those regulations? This important point was raised earlier by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

Miss Johnson

I do not have the reference to that specific part of the Act before me at the moment. However, I shall go on to deal with some important issues.

It is important that people are clear that two matters are involved. The form is required to have the question, but the question is voluntary. For the most part, Opposition Members have failed to grasp that distinction.

Mr. Fallon

I am grateful to the Minister for helping to clarify that.

Does the obligation on a citizen to provide accurate information, with the possibility that a penalty may otherwise be imposed, still apply to section 8 of the 1920 Act?

Miss Johnson

As the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said a few minutes ago, people will sign at the bottom of the form to say that the information that they supplied—which, obviously, they do not have to supply, as the question is voluntary—is accurate, whatever formula is used on the form. One has to sign for the veracity of the information on the form.

There is a failure to understand what is going on.

Mr. Tyrie

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Johnson

No, I should like to make this point, which Opposition Members need to hear. Before I do so, however, may I confirm that the power to which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) referred comes under section 3(1)(f) of the 1920 Act, which states that regulations may be made with respect to the forms to be used in the taking of a census.

May I explain the nature of what goes on the form? Obviously, the census forms will be different in different parts of the country. Various geographic variations are accounted for by the fact that the particulars that are to be stated in the returns are recorded in the regulations, rather than the Bill or the Act. Several particulars relating to other matters in the census already have to be stated under the census order made on 15 March this year. Typically, differences between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are demonstrated in various aspects of the form. It is under that provision that the exception will be made to make the religion question voluntary in the Bill. In that way, this can be a voluntary question that sits outside the requirement for the form to contain the question. I hope that I have made that completely clear, because Opposition Members have had difficulty in getting to grips with the notion over a considerable time. It is, however, fairly straightforward.

Form fillers are not only under a general statutory requirement to complete the form, but are expected not to provide false answers to questions—that is, they should not deliberately attempt to degrade the value of the census by supplying information which they know to be untrue. Indeed, they are required to sign a declaration. No one will question the sense of including that in order to ensure that responses to any other questions to be included in the census form are accurate.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire was right to say that there would be no sense in including a question on religion, even on a voluntary basis, if no similar sanction was available for those who gave false information in answer to that question. Therefore, if a person freely chooses to answer the religion question in the 2001 census, it is important that the information should be accurate, even if the person says that he or she has no religion. It would be poor practice, legally and statistically, to work within a legislative framework that went out of its way to provide a loophole for the deliberate provision of false information, and I am sure that the House would not expect me to argue the case for that.

Dr. Harris

There are people in this country whose mother is Jewish as a result of having converted under a reformed or liberal rabbinate in this country or the United States. For religious political reasons, they consider themselves Jewish, but are not considered Jewish by the orthodoxy. The orthodoxy is the main Jewish religion here, and people are simply not considered to be Jewish if they are descended from a woman who was not converted by the orthodoxy. Some of those people will want to state that they are Jewish, but will know that, in the strict sense, that is false. They will therefore be subject to sanction, because the penalty for knowingly giving inaccurate information applies in this case. What does the Minister have to say to those people, of whom there are plenty?

Miss Johnson

People will give information that accords with the best of their knowledge and belief. That is a matter for them.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith)

It is common sense.

Miss Johnson

Too right; it is common sense. It would be difficult, if not impossible in many cases, to ascertain whether someone had provided false information. Responses are subjective and it is for the form filler, and possibly his or her deity or god, to know whether the answer to a particular question is true. I am not sure whether census officials intend to scrutinise forms to see whether responses are likely to be false. There could be no easy way of checking. The evidence from a quality check of answers to census questions, which was undertaken as part of the census rehearsal in 1999, indicates that few, if any, deliberate attempts were made to answer questions falsely. People genuinely try to complete census forms; they understand where the information goes and the purpose for which it is used. They also understand that it is confidential for 100 years. That means that the vast majority do their best to answer the questions honestly.

In the interests of maintaining statistical credibility for the whole census, it is important that the responses to all questions should have the same statutory sanction: that they should be as true, or as accurate, as possible. Making the answering of a question voluntary does not change that.

6.15 pm

It may be worth dealing with the statistical validity of information. It is nonsense to say that the data will be tainted, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested. The most recent experience in Northern Ireland, where a question is traditionally included in the census—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) would do well to listen, as this is his amendment. I was telling him about arrangements that exactly parallel those that we are making. In Northern Ireland, where a question is traditionally included on a similarly voluntary basis, only some 7.3 per cent. did not respond. In the view of the Office for National Statistics, with that level of response, the data would still be very useful for the purposes for which they are required. I made a similar point on Second Reading or in Committee.

I am advised that removing the penalty for anyone failing to provide particulars with respect to the religion question effectively makes the question on religion voluntary. I am further advised that the power to make those regulations enables the religion question to be described in the census form as voluntary. The long title of the Bill refers to the amendment to the Census Act 1920 to enable particulars to be required. The word "required" is used because of a reference in the schedule to the Act. The effect of the Bill is to remove explicitly the penalty for failing to provide particulars on religion. That is what makes it a voluntary question.

Opposition Members seemed to assume that the religion question was not voluntary, and a number of the difficulties that they raised were entirely apposite. I join my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), in wondering why yet another Bill is being blocked or questioned in this way by some Opposition Members.

Mr. Forth

It is called scrutiny.

Miss Johnson

Yes, scrutiny is a very good thing and I am all in favour of it. The right hon. Gentleman claims that the Bill is about boosting the numbers in certain faiths. We have been lobbied widely by religious groups of all faiths around the country, including the Christian faith and the Church of England, to ensure that we provide for such a question in the Bill.

The amendment is unnecessary. The question is voluntary and the dangers that Opposition Members foresee do not exist. I urge the House to reject the amendment.

Mr. Ottaway

The argument was encapsulated by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) when he said that the Opposition were making a mountain out of a molehill. To one extent, he is right. If, as a member of the Church of England, I put the word "none" on my census form, does it make a difference? The point that the hon. Gentleman misses is that when the census order is challenged in the courts under the judicial review procedures, that will be a very serious mountain. It is a case not of what individuals do and say, but of whether the census takes place next April. We suggest that it will not, because the matter will go to court.

What is absolutely ludicrous is that one simple amendment, which was moved in Committee and has been moved again today, would remove all possible doubt. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr.Forth) said that he needed to be persuaded and wanted to make up his mind. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) was also concerned and wanted to be persuaded. I hope that he will join us in the Lobby. The reason for that was encapsulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who has taken a fair amount of flak on this matter, but he is doing a noble job. He was asked whether, if the question was not answered, that would be lawful, to which he replied that it would be lawful, but that a false answer would be unlawful.

