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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 want 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

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(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 rose--

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.

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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:


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


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

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from the Vice-Chancellor of London university, Professor Graham Zellick, which I shall make available to the Minister after the debate. He says:


I received a similar response from the National Secular Society. It said:


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 want 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 want 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.


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