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The purpose of the Bill is to make a modest change to the Census Act 1920 so that a question on religious affiliation can be included in the next census of population in England and Wales in April 2001. This is necessary because, these days, many more people choose to identify themselves in respect of their religion or their culture, but there are no reliable figures for ethnic sub-groups or for religion. The 2001 census provides a unique opportunity to collect information from groups who increasingly prefer to identify themselves primarily in this way.
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; 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.
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): My hon. Friend says that his Bill would aid planning for the provision of religious education, but since the proposed census question does not have a subset on the Christian religion determining whether one is Protestant or Catholic, how can that assist with the provision of religious education for families who wish their children to be brought up with a Catholic education?
Mr. Sayeed: I suggest that my right hon. Friend read the Lords debate, and particularly the answer given by the Bishop of Lincoln, who answered that question and dealt with it adequately. It would be wrong and unnecessary for me to parrot his words, as I believe that my right hon. Friend has them in front of him.
In their White Paper of last March on the 2001 census, the Government proposed including such a question. A wide range of faith organisations endorsed the proposal and it gained the support of the Inner Cities Religious Council, the Home Secretary's race relations forum and the Commission for Racial Equality. The Bill had a swift and unopposed passage in the other place and, I believe, commands the general support, but not the total support, of both sides of the House.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): My hon. Friend will know that an amendment accepted in the House of Lords means that it is not an offence to withhold the information. I am grateful for that at least, but, if there is no requirement to give the information, does not that mean that the information is not really required?
Mr. Sayeed: I remind my hon. Friend that there has been a requirement for a number of years in Northern Ireland to complete a religious question. A similar non-mandatory duty in Scotland has recently received Royal Assent.
Many of the questions that are traditionally asked in the census are specifically covered in the first five paragraphs of the schedule. Others that may from time to time be required are covered by paragraph 6, which provides for
Public tests of census questions have shown that the proposed question on religious affiliation is acceptable. Those who have had to complete the forms have understood the question and the quality of the response is sufficiently high for reliable information to be obtained. The question was satisfactorily included in the census rehearsal in April last year.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that we have probably had enough interventions from a sedentary position. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Order. I do not want to have to repeat what I have just said.
Clause 1(2) removes the liability to the penalty under section 8 of the 1920 Act in respect of anyone who refuses or neglects to state in their census return the particulars with respect to religion. In effect, this makes any such question on religion voluntary. Although the statutory requirement under the 1920 Act to respond to all other census questions remains, the voluntary status of the proposed religious question deliberately reflects the sensitivity that surrounds this specific topic.
The Bill affects only England and Wales. The census is a devolved matter in Scotland where legislation on this question has, I understand, already received Royal Assent. It is also a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and this amendment to the census would align census legislation in England and Wales with that of Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Has it occurred to my hon. Friend that religious affiliation changes in a way that race or sex do not? Equally, given that religious affiliation is a very personal matter, what guarantee can he give about the accuracy of this information? After all, I might be a member of whatever religion I might fancy, and who could gainsay me? Who could say that I was wrong?
Mr. Sayeed: The census is a snapshot of the time that it is taken. Therefore, if my hon. Friend chooses one religion at that particular time, that is his religion of the moment. It does not mean that in 10 years' time he may not have changed his mind.
Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but it would be very helpful if you could tell us the Bill's status. I understand that this is a private Member's Bill which is being given Government time. It would be extremely helpful if you could confirm that that is the case. If it is, could you tell the House whether there are any precedents?
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He referred earlier to the question being the same in Scotland as is proposed in England and Wales, but that is not correct. The question on religion in Scotland will be very differently phrased. How can he justify that?
Mr. Sayeed: I believe that I said that the Bill would be similar--I did not say that the question itself would be the same. As I understand it, the question in Scotland differentiates between different Christian religions.