The situation was summed up by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). When I said that if I put down the word "none" that would be to give a false answer which would attract a penalty, he asked what would happen if "not applicable" was put down, to which the answer was that if one is refusing to answer, that will not attract a penalty. Therefore, if a member of the Church of England writes "none" on the form, that will attract a fine, whereas if "not applicable" is written, that will not attract a fine.

I hope that I have persuaded the House that the measure is, in truth, a mess. It is a dog's dinner. It will end up in the courts and the Conservative party will have nothing to do with it. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 184, Noes 331.

Division No. 293] [6.20 Pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Allan, Richard Collins, Tim
Amess, David Cormack, Sir Patrick
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Cotter, Brian
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Cran, James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Curry, Rt Hon David
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Baldry, Tony Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Ballard, Jackie Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Beggs, Roy Day, Stephen
Beith, Rt Hon A J Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Bercow, John Duncan, Alan
Beresford, Sir Paul Duncan Smith, Iain
Blunt, Crispin Evans, Nigel
Boswell, Tim Faber, David
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fabricant, Michael
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Fallon, Michael
Brady, Graham Fearn, Ronnie
Brake, Tom Flight, Howard
Brand, Dr Peter Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Brazier, Julian Foster, Don (Bath)
Breed, Colin Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Fox, Dr Liam
Browning, Mrs Angela Fraser, Christopher
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Gale, Roger
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Garnier, Edward
Burnett, John George, Andrew (St Ives)
Burstow, Paul Gibb, Nick
Butterfill, John Gidley, Sandra
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Gill, Christopher
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Cash, William Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Gorrie, Donald
Gray, James
Chope, Christopher Green, Damian
Clappison, James Greenway, John
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Grieve, Dominic
Gummer, Rt Hon John Paice, James
Hague, Rt Hon William Paterson, Owen
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Pickles, Eric
Hammond, Philip Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Hancock, Mike Prior, David
Harris, Dr Evan Randall, John
Harvey, Nick Redwood, Rt Hon John
Hawkins, Nick Rendel, David
Heald, Oliver Robathan, Andrew
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Robertson, Laurence
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Horam, John Ruffley, David
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) St Aubyn, Nick
Hunter, Andrew Sanders, Adrian
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Shepherd, Richard
Jenkin, Bernard Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Soames, Nicholas
Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Spicer, Sir Michael
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Spring, Richard
Keetch, Paul Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W) Streeter, Gary
Stunell, Andrew
Key, Robert Swayne, Desmond
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Syms, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Tapsell, Sir Peter
Kirkwood, Archy Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Leigh, Edward Taylor, Sir Teddy
Letwin, Oliver Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Thompson, William
Lidington, David Tonge, Dr Jenny
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Townend, John
Livsey, Richard Trend, Michael
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Tyler, Paul
Loughton, Tim Tyrie, Andrew
Luff, Peter Viggers, Peter
Walter, Robert
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Waterson, Nigel
McIntosh, Miss Anne Webb, Steve
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Wells, Bowen
Maclean, Rt Hon David Whitney, Sir Raymond
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Whittingdale, John
MaLouglin, Patrick Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Madel, Sir David Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Malins, Humfrey Wilkinson, John
Maples, John Willetts, David
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Willis, Phil
May, Mrs Theresa Wilshire, David
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Moore, Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Nicholls, Patrick Yeo, Tim
Norman, Archie Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Oaten, Mark
Öpik, Lembit Tellers for the Ayes:
Ottaway, Richard Mr. Keith Simpson and
Page, Richard Mrs. Eleanor Laing.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Bayley, Hugh
Ainger, Nick Beard, Nigel
Alexander, Douglas Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Allen, Graham Begg, Miss Anne
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Ashton, Joe Bennett, Andrew F
Atherton, Ms Candy Bermingham, Gerald
Atkins, Charlotte Berry, Roger
Austin, John Best, Harold
Banks, Tony Betts, Clive
Barnes, Harry Blackman, Liz
Barron, Kevin Blears, Ms Hazel
Blizzard, Bob Follett Barbara
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Borrow, David Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foulkes, George
Bradshaw, Ben George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Gerrard, Neil
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Gibson, Dr Ian
Buck, Ms Karen Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Burden, Richard Godman, Dr Norman A
Burgon, Colin Godsiff, Roger
Butler, Mrs Christine Goggins, Paul
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Golding, Mrs Llin
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Griffths, Jane (Reading E)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Griffths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Griffths, Win (Bridgend)
Cann, Jamie Grogan, John
Caplin, Ivor Gunnell, John
Casale, Roger Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Caton, Martin Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Cawsey, Ian Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Chaytor, David Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Chisholm, Malcolm Healey, John
Clapham, Michael Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hepburn, Stephen
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hill, Keith
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hinchliffe, David
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hope, Phil
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hopkins, Kelvin
Clelland, David Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Clwyd, Ann Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Coaker, Vernon Howells, Dr Kim
Coffey, Ms Ann Hoyle, Lindsay
Cohen, Harry Humble, Mrs Joan
Coleman, Iain Hurst, Alan
Colman, Tony Hutton, John
Connarty, Michael Iddon, Dr Brian
Cooper, Yvette Illsley, Eric
Corbett, Robin Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Corston, Jean Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cousins, Jim Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Cox, Tom Jamieson, David
Cranston, Ross Jenkins, Brian
Crausby, David Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Darvill, Keith Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Denham, John Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Dismore, Andrew Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dobbin, Jim Keeble, Ms Sally
Doran, Frank Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dowd, Jim Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Drew, David Kelly, Ms Ruth
Drown, Ms Julia Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Khabra, Piara S
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Kidney, David
Edwards, Huw Kumar, Dr Ashok
Efford, Clive Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Ennis, Jeff Laxton, Bob
Field, Rt Hon Frank Lepper, David
Fitzpatrick, Jim Leslie, Christopher
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Levitt, Tom
Flint, Caroline Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Flynn, Paul Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Raynsford, Nick
Linton, Martin Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lock, David Roche, Mrs Barbara
Love, Andrew Rogers, Allan
McAllion, John Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
McAvoy, Thomas Rooney, Terry
McCabe, Steve Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McCafferty, Ms Chris Rowlands, Ted
McDonagh, Siobhain Roy, Frank
Macdonald, Calum Ruane, Chris
McDonnell, John Ruddock, Joan
McGuire, Mrs Anne Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McIsaac, Shona Ryan, Ms Joan
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Salter, Martin
Mackinlay, Andrew Sarwar, Mohammad
McNamara, Kevin Savidge, Malcolm
McNulty, Tony Sawford, Phil
MacShane, Denis Sayeed, Jonathan
Mactaggart, Fiona Sedgemore, Brian
McWalter, Tony Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McWilliam, John Shipley, Ms Debra
Mahon, Mrs Alice Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mallaber, Judy Skinner, Dennis
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Martlew, Eric Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Maxton, John
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Meale, Alan Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Merron, Gillian Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Soley, Clive
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Southworth, Ms Helen
Miller, Andrew Squire, Ms Rachel
Mitchell, Austin Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Moonie, Dr Lewis Steinberg, Gerry
Moran, Ms Margaret Stevenson, George
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Morley, Elliot Stinchcombe, Paul
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Stoate, Dr Howard
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon) Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Stringer, Graham
Mountford, Kali Stuart, Ms Gisela
Mudie, George Sutcliffe, Gerry
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Norris, Dan Temple-Morris, Peter
Olner, Bill Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Organ, Mrs Diana Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Timms, Stephen
Pearson, Ian Tipping, Paddy
Pendry, Tom Todd, Mark
Perham, Ms Linda Touhig, Don
Pickthall, Colin Trickett, Jon
Pike, Peter L Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Plaskitt, James Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Pollard, Kerry Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Pond, Chris Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Pope, Greg Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pound, Stephen Tynan, Bill
Powell, Sir Raymond Vis, Dr Rudi
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Ward, Ms Claire
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Wareing, Robert N
Primarolo, Dawn Watts, David
Prosser, Gwyn Whitehead, Dr Alan
Purchase, Ken Wicks, Malcolm
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Quinn, Lawrie
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Rammell, Bill Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rapson, Syd Wilson, Brian
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Wood, Mike Wyatt, Derek
Woodward, Shaun
Woolas, Phil Tellers for the Noes:
Worthington, Tony Mr. Kevin Hughes and
Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth) Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

