HC Deb 26 June 2000 vol 352 cc670-3

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

4.11 pm
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms)

Ito beg to move, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Census (Amendment) Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment. The Government proposed in the White Paper on the 2001 census, published in March 1999, that a new question on religion should be included in the census in addition to the existing question on ethnic group. An amendment to the Census Act 1920 is necessary because the schedule to the Act, which specifies those matters of which particulars may be required to be stated in census returns, does not currently provide for particulars on religion. This Bill received its Second Reading in the House on 20 June. I commend the resolution to the House.

4.11 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

My hopes soared when the Minister rose to move the resolution. Such hopes were unusual in these circumstances and I had hoped that he was setting a precedent. However, I was then profoundly disappointed by the opacity of his announcement. Even the most casual reading of the resolution would tell one that it contains the potential at least for a very large amount of expenditure about which we still know nothing.

For a Treasury Minister to come to the House to ask us to underwrite the expenditure of an unspecified amount is bad enough, but this resolution goes beyond even the usual pronouncements of a money resolution, in two or three important respects. The first is that it states: for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Census (Amendment) Bill [Lords]. That leads us to suppose that we are being asked to sign a blank cheque that could arise not from the Bill as we now know it, but from the Bill which may emerge after its Committee and Report stages. The Government are therefore pushing their luck more than somewhat. It would be bad enough if we knew the text upon which we are being asked to write a blank cheque, but we are now being asked to write a double or triple blank cheque, in that the resolution refers to the Act that may emerge from the parliamentary process that was initiated, not finalised, by the introduction of the Bill. A huge amount of speculation will arise in that respect.

The resolution then adds impertinently that the Government want the House to approve any increase attributable to the Act. The formality of the blank cheque has been set before us but, most important, the resolution continues: in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment. Normally one might not be too alarmed by such a statement, but this is a highly controversial Bill. We discovered that on Second Reading, when the House divided. Some of my hon. Friends and I expressed considerable disquiet at its content, and that disquiet has not diminished with the passage of time.

The worrying aspect of the seemingly innocuous phrase "under any enactment" arises from the pronouncements of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who is the Bill's supposed promoter, and of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Their pronouncements led to a suspicion that we did not have much of an opportunity to explore on Second Reading. On 20 June, in a text which I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire wrote, because it does not sound like him to me, although I shall accept his assurances if he wants to give them, my hon. Friend said: If we are to deal with discrimination in the provision of health, housing, schools, welfare and community care services, we require better information. We require better information about baseline figures against which racial disadvantage and social exclusion within particular minority groups can be monitored. This information would be useful in the planning of religious education— I may come back to that in a moment—and it would have relevance in the regeneration of inner cities; and I would expect it to aid the very valuable work of voluntary sector religious groups.—[Official Report, 20 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 266.] That is what my hon. Friend said as reported in Hansard, if I may put it that way, when he was introducing the Bill.

The Minister said later: The basic reason for collecting such information, however— that is, information resulting from the census, as it would be altered by the Bill— is so that it can be used to inform planning, policy and services.—[Official Report, 20 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 305.] Flowing from all that is not just the suspicion but the near certainty that the mechanism that would be initiated by adding the question to the census that the Bill suggests will, if it has any meaning at all, result in considerable additional expenditure in some areas, not least the planning of religious education. The matter was touched on on Second Reading, and we received no further information. Everyone seems to want to be coy about it. Will the phrase "under any other enactment" in the money resolution lead us to an unspecified and possibly unlimited amount of expenditure across the board of social policy?

I am not sure what "social exclusion" means. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is obviously happy with it as a concept. Perhaps he could explain it to me, if not now, then subsequently. References have also been made to the regeneration of inner cities, no less, and then the Minister tells us that the information will be used to inform planning, policy and services.

So contained within the wording of the Bill as it now is, never mind as it may emerge from Committee and Report, is the potential for considerable extra expenditure.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

My right hon. Friend's frugality is legendary. Do I take it that he thinks that the activities that will flow from the Census (Amendment) Bill could involve every Government Department, without exception? Or can my right hon. Friend think of an exception, and would he care to divulge to the House which Department he thinks would be exempt?

Mr. Forth

I suppose that it is possible that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will escape the clutches of this ghastly little provision, and perhaps the Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend raises an important point because, to go back to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire— health, housing, schools, welfare and community care services— the Bill seems to encompass almost the entire range of domestic spending Government Departments, in which case the potential for additional Government expenditure and taxpayer commitment is considerable. If that were not so, there would be no point in including the question in the census.

Hidden within that, as we teased out on Second Reading, is the concept that, as a result of asking people to divulge their religious affiliation voluntarily, Government policy will direct additional funds to some people of some religious affiliations. I assume that if I put "none" in answer to the question on the census form, I would not get much extra money. although that was not made clear. It appears that people of no religious faith will not be very fortunate as a result of the provision.

We seem to be in the dark about whether different elements of the Christian faith would benefit from the process. That seemed to be doubtful from the way Second Reading went. One can only surmise, as has been hinted at—indeed, we have almost been told—that if enough people specify other religious faiths in answer to the question, there will be a policy rush by the Government and, presumably, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, to direct money to people on the basis of their religious affiliation.

I do not wish to rehearse the matters that we debated on Second Reading: you would not want me to do that, Madam Speaker. No doubt, those matters will come up in Committee and on Report, when we shall discuss them at length as, indeed, we should. I simply wish to make the point that, as a result of the Bill's peculiar circumstances, the wording of the money resolution which, on the face of it, appears to be fairly standard, gives rise to an unusual number of questions about the final form that the Bill will take if it is enacted; and, following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), about the enactments to which the resolution might relate and the sort of commitment that it contains.

Of course, we know nothing about that, as the Government have not told us anything about the extra expenditure that they envisage: either they do not know or they are not telling us.

Yet again, the House is faced with the difficult problem that so often confronts us in relation to money resolutions. We refuse to be a rubber stamp; we regard it as our duty as Members of the House of Commons to extract as much information from the Minister as we can. When the Minister comes to sum up, I hope that he will grace the House with far more information than he was prepared to give in his wholly inadequate introduction.

4.21 pm
Mr. Timms

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) suggested, this a standard form of words for money resolutions. The timing of the money resolution, after Second Reading and before Committee, is standard and familiar.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several questions about the spending that is envisaged and about costs. The inclusion of the new question is not expected to lead to an increase in printing or distribution costs. Costs that may arise relate to the processing of additional information that is collected. They cannot be precisely estimated, but we anticipate that they are likely to be about £100,000 for the 2001 census. That is certainly containable within the existing allocation.

Compared with the £203 million that the 2001 census for England and Wales is expected to cost, that additional sum is modest, and represents a good investment in the context of the value that will be gained from the information collected. As the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), quoted by the right hon. Gentleman, demonstrate, that information will help local authorities, health authorities and others to plan services to meet the needs of their current population. Asking a question in future censuses after 2001 may lead to a small increase in the total costs of those censuses, which is another reason why we need the money resolution.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked which enactment the money resolution referred to. The reference is to the Census Act 1920, the schedule of which is being amended by the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

    1. c673
    2. JUDGMENTS 23 words
    3. c673
    4. CONTRACTS 22 words
    5. c673
    6. NORTHERN IRELAND 34 words
    7. c673
    8. NORTHERN IRELAND 31 words
    9. c673
    10. LOCAL GOVERNMENT 28 words