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Mr. Forth: I apologise to my hon. Friend if I misinterpreted what he said. If he meant that if organisations such as those he cited expressed support for the Bill we should take that into account, of course I agree with him. After all, our job is always to take into account the widest possible range of views. We must ask, however, how many of those living in the United Kingdom--the number is now approaching 60 million--can be said to be represented even by the eminent organisations mentioned by my hon. Friend. I would hazard a guess that that applies to only a certain proportion.

I accept that it is difficult to strike the right balance, but we must ask ourselves how comfortable people will feel about being asked to tell the Government and other authorities about their religious beliefs--and whether, having been asked that question, they will be prepared to answer it comfortably, openly and honestly. Many may well not want to answer it, which leads us to question the validity of the outcome of the exercise.

I am worried by a more serious possibility: that people who have no religious view, or are not prepared to express a view that they have, will be disadvantaged. That may apply to individuals, groups or communities. If moneys were indeed directed in some serious way, yet to be fully revealed, to those with certain religious affiliations, by implication those moneys would be withheld from other groups. One wonders whether, once such a process was fully under way and better understood, a reverse process might enable people to be persuaded in future to give certain information on the form in order to gain advantage.

I have not yet heard enough to convince me that the Bill will be of benefit. I understand why some may want it, and why others may feel nervous about it; I certainly

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do. Unless I hear a much more compelling argument for the Bill between now and the vote, I am inclined to oppose it.

7.3 pm

Dr. Harris: Let me say at the outset that--according to its letterhead--I am an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. Speaking as a Back Bencher, I think many of my views are in line with those of the society.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made a number of good points, not least in admitting that--in this as in so much else--the Liberal Democrats are both principled and consistent. In fact, Conservative Members are not consistent in their descriptions of my party, but we will accept that last description.

I wish to make four general points. I shall make them briefly, because I do not wish to detain the House. The first relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) during the debate on the amendment. As I said then, I intended to make the same point on Third Reading. It is a legal point relating to the opinion given by the vice-chancellor of London university. I shall not repeat what the hon. Gentleman said, but I agree with him: there is clearly a difference of legal opinion, and it would have been nice if we had had more time to establish which opinion was more likely to be right. The possibility of a judicial review, causing delay, may threaten more than just a religious question in the census.

My second point is this. The Bill leaves us with a question that is "intrusive", according to a letter to the Minister from the National Secular Society dated 24 July. The society says that the question is also

--I agree with that--

Like me, the society is

That, I think, goes to the heart of the matter.

The Minister did not reassure me when she spoke about the amendment. Retaining a penalty for knowingly giving false information will not remove the worry that is felt. The Minister defended the penalty by saying that it would not be enforced. That is an interesting approach to dealing with failure to fulfil a legal duty, and, I suspect, not one that the Minister would wish to advertise as being part of Government policy in other areas of the law. The danger is that people who have no strong religious belief but who may have been baptised or born into a certain religion will be much more tempted not to answer the question than to tick the box marked "No religious belief".

Such people--especially if they are not as deeply involved with these matters as some of us who care passionately about the right to religious freedom, or the freedom not to be religious--may worry about having claimed to have no religious belief, although they have been baptised, when they are asked to state that they have filled up the form accurately. I do not think adequate assurances have been given, and that is one of the main reasons why I will vote against Third Reading if the House divides.

26 Jul 2000 : Column 1166

I am also worried about the principle of a "voluntary" question. The existence of such a question, when a penalty can be imposed for the deliberate giving of incorrect information, surely threatens the validity of the question itself. People like me fear that the information provided by the census will be heavily biased in favour of presuming a greater tendency towards religious belief than currently exists.

There must be data on church attendance, and it must be possible to obtain them. There are also data on synagogue attendance, which are collected and, indeed, worried about--for understandable reasons, from the perspective of those involved. If people feel strongly that they require information about religious belief--which, as a principle, I question--it should be up to such people and organisations to collect the data. The state should not be expected to subsidise the provision of services for the expression of a particular opinion.

Mr. Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In fact, research is available: I have some here. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, for example, that 10 per cent. of the nation is Roman Catholic and 27.1 per cent. agnostic.

Dr. Harris: I suspect that 10 per cent. of people describe themselves as Roman Catholic when the question is posed in a certain way. There are various ways of describing religion: it may be defined in terms of birth, baptism, upbringing, church attendance or, dare I say, theological belief.

I must end my speech soon, but I want to say something about the reason given by the hon. Member for Mid- Bedfordshire for the fact that this information is required. On Third Reading, we are left with a Bill that is liable for the provision of information allowing the state to collect data that suggest that it should fund, for instance, more religious schools. That was the example given by the hon. Gentleman. This is my view rather than that of my party, but I question whether the state's role includes the funding of Jewish, Muslim, Church of England or Roman Catholic schools. I favour disestablishment of the Church of England--in this instance, I agree with my party--and I certainly see no need for the state to have such a role.

I will come back to the issue of the Bill on Third Reading because I see that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are restless and perhaps rightly so. If by dint of the Bill it becomes the Government's duty and funding necessity to collect those data, we are going far too far, with the state seeking religious grounds to interfere in our daily lives. It should be up to religious organisations to make the case, as they have had to with great difficulty for the Muslims. One might say that there is an imbalance there.

Therefore, I do not accept the principle of the motives behind the Bill that we are left with on Third Reading. I do not believe that the census will give accurate information even for the purpose that the supporters of the Bill wish it to achieve. I believe that it is an unjustified intrusion into personal beliefs, made worse by the fact that there is an implied penalty for people who are not sure whether they have answered the question correctly, which will not only bias the answers, but cause concern to many people. That is why, from a personal perspective and because of the principles that I have set out, I shall seek to oppose the Bill on Third Reading.

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7.11 pm

Mr. Edward Davey: Despite the strong arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the compliments of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I will support the Bill on Third Reading. On Second Reading I made my concerns clear about the questions and about whether the Government should ask for such information from the individual citizen, but I also made it clear that the fact that the question was voluntary was important. That improvement, which was made in the other place before the Bill came to the House, was a major step forward.

On Second Reading, however, I asked the Minister whether it would be made clear on the form that the question was voluntary. We did not have a reply then, but I was delighted to read in the Committee Hansard that she made that pledge, and she has reiterated it tonight. It has been made clear tonight that she has statutory cover to ensure that on the census form, by that question--[Interruption.] Conservative Members shake their heads, meaning that she has not, but I remind them that we had an exchange about that provision earlier. My hon. Friend confirmed that under section 3(1)(f) of the Census Act, Ministers are allowed to put forward regulations that stipulate how the form will be designed, and other aspects of the form.

Therefore the Minister has confirmed that she does have a power. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) wish to intervene?

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