6.33 pm
Mr. Sayeed

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The next census is only nine months away. The Bill will amend the Census Act 1920 to enable a question on religion to be included in the 2001 census. The question will be voluntary.

I thank hon. Members from all parties for their valuable contributions to all stages of our proceedings. I especially thank my right hon. and hon. Friends, who sought, quite properly, to ask questions about the validity of the framing of the Bill, its purpose, and whether it would achieve its aim. They are right to ask such questions; it is part of the function of the House to question all legislation. I also thank the Government for providing time to ensure that the Bill makes progress.

The Bill offers an opportunity to gather valuable information. Along with information gleaned from the census question on ethnic groups, the question for which the Bill provides will help to produce baseline figures from which central Government may monitor policies on racial disadvantage and social exclusion. Local authorities and health authorities will be better able to plan the services for their areas using those figures.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is revealing more than we have managed to winkle out of the Government so far. That is proper, because we are considering my hon. Friend's Bill. However, does my hon. Friend anticipate that policy may be determined and money may be directed to specific religious groups and affiliations on the basis of information yielded by the question on religion in the census?

Mr. Sayeed

On answers to the religious question alone, the answer is probably no. However, combined with the information from other questions, the answer is probably yes. That is proper. It is the function of local government and central Government to reduce disadvantage. If the information, which answers to the religious question would provide, combined with other information, demonstrates disadvantage, it is right and proper that the House should consider voting for, and the Government should consider proposing, extra funds for those who need more support.

Mr. Forth

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that it is likely or probable that what he describes as disadvantage—we may need to consider that in more detail—can be reasonably, properly or accurately allied to religious affiliation in such a way that will make policy direction practical and feasible?

Mr. Sayeed

I believe that I clearly stated that, by itself, the question on religion probably would not provide the answers that demonstrate disadvantage, but that, combined with other questions, it may do so. If it does, Governments should take note.

Dr. Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman give an example of the way in which that might work? The next step is obviously to ascertain whether it is worth doing, but it would be helpful to hear a specific example.

Mr. Sayeed

I am happy to assist the hon. Gentleman. We believe that there are approximately 2 million Muslims in this country. As far as I know, there are only two Muslim state-funded schools. A Muslim state-funded school must follow the national curriculum, just as a Church of England school, a Catholic school or a Jewish school has to follow the national curriculum. The information that the census reveals is not individualised, but covers groups of about 150 people at a time. If it shows a high concentration of Muslims in a specific area, and they want a state-funded Muslim school, a local authority may decide that it would be right to provide it, just as in the past, local authorities have decided that it was right to provide state funding for Jewish, Church of England or Catholic schools.

Mr. Forth

Our debate is proving to be the most productive of all the discussions so far, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. However, on what basis does my hon. Friend believe that Roman Catholic, Jewish and other religious schools have already been successfully established throughout the country, without the benefit of the information that the new question on the census form would provide? How will the new information suddenly transform the educational and social landscape in the way in which my hon. Friend describes?

Mr. Sayeed

I do not suggest that that will happen suddenly. However, over a period of time, it could happen. I remind my right hon. Friend that many Jewish schools were initially set up on a private basis and given state funding later.

Dr. Harris

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sayeed

I should like to make a little progress on that point. I believe that it is important to improve race relations in this country. Sometimes groups believe that there is prejudice against them when that is not the case. However, we cannot know whether there is prejudice without the facts. I also believe that prejudice and discrimination take place—sometimes for historical reasons, but sometimes because we do not know the facts and therefore cannot give support where it is necessary.

The Bill represents a modest step to improve race relations, which is one reason why I was happy to support it and introduce it to the House once it had been agreed that answering the question on religion would be voluntary. The wording of the proposed census question has been subject to detailed consultation with not only the users of census statistics, but a wide range of religious organisations including the Christian Churches, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Buddhist Society and the National Council of Hindu Temples.

Dr. Harris

What about the National Secular Society?

Mr. Sayeed

I am not aware that the National Secular Society is promoting the inclusion of a question on religion in the census form. Indeed, I would find that somewhat quixotic.

Dr. Harris

It is proposed that the form should include a box that people could tick to show that they take no religious view. Many of those who describe themselves as secular, humanist or atheist would wish to tick such a box. They are categories of people, as are those who subscribe to religions, so one would have thought that their representative groups would have been consulted. Perhaps they have.

Mr. Sayeed

The hon. Gentleman should read the Committee debates and get a copy of the proposed census form, which was amended according to the assurances given by the Minister in Committee. If he does so, he will see that a series of religions have been specified and that a box may be ticked. People may tick the "none" box or write in their own religion or, as the Bill allows, not answer the question at all. Provided that the measure makes progress, the form will make it clear that people do not have to tick the religion box if they do not wish to do so.

Not only were the detailed cases for the information that such a question could provide carefully assessed, but the public concerns and sensitivities to such a question were considered by the Office for National Statistics in the light of the criteria set out for the selection of census questions. In particular, public reaction to a question on religion was assessed in two major tests of census questions: the 1997 census test and the 1999 census rehearsal. Both exercises showed that the public are generally prepared to answer such a question, at least to a level comparable with that achieved by most other census questions, and that the quality of the responses is sufficient to provide the information that would meet users' express needs. If those two criteria cannot be fulfilled, amending the 1920 Act will be pointless.

