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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

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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

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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

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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

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

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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.

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