Previous SectionIndexHome Page


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

26 Jul 2000 : Column 1146

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

26 Jul 2000 : Column 1147

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

26 Jul 2000 : Column 1148

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:



Next Section

IndexHome Page