To reflect the sensitivity with which some people regard religion, the Bill deliberately provides for the question on religion to be voluntary. However, as I said on Report, although census officials think that making the question voluntary may affect the response, I understand that evidence suggests that the integrity and value of the information obtained will not be compromised. Such a question is necessary now as opposed to 30, 20 or perhaps even 10 years ago because we have a pluralistic, multi-faith, multicultural society. Many people in today's society choose to identify themselves in terms of their religion or culture, and the 2001 census provides a once-in-a-decade opportunity to collect information from groups that increasingly prefer primarily to identify themselves in such a way.

I return to why the Bill is sensible and why I was happy to take it up in the Commons. There are tensions in all multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith societies. Discrimination fuels those tensions. If we know the facts, we can better plan what we are to do. This modest change to the 1920 Act will help us to gather the facts and, if we wish to do so, make a fairer society. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.46 pm
Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

I support the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) and the Government on taking a lead on the issue. It was said on Report that Scotland had introduced such a measure before England, but I have to tell the House that the Scottish Executive opposed including a religion question in the census a few months ago while the Government in Whitehall and people such as the hon. Gentleman were arguing the case for it. The fact that England was in a sense ahead had some influence on the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament and, in particular, the Equal Opportunities Committee looked at what was happening in England, but, more important, listened to what many groups in Scotland were saying.

Initially, the Scottish Executive said that there was no religion question on the census because nobody had asked for one, but when the Equal Opportunities Committee listened to ethnic minority groups and the Commission for Racial Equality in particular, it became absolutely clear that there was a big demand for such a question to be included. There is an important lesson here about how we listen to society and, in particular, to minorities in society, although numerically larger religious groups also support the inclusion of such a question for two important reasons: monitoring factors, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire referred, and its importance in terms of delivery of services.

It is significant that such a question is to be included for the first time, although there were concerns about compulsion. The Government have achieved the right solution by making the question, in effect, voluntary. I commend my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary for her clear explanation of the legalities.

Mr. Forth

Were you here?

Mr. Chisholm

I was present throughout the debate on Report, apart from about five minutes, and I was very impressed by my hon. Friend's explanation. However, I was not impressed by the pedantic points that were made. The correct solution has been found and I commend the Government and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire for what they have done.

6.48 pm
Mr. Forth

I have not yet heard anything to persuade me of the Bill's value—quite the opposite, in fact—and I was obviously sitting in a different Chamber in a different House of Commons from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm). The muddle that emerged from our interesting and useful debate on Report simply convinced me that the Bill is not only unnecessary, but undesirable and almost certainly unworkable and useless. There is plenty of scope, therefore, for further debate on Third Reading before the House plunges ahead and accepts a Bill that could be mistaken.

We have had from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) the clearest and most honest explanation yet of what the Bill is all about. There was a lot of obfuscation and mistiness in the early stages, but the mist is clearing and we can see the measure for what it is. My hon. Friend made play of the fact that many religious groups have been consulted and are all keen for the Bill to make progress. That may or may not be so, and we may or may not in our different ways be impressed by those organisations so as to drive legislation through the parliamentary process and on to the statute book. Whether the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Christians—Catholic or Protestant—all want the Bill is relevant but not conclusive. Simply to say that lots of people up and down the country want something does not necessarily make it good or desirable—nor does it give us sufficient reason to legislate on the matter.

The latest figures that I saw suggested that about 7 or 8 per cent. of the population in England regularly attend church. Perhaps we should apply a reasonable test when people claim a religious affiliation to show whether or not that is realistic. That would patently not be possible within the mechanisms available in the census.

However, that raises a relevant issue. The ludicrous way in which the Government decided to measure unemployment was to ask people whether they feel unemployed and whether they think they are looking for another job, and if so to put them down. The traditional claimant count method was much more reliable. It is too late to put such a provision in the Bill. The fact that a number of people—we do not know how many, because the question is not yet on the census form—of the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian faiths think that this would be a jolly good idea is not enough to persuade me that it should be ushered on to the statute book. It is a relevant factor, but that is all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire went on usefully to deal with the semi-hidden part of the Bill, which is all this business about disadvantage. He suggested that if we find out where people of different claimed faiths live, we will be able better to direct our policies and our money. That is probably the real reason for the Bill. That worries me considerably. If we are to direct taxpayers' money on the basis of religious faiths—

Mr. Deputy Speaker(Mr. Michael J.Martin)

Order. That matter is not in the Bill. Perhaps I should have brought the right hon. Member to order. The House will forgive me for not doing so, but I am not going to let him get away with it now that I have my wits about me.

Mr. Forth

There I was, Mr. Deputy Speaker, following up the points so admirably made by the promoter of the Bill. Of course, I accept your ruling. That goes without saying.

We are left with the mechanisms that flow from the provisions of the Bill and the proposed question. Running through all our debates on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and through the Bill, narrow though it may be, is the issue of the value that the responses to the question are likely to have if they are voluntary. Having arrived at Third Reading, the question that we must ask ourselves is, if the Bill is to have the benefits to which my hon. Friend alluded, and if it is up to people whether they answer the question, what reliability can we place on the data that will flow from the answer? That is an important question. If people answer the question only if they feel like it, depending on the extent of their motivation, we may get a bias in the results that could give rise to unintended or undesirable policy effects, given what my hon. Friend described as the ultimate objective.

Many people have said that the voluntary nature of the question in the Bill has saved its bacon. Funnily enough—I admit it is a paradox—if the question had been mandatory and subject to penalties for non-answer or false answer, I might have been more persuaded that the answer to the question would have value. The Government have conceded the point and said that they are a bit nervous about this aspect, so are prepared for the question to be voluntary or without penalty. That threatens to undermine the whole thrust and validity of the Bill.

However, it is not that simple, and we are left with a paradox. Can the question be voluntary if it is merely without penalty, so that people do not have to answer the question and no penalty is attached? I was almost persuaded of that until my hon. Friend pointed out that at the end of the census form, even with this question included in it and without penalty, people have to sign a declaration, under penalty, saying that everything that they have said in the form is true.

That raises the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) raised in his excellent amendment, on which we have just voted. If people were minded to mis-state, falsify or mislead in their answer to the question, would they be subject to a penalty under the terms of the declaration—although not under the amendment, which was lost? If so, how would we ever know? I suppose we have reached the ultimate irony. How can we ever know whether the question has any meaning given that it touches on a matter of faith, which is the most personal and individual aspect of a person's existence, and how do we know whether it has been answered properly? Will inspectors lurk outside people's houses and see where they go to worship? Will they match that behaviour with the form, or will we accept that everyone who bothers to answer the question is bound to answer it correctly? I do not know the answer to that. Even on Third Reading, there remain many questions that have not yet been satisfactorily answered.

