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Mr. Forth: Were you here?

Mr. Chisholm: I was present throughout the debate on Report, apart from about five minutes, and I was very impressed by my hon. Friend's explanation. However, I was not impressed by the pedantic points that were made. The correct solution has been found and I commend the Government and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire for what they have done.

6.48 pm

Mr. Forth: I have not yet heard anything to persuade me of the Bill's value--quite the opposite, in fact--and I was obviously sitting in a different Chamber in a different House of Commons from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Chisholm). The muddle that emerged from our interesting and useful debate on Report simply convinced me that the Bill is not only unnecessary, but undesirable and almost certainly unworkable and useless. There is plenty of scope, therefore, for further debate on Third Reading before the House plunges ahead and accepts a Bill that could be mistaken.

We have had from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) the clearest and most honest explanation yet of what the Bill is all about. There

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was a lot of obfuscation and mistiness in the early stages, but the mist is clearing and we can see the measure for what it is. My hon. Friend made play of the fact that many religious groups have been consulted and are all keen for the Bill to make progress. That may or may not be so, and we may or may not in our different ways be impressed by those organisations so as to drive legislation through the parliamentary process and on to the statute book. Whether the Muslims, the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Christians--Catholic or Protestant--all want the Bill is relevant but not conclusive. Simply to say that lots of people up and down the country want something does not necessarily make it good or desirable--nor does it give us sufficient reason to legislate on the matter.

The latest figures that I saw suggested that about 7 or 8 per cent. of the population in England regularly attend church. Perhaps we should apply a reasonable test when people claim a religious affiliation to show whether or not that is realistic. That would patently not be possible within the mechanisms available in the census.

However, that raises a relevant issue. The ludicrous way in which the Government decided to measure unemployment was to ask people whether they feel unemployed and whether they think they are looking for another job, and if so to put them down. The traditional claimant count method was much more reliable. It is too late to put such a provision in the Bill. The fact that a number of people--we do not know how many, because the question is not yet on the census form--of the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian faiths think that this would be a jolly good idea is not enough to persuade me that it should be ushered on to the statute book. It is a relevant factor, but that is all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire went on usefully to deal with the semi-hidden part of the Bill, which is all this business about disadvantage. He suggested that if we find out where people of different claimed faiths live, we will be able better to direct our policies and our money. That is probably the real reason for the Bill. That worries me considerably. If we are to direct taxpayers' money on the basis of religious faiths--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. That matter is not in the Bill. Perhaps I should have brought the right hon. Member to order. The House will forgive me for not doing so, but I am not going to let him get away with it now that I have my wits about me.

Mr. Forth: There I was, Mr. Deputy Speaker, following up the points so admirably made by the promoter of the Bill. Of course, I accept your ruling. That goes without saying.

We are left with the mechanisms that flow from the provisions of the Bill and the proposed question. Running through all our debates on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and through the Bill, narrow though it may be, is the issue of the value that the responses to the question are likely to have if they are voluntary. Having arrived at Third Reading, the question that we must ask ourselves is, if the Bill is to have the benefits to which my hon. Friend alluded, and if it is up to people whether they answer the question, what reliability can we place on the data that will flow from the answer? That is an important question. If people answer the question only if they feel like it, depending on the extent of their

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motivation, we may get a bias in the results that could give rise to unintended or undesirable policy effects, given what my hon. Friend described as the ultimate objective.

Many people have said that the voluntary nature of the question in the Bill has saved its bacon. Funnily enough--I admit it is a paradox--if the question had been mandatory and subject to penalties for non-answer or false answer, I might have been more persuaded that the answer to the question would have value. The Government have conceded the point and said that they are a bit nervous about this aspect, so are prepared for the question to be voluntary or without penalty. That threatens to undermine the whole thrust and validity of the Bill.

However, it is not that simple, and we are left with a paradox. Can the question be voluntary if it is merely without penalty, so that people do not have to answer the question and no penalty is attached? I was almost persuaded of that until my hon. Friend pointed out that at the end of the census form, even with this question included in it and without penalty, people have to sign a declaration, under penalty, saying that everything that they have said in the form is true.

That raises the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) raised in his excellent amendment, on which we have just voted. If people were minded to mis-state, falsify or mislead in their answer to the question, would they be subject to a penalty under the terms of the declaration--although not under the amendment, which was lost? If so, how would we ever know? I suppose we have reached the ultimate irony. How can we ever know whether the question has any meaning given that it touches on a matter of faith, which is the most personal and individual aspect of a person's existence, and how do we know whether it has been answered properly? Will inspectors lurk outside people's houses and see where they go to worship? Will they match that behaviour with the form, or will we accept that everyone who bothers to answer the question is bound to answer it correctly? I do not know the answer to that. Even on Third Reading, there remain many questions that have not yet been satisfactorily answered.

We were taken through the logic which says that there remains a legal duty to comply with the census form but that it is not an offence not to comply and there is no penalty if people do not comply. However, as I understand it, there is a penalty when it comes to the declaration. People can apparently meander through the census form, come to this question, scratch their head, decide whether they are interested or want to bother replying, give an answer that may or may not be true, and when they come to the declaration say, "Oh dear, I thought I was going to get away with this, but perhaps I'll get caught under the declaration." Presumably, the declaration applies to the totality of the form, even as amended by the Bill. We may end up with a circularity that will put individuals in a difficult position.

All in all, one is left wondering whether this measure has the value that people ascribe to it. In the end, we will all have to strike a balance and decide whether we believe that it is proper for the state to intrude in people's private lives through the vehicle of the census form as amended by the Bill. What puzzles me about Labour Members is that I thought that most of them were wedded to idea of civil liberties and individual rights but, now when it suits

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them--or probably when they are told to--they conveniently abandon those views. That issue came up in the Football (Disorder) Bill and now in this Bill. In fairness--I do not often say this, so I shall say it very quietly and hope that no one notices--on this occasion the Liberal Democrats are taking a much more principled view than Labour Members. Judging by what the Liberal Democrats said about the football Bill, and what they have said about this Bill, I conclude that their views are much more in line with what I always understood to be their traditional attitude to individual and civil liberties. Labour Members, meanwhile, seem much more prepared to abandon such attitudes, almost casually.

Some of us Conservatives are not prepared to do that, and I have not yet heard anything--even from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, and certainly not from the Minister--to persuade me that the Bill justifies support from the House and should be enacted. It is simply not good enough for anyone, not even my hon. Friend, to say, "Because lots of religious people and organisations think the Bill is a good idea, that's it".

Mr. Sayeed: I did not say that.

Mr. Forth: If I have misquoted my hon. Friend, I will give way to him.

Mr. Sayeed: I know that my right hon. Friend does not wish to traduce me. I specified those who were in favour of the Bill, but I did not say that, because they were in favour of it, it should become law.

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