We were taken through the logic which says that there remains a legal duty to comply with the census form but that it is not an offence not to comply and there is no penalty if people do not comply. However, as I understand it, there is a penalty when it comes to the declaration. People can apparently meander through the census form, come to this question, scratch their head, decide whether they are interested or want to bother replying, give an answer that may or may not be true, and when they come to the declaration say, "Oh dear, I thought I was going to get away with this, but perhaps I'll get caught under the declaration." Presumably, the declaration applies to the totality of the form, even as amended by the Bill. We may end up with a circularity that will put individuals in a difficult position.

All in all, one is left wondering whether this measure has the value that people ascribe to it. In the end, we will all have to strike a balance and decide whether we believe that it is proper for the state to intrude in people's private lives through the vehicle of the census form as amended by the Bill. What puzzles me about Labour Members is that I thought that most of them were wedded to idea of civil liberties and individual rights but, now when it suits them—or probably when they are told to—they conveniently abandon those views. That issue came up in the Football (Disorder) Bill and now in this Bill. In fairness—I do not often say this, so I shall say it very quietly and hope that no one notices—on this occasion the Liberal Democrats are taking a much more principled view than Labour Members. Judging by what the Liberal Democrats said about the football Bill, and what they have said about this Bill, I conclude that their views are much more in line with what I always understood to be their traditional attitude to individual and civil liberties. Labour Members, meanwhile, seem much more prepared to abandon such attitudes, almost casually.

Some of us Conservatives are not prepared to do that, and I have not yet heard anything—even from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, and certainly not from the Minister—to persuade me that the Bill justifies support from the House and should be enacted. It is simply not good enough for anyone, not even my hon. Friend, to say, "Because lots of religious people and organisations think the Bill is a good idea, that's it".

Mr. Sayeed

I did not say that.

Mr. Forth

If I have misquoted my hon. Friend, I will give way to him.

Mr. Sayeed

I know that my right hon. Friend does not wish to traduce me. I specified those who were in favour of the Bill, but I did not say that, because they were in favour of it, it should become law.

Mr. Forth

I apologise to my hon. Friend if I misinterpreted what he said. If he meant that if organisations such as those he cited expressed support for the Bill we should take that into account, of course I agree with him. After all, our job is always to take into account the widest possible range of views. We must ask, however, how many of those living in the United Kingdom—the number is now approaching 60 million—can be said to be represented even by the eminent organisations mentioned by my hon. Friend. I would hazard a guess that that applies to only a certain proportion.

I accept that it is difficult to strike the right balance, but we must ask ourselves how comfortable people will feel about being asked to tell the Government and other authorities about their religious beliefs—and whether, having been asked that question, they will be prepared to answer it comfortably, openly and honestly. Many may well not want to answer it, which leads us to question the validity of the outcome of the exercise.

I am worried by a more serious possibility: that people who have no religious view, or are not prepared to express a view that they have, will be disadvantaged. That may apply to individuals, groups or communities. If moneys were indeed directed in some serious way, yet to be fully revealed, to those with certain religious affiliations, by implication those moneys would be withheld from other groups. One wonders whether, once such a process was fully under way and better understood, a reverse process might enable people to be persuaded in future to give certain information on the form in order to gain advantage.

I have not yet heard enough to convince me that the Bill will be of benefit. I understand why some may want it, and why others may feel nervous about it; I certainly do. Unless I hear a much more compelling argument for the Bill between now and the vote, I am inclined to oppose it.

7.3 pm

Dr. Harris

Let me say at the outset that—according to its letterhead—I am an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. Speaking as a Back Bencher, I think many of my views are in line with those of the society.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made a number of good points, not least in admitting that—in this as in so much else—the Liberal Democrats are both principled and consistent. In fact, Conservative Members are not consistent in their descriptions of my party, but we will accept that last description.

I wish to make four general points. I shall make them briefly, because I do not wish to detain the House. The first relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) during the debate on the amendment. As I said then, I intended to make the same point on Third Reading. It is a legal point relating to the opinion given by the vice-chancellor of London university. I shall not repeat what the hon. Gentleman said, but I agree with him: there is clearly a difference of legal opinion, and it would have been nice if we had had more time to establish which opinion was more likely to be right. The possibility of a judicial review, causing delay, may threaten more than just a religious question in the census.

My second point is this. The Bill leaves us with a question that is "intrusive", according to a letter to the Minister from the National Secular Society dated 24 July. The society says that the question is also much too simplistic to ascertain accurately people's religious beliefs —I agree with that— or affiliations—or lack of them. Like me, the society is concerned that the results would be inaccurate and misleading, and…would be used by religious bodies to obtain further unjustified privileges. That, I think, goes to the heart of the matter.

The Minister did not reassure me when she spoke about the amendment. Retaining a penalty for knowingly giving false information will not remove the worry that is felt. The Minister defended the penalty by saying that it would not be enforced. That is an interesting approach to dealing with failure to fulfil a legal duty, and, I suspect, not one that the Minister would wish to advertise as being part of Government policy in other areas of the law. The danger is that people who have no strong religious belief but who may have been baptised or born into a certain religion will be much more tempted not to answer the question than to tick the box marked "No religious belief'.

Such people—especially if they are not as deeply involved with these matters as some of us who care passionately about the right to religious freedom, or the freedom not to be religious—may worry about having claimed to have no religious belief, although they have been baptised, when they are asked to state that they have filled up the form accurately. I do not think adequate assurances have been given, and that is one of the main reasons why I will vote against Third Reading if the House divides.

I am also worried about the principle of a "voluntary" question. The existence of such a question, when a penalty can be imposed for the deliberate giving of incorrect information, surely threatens the validity of the question itself. People like me fear that the information provided by the census will be heavily biased in favour of presuming a greater tendency towards religious belief than currently exists.

There must be data on church attendance, and it must be possible to obtain them. There are also data on synagogue attendance, which are collected and, indeed, worried about—for understandable reasons, from the perspective of those involved. If people feel strongly that they require information about religious belief—which, as a principle, I question—it should be up to such people and organisations to collect the data. The state should not be expected to subsidise the provision of services for the expression of a particular opinion.

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In fact, research is available: I have some here. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, for example, that 10 per cent. of the nation is Roman Catholic and 27.1 per cent. agnostic.

Dr. Harris

I suspect that 10 per cent. of people describe themselves as Roman Catholic when the question is posed in a certain way. There are various ways of describing religion: it may be defined in terms of birth, baptism, upbringing, church attendance or, dare I say, theological belief.

I must end my speech soon, but I want to say something about the reason given by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire for the fact that this information is required. On Third Reading, we are left with a Bill that is liable for the provision of information allowing the state to collect data that suggest that it should fund, for instance, more religious schools. That was the example given by the hon. Gentleman. This is my view rather than that of my party, but I question whether the state's role includes the funding of Jewish, Muslim, Church of England or Roman Catholic schools. I favour disestablishment of the Church of England—in this instance, I agree with my party—and I certainly see no need for the state to have such a role.

I will come back to the issue of the Bill on Third Reading because I see that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are restless and perhaps rightly so. If by dint of the Bill it becomes the Government's duty and funding necessity to collect those data, we are going far too far, with the state seeking religious grounds to interfere in our daily lives. It should be up to religious organisations to make the case, as they have had to with great difficulty for the Muslims. One might say that there is an imbalance there.

Therefore, I do not accept the principle of the motives behind the Bill that we are left with on Third Reading. I do not believe that the census will give accurate information even for the purpose that the supporters of the Bill wish it to achieve. I believe that it is an unjustified intrusion into personal beliefs, made worse by the fact that there is an implied penalty for people who are not sure whether they have answered the question correctly, which will not only bias the answers, but cause concern to many people. That is why, from a personal perspective and because of the principles that I have set out, I shall seek to oppose the Bill on Third Reading.

7.11 pm
Mr. Edward Davey

Despite the strong arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the compliments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I will support the Bill on Third Reading. On Second Reading I made my concerns clear about the questions and about whether the Government should ask for such information from the individual citizen, but I also made it clear that the fact that the question was voluntary was important. That improvement, which was made in the other place before the Bill came to the House, was a major step forward.

On Second Reading, however, I asked the Minister whether it would be made clear on the form that the question was voluntary. We did not have a reply then, but I was delighted to read in the Committee Hansard that she made that pledge, and she has reiterated it tonight. It has been made clear tonight that she has statutory cover to ensure that on the census form, by that question—[Interruption.] Conservative Members shake their heads, meaning that she has not, but I remind them that we had an exchange about that provision earlier. My hon. Friend confirmed that under section 3(1)(f) of the Census Act, Ministers are allowed to put forward regulations that stipulate how the form will be designed, and other aspects of the form.

Therefore the Minister has confirmed that she does have a power. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) wish to intervene?

Mr. Tyrie

When the hon. Gentleman is ready.

Mr. Davey

I am ready.

Mr. Tyrie

The 1920 Act makes it clear that answering questions is a requirement. The Bill makes it clear that answering the question is a requirement. That is the fundamental inconsistency.

Mr. Davey

That is a different point from the one that I was trying to make, which was whether it would be possible for the Minister to put a regulation before the House that enabled the words, "This is a voluntary question" to be added to the form after the question asking the individual what his religious belief was. That was the simple question that I tried to ask: whether the Government can pass that regulation about the form of the question, and the words on the census form. It seems from reading the Census Act that the Government have that power. That was the reassurance that I sought on Second Reading, and I am delighted that the Minister has been able to confirm it tonight.

Mr. Tyrie

I shall have just one more go. It is clear from the Bill that completing the question is a requirement. It is not something that is requested of recipients of the form; it is a requirement. Several of us have received detailed legal opinions suggesting that the Government do not, therefore, have the power to describe the question on the form as voluntary, and that to do so may be subject to judicial review and is almost certainly ultra vires. We have had no reassurance from the Minister on that point.

Mr. Davey

I fear that we are back to an exchange that the hon. Gentleman and I had on Second Reading, when we debated whether the fact that the Bill takes away the penalty changes the nature of the question from compulsory to voluntary. I disagreed with him on Second Reading, and I am afraid that I will have to disagree with him now.

Taking away the penalty is important in making it clear in law that the question is voluntary. If failing to answer a question does not result in a penalty, I cannot see how it can be seen to be compulsory. On Second Reading the hon. Gentleman had a different interpretation; I am afraid that we will have to agree to disagree on that point.

Because the Minister has given the assurance that the regulations that will be forthcoming will ensure that those words are on the census form next to that particular question—indeed, directly after the words—I feel much more able to support the Bill. I should say that I have agreed with my right hon. and hon. Friends that my party will have a free vote. I understand that there are colleagues who, because religious issues are involved, wish to express a different opinion. That is how things should be on such a Bill.

I would not want to end by saying that I welcomed the Bill because, as the debates throughout our proceedings on it have shown, it has not been the most effectively drafted Bill. In an ideal world, I would have liked a number of other amendments. Indeed, we voted for the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).

The Bill is not perfect. The benefits are not huge, but on balance, given the support for the measure within the ethnic minority groupings and various religious groups, I—and, I know, many of my colleagues—will support the Bill in the Lobby.

7.16 pm
Mr. Tyrie

I will not detain the House for very long. I have already made many of the points that I wanted to make in the debate and on earlier occasions.

I like the idea that every time there is a difference of view in a party, there should be a free vote. I can imagine that if that idea were to spread like an infection to other parts of the House, we would soon conduct our business very differently, and it would become very exciting.

Mr. Forth

This is a private Member's Bill.

Mr. Tyrie

As my right hon. Friend points out, it is technically a private Member's Bill, although it has the support of the Government, who are whipping their party through to support it.

I shall not go through all the arguments again, but I shall touch briefly on a few of them. The first is whether religious groups want the legislation. The plain fact is that they are divided on it. They are not united. The Jewish community in particular is divided. It is wrong to suggest that there is overwhelming pressure for the measure from all people who hold deep religious convictions. That is not correct.

The second issue is the purpose to which the information will be put. I have not heard a convincing argument from anyone about what exactly the information will be used for. I have certainly not heard a convincing argument from the Government.

The third issue is the cost. It costs, I think, £250 million, or something very close to that, to run the census. I do not see the Minister nodding or shaking her head. I can only assume that she does not know what the figure is at this minute, but it sounds like a lot of money to run a census. It strikes me that there might be cheaper and more effective ways of obtaining the information—for example, through survey data.

In any case, the three points that I have just made are largely water under the bridge. What we are debating now is whether we should have a voluntary question on religion in the next census. The Government initially wanted a compulsory question, and they blundered when they amended the Bill in the Lords to reflect concern that it should be voluntary. As is well known to the House, they removed the financial penalty, but did not make the question voluntary.

We tried to clear that up in Committee, but the Government refused. That has left us with two clear bits of nonsense in the Bill. The first is that the Government are adding a statement on the voluntary nature of the question on census forms, although the Bill requires recipients to fill it in. The Bill's long title is very clear on that point, which we have made on numerous occasions.

I think that it is worth pausing for a moment to ask what the word "require" means. Can it mean anything other than that there is a requirement? I note Professor Zellick's legal advice on that point. He writes that the word "require" in all its forms and uses imports the notion of compulsion. When I read that, I thought that that was so blindingly obvious that it really was not necessary to put it in a legal opinion. Unfortunately, today's debate has suggested that Professor Zellick was right on the button in making that point.

The second piece of nonsense is that although making a false statement is still an offence, refusing to answer the question at all is not. Clearly that cannot have been the Government's intention when they first drafted the Bill. The Bill is defective in that sense also.

Mr. Forth

Before my hon. Friend leaves that issue, he will not forget, will he, the declaration that has entered the lists quite late in our proceedings as another factor to be taken into account? My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) was very helpful in pointing out that there still exists the overriding element of the declaration at the end of the form, which creates an overriding, compulsory, mandatory and penalty-bearing element that may well feed back into all the other questions.

Mr. Tyrie

My right hon. Friend raises various issues, but I shall briefly address only two of them. The first is that people filling in the form might quite reasonably be confused by the fact that a statement at the side of one question states that it is voluntary, whereas, at the bottom of the form, there is a statement that it is not voluntary but compulsory.

The second point is that that is precisely the type of issue that could generate many problems if there were a judicial review. I would not be at all surprised to hear that there will be a judicial review of the legislation. If there is, the debate that we are having now will at least clarify where responsibility for the mess lies. The mess is not due to the fact that the legislation is a private Member's Bill, and it does not lie with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, who has done a noble service in supporting it. He sincerely believes in the arguments that he has advanced.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I request that the hon. Gentleman address the occupant of the Chair?

Mr. Tyrie

The mess lies in the fact that the Government, who have backed the Bill, are prepared to put defective legislation on to the statute book.

Why have the Government not simply made a minor, straightforward amendment to make it clear that the question is voluntary? They could do that and send the Bill back to the other place, which would almost certainly agree to such an amendment. That process would not take very long. I still do not fully grasp why the Government have set their face against doing that. However, I have two possible related explanations for the Government's attitude, one of which I have mentioned already.

The first explantation is that there is a huge logjam of legislation in the other place, and the Government do not want to add to it. We are being asked to pass defective legislation to ease the Government's problem with their legislative programme. I do not think that that is a good reason for not trying to amend the Bill.

The second explanation—it is related—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not concern himself with trying to amend the Bill. We are on Third Reading, which means that we are beyond amending it.

Mr. Tyrie

It is a great pity that—as you have rightly pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker—we have arrived at the point at which we cannot improve the Bill. As you have correctly observed, we are in the position of "take it or leave it." I am moving towards the position of wanting to leave it.

I suspect that the second reason why the Government decided to choose the "take it" option, rather than the option of amendment—if I dare mention that word one last time—is that they encouraged support for the Bill too late. Consequently, Ministers are on a very tight schedule to ensure that everything is in place for the 2001 census. They will have only themselves to blame if they discover that the next census—which will be the first for many decades—is obstructed in the courts. If that happens, we know who will be responsible. If Britain's long, steady series of censuses is interrupted, we will know that that happened because the Government introduced defective legislation. We know where the responsibility will lie—on the Treasury Bench, where Ministers are giggling about it even now.

7.25 pm
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I first express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) for the way in which he has introduced the Bill. Although the Opposition want to support the Bill, there are quite a few hurdles in the way, and the Government have not done much to assist us in getting over them.

Although the Bill is called the Census (Amendment) Bill, I think that it would be better known as the Census (Amendment) (House of Lords Logjam) Bill. The reason why the Government have not accepted perfectly reasonable amendments to sort out the matter once and for all is that they do not want the Bill to go back to the other place, thereby adding to the logjam. The most honest thing that the Minister could do in her reply is to admit that. That, however, is unlikely.

The Opposition have two fundamental difficulties with the legislation, the first of which could be dealt with even at this late stage—and I am not referring to amendments. In dealing with the question "What is your religion?" in the questionnaire, it would be quite possible to distinguish between people's religious belief and their religious practice. There is quite a large difference between someone who is a regular attender at a place of worship and someone who has a belief but may not worship. If the census results are to be at all accurate, that is quite an important distinction.

Another point on that question—which I made on Second Reading, and the Minister, probably erroneously, overlooked—deals with the proposed fourth line of the question. The question begins, "What is your religion?", followed by, "Tick one box only." The first choice is "none", and the second is Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations).

If the Minister is still in her position next March or April, she will no doubt notice many angry letters to The Times from people pointing out that the words "Church of England" and "Protestant" are not mutually exclusive. "Protestant" encompasses "Church of England", although it does not include "Catholic". It is a bit like—to put it in Labour-party language—asking someone, "Are you Campaign group or Labour?" The Campaign group is allegedly a part of the Labour party. The Church of England is a part of the Protestant Church, and to present the two as alternatives is unfortunate. I hope that the Minister will take those points on board and think about them before finally signing off on subject of the questionnaire.

The second difficulty with the legislation has been the stuff of debate both in Committee and in our earlier debate on the amendment. The Opposition believe that the Minister's advice that the question is voluntary is not good advice. She says that she believes in good faith that the question is voluntary, and I accept that she is speaking in good faith. However, we have heard two entirely unrelated legal opinions in today's debates, and although neither of those who gave an opinion knew that the other was giving an opinion, both said that it would remain unlawful not to answer the question. Therefore, the question is involuntary.

As I said in our earlier debate, that may seem to be a nit-picking point. The significant point is that those who might be opposed to the Bill will challenge it in the courts, and there may well be a judicial review. As I said, the question could have been voluntary if the Minister had accepted what I thought were perfectly reasonable amendments.

It is the Opposition's opinion that the Bill will make bad law; it is being passed in an unsatisfactory form. The Conservative party is not in the business of supporting bad law. As I said at the outset, we want to be able to support the Bill, but while we do not oppose the question, we cannot support it either. Under the circumstances, therefore, I shall be urging my hon. Friends to abstain if there is a Division.

7.30 pm
Miss Melanie Johnson

I can be brief because on Third Reading we have heard arguments similar to those that we heard at earlier stages. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) for introducing the Bill and guiding it through the House. The Government welcome the opportunity that it will provide to enable a question on religion to be included in the 2001 census. We recognise the importance of a clear picture of the diversity of faith communities in the United Kingdom to our ability to address the concerns and needs of all sections of the community, as the hon. Gentleman said. The census is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to do so for local areas on a reliable and consistent basis across the country.

I made such points in response to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) when the Bill was last discussed in this place on 20 June. As I pointed out to him, he speaks with a strong hint of, "Why bother with a census at all?" He may have been joined by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in such remarks. That is extraordinary given that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in a previous Government who relied on and drew in census data on a wide range of issues, in order to inform the policies and processes of government, just as we are proposing to do.

The ethnic and faith communities regard the 2001 census as an important opportunity for them to identify themselves in terms of their religion in addition to the broader ethnic group classification that is used in the census. Perhaps it is worth making a point about the form of the question. Some Opposition Members—such as the hon. Members for Chichester and for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway)—spoke about that. The form of the question is the form that was most clearly understood in the road testing and rehearsals that the Office for National Statistics carries out in preparation for the large logistical exercise which a census inevitably is.

We have of course been mindful of the particular sensitivities of such a question. The Government took special note of the concerns expressed in the other place. We listened carefully to the views not only of members of that House, but of members of the general public who would be required to supply information. Consequently, the Government supported the amendment that removed the statutory penalty for anyone who refuses or neglects to state in their census return the particulars in respect of religion—in effect making any such question on religion in the census voluntary.

Mr. Forth

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Johnson

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman once.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Minister for entering into the spirit of debate. Will she explain, in response to what will apparently be the only intervention, what "required" means? What advice has she had on the meaning of the word in the title of the Bill? Will she please spell that out for us?

Miss Johnson

Perhaps I can best help the right hon. Gentleman by reference to dictionaries or common sense. I am not sure what his question relates to. I have already explained what "required" means in this context—and on more than one occasion this evening. The right hon. Gentleman is deliberately not listening to what I have to say.

In approving the Bill, Parliament will bring census legislation in England and Wales into line with that in Scotland and Northern Ireland—

Mr. Tyrie

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Johnson

No, I will not give way; I am wrapping up the debate.

Mr. Tyrie

Will the Minister give way?

Miss Johnson

No, I am sorry but I am not giving way.

Subject to the passing of the necessary secondary legislation, such alignment will enable information on religion from the 2001 census to be available throughout the United Kingdom.

We attach importance to the Bill. The question will be voluntary, the information will be useful and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 355, Noes 4.

Division No. 294] [7.35 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Burstow, Paul
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Butler, Mrs Christine
Ainger, Nick Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Alexander, Douglas Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Allen, Graham Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies(NE Fife)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Campbell-Savours, Dale
Ashton, Joe Cann, Jamie
Atherton, Ms Candy Caplin, Ivor
Atkins, Charlotte Casale, Roger
Austin, John Caton, Martin
Ballard, Jackie Chaytor, David
Barnes, Harry Chisholm, Malcolm
Barron, Kevin Clapham, Michael
Bayley, Hugh Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Begg, Miss Anne Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Bennett, Andrew F Clelland, David
Berry, Roger Clwyd, Ann
Best, Harold Coaker, Vernon
Betts, Clive Coffey, Ms Ann
Blackman, Liz Cohen, Harry
Blears, Ms Hazel Coleman, Iain
Blizzard, Bob Colman, Tony
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Cooper, Yvette
Bradshaw, Ben Corbett, Robin
Brake, Tom Corston, Jean
Brand, Dr Peter Cotter, Brian
Brinton, Mrs Helen Cousins, Jim
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon(Dunfermline E) Cox, Tom
Cranston, Ross
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Buck, Ms Karen Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Burden, Richard Darvill, Keith
Burgon, Colin Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Burnett, John Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry(B'ham Hodge H) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Rt, Hon Berry (Alyn)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Denham, John Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Dobbin, Jim
Doran, Frank Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dowd, Jim Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Drew, David Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Drown, Ms Julia Jones Nigel (Cheltenham)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Keeble, Ms Sally
Edwards, Huw Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Efford, Clive Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Ennis, Jeff Kennedy, Jane(Wavertree)
Fearn, Ronnie Khabra, Piara S
Field, Rt Hon Frank Kidney, David
Fisher, Mark King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Kirkwood, Archy
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Kumar, Dr Ashok
Flint, Caroline Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Flynn, Paul Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Follett, Barbara Lepper David
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Leslie, Chirstopher
Foster, Don (Bath) Levitt, Tom
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Lewis Terry (Worsley)
Foulkes, George Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
George, Andrew (St Ives) Linton, Martin
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Livsey, Richard
Gerard, Neil Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gibson, Dr Ian Lock David
Gidley, Sandra Love, Andrew
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McAllion, John
Godman, Dr Norman A McAvoy, Thomas
Godsiff, Roger McCabe, Steve
Goggins, Paul McCafferty, Ms Chris
Golding, Mrs Llin McDonagh, Siobhain
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Macdonald, Calum
Gorrie, Donald McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McIsaac, Shona
Grocott, Bruce McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Grogan, John Mackinlay, Andrew
Gunnell, John Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McNamara, Kevin
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McNulty, Tony
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) MacShane, Denis
Hancock, Mike Mactaggart, Fiona
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McWalter, Tony
Healey, John McWilliam, John
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hepburn, Stephen Mallaber, Judy
Heppell, John Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hesford, Stephen Marshall, David(Shettleston)
Hill, Keith Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hinchliffe, David Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Martlew, Eric
Hope, Phil Maxton, John
Hopkins, Kelvin Merron, Gillian
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Howells, Dr Kim Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Michie, Mrs Ray (Angyll & Bute)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Miller, Andrew
Humble, Mrs Joan Mitchell, Austin
Hurst, Alan Moore, Michael
Hutton, John Moran, Ms Margaret
Illsley, Eric Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Ingram, Rt Hon Adam Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Jamieson, David Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon)
Jenkins, Brian
Mountford, Kali Salter, Martin
Mudie, George Sarwar, Mohammad
Mullin, Chris Savidge, Malcolm
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Sawford, Phil
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Sayeed, Jonathan
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Sedgemore, Brian
Naysmith, Dr Doug Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Norris, Dan Shipley, Ms Debra
Oaten, Mark Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Olner, Bill Skinner, Dennis
Öpik, Lembit Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Organ, Mrs Diana Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Palmer, Dr Nick Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Pearson, Ian
Perham, Ms Linda Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Pickthall, Colin Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Pike, Peter L Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Plaskitt, James Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Pollard, Kerry Soley, Clive
Pond, Chris Southworth, Ms Helen
Pope, Greg Squire, Ms Rachel
Pound, Stephen Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Powell, Sir Raymond Steinberg, Gerry
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Stevenson, George
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Primarolo, Dawn Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Prosser, Gwyn Stinchcombe, Paul
Purchase, Ken Stoate, Dr Howard
Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Quinn, Lawrie Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Rammell, Bill Stringer, Graham
Rapson, Syd Stuart, Ms Gisela
Raynsford, Nick Stunell, Andrew
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rendel, David
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW) Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Rooney, Terry Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Temple-Morris, Peter
Rowlands, Ted Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Roy, Frank Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Ruane, Chris Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Ruddock, Joan Timms, Stephen
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Tipping, Paddy
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Todd, Mark
Ryan, Ms Joan Tonge, Dr Jenny
Touhig, Don Williams, Rt Hon Alan(Swansea W)
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Willis, Phil
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield) Wilson, Brian
Tyler, Paul Winnick, David
Tynan, Bill Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Vis, Dr Rudi Wood, Mike
Wallace, James Woodward, Shaun
Walley, Ms Joan Woolas, Phil
Ward, Ms Claire Worthington, Tony
Wareing, Robert N Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Watts, David Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Wyatt, Derek
Webb, Steve
Welsh, Andrew Tellers for the Ayes:
Whitehead, Dr Alan Mr. Robert Ainsworth and
Wicks, Malcolm Mr. Kevin Hughes.
Allan, Richard
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Tellers for the Noes:
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Mr. Eric Forth and
Leigh, Edward Dr. Evan Harris.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.

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