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Mr. Davey: That is a different point from the one that I was trying to make, which was whether it would be possible for the Minister to put a regulation before the House that enabled the words, "This is a voluntary question" to be added to the form after the question asking the individual what his religious belief was. That was the simple question that I tried to ask: whether the Government can pass that regulation about the form of the question, and the words on the census form. It seems from reading the Census Act that the Government have that power. That was the reassurance that I sought on Second Reading, and I am delighted that the Minister has been able to confirm it tonight.
Mr. Tyrie: I shall have just one more go. It is clear from the Bill that completing the question is a requirement. It is not something that is requested of recipients of the form; it is a requirement. Several of us have received detailed legal opinions suggesting that the Government do not, therefore, have the power to describe the question on the form as voluntary, and that to do so may be subject to judicial review and is almost certainly ultra vires. We have had no reassurance from the Minister on that point.
Taking away the penalty is important in making it clear in law that the question is voluntary. If failing to answer a question does not result in a penalty, I cannot see how it can be seen to be compulsory. On Second Reading the hon. Gentleman had a different interpretation; I am afraid that we will have to agree to disagree on that point.
Because the Minister has given the assurance that the regulations that will be forthcoming will ensure that those words are on the census form next to that particular question--indeed, directly after the words--I feel much more able to support the Bill. I should say that I have agreed with my right hon. and hon. Friends that my party will have a free vote. I understand that there are colleagues who, because religious issues are involved, wish to express a different opinion. That is how things should be on such a Bill.
I would not want to end by saying that I welcomed the Bill because, as the debates throughout our proceedings on it have shown, it has not been the most effectively drafted Bill. In an ideal world, I would have liked a number of other amendments. Indeed, we voted for the amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie).
The Bill is not perfect. The benefits are not huge, but on balance, given the support for the measure within the ethnic minority groupings and various religious groups, I--and, I know, many of my colleagues--will support the Bill in the Lobby.
I like the idea that every time there is a difference of view in a party, there should be a free vote. I can imagine that if that idea were to spread like an infection to other parts of the House, we would soon conduct our business very differently, and it would become very exciting.
I shall not go through all the arguments again, but I shall touch briefly on a few of them. The first is whether religious groups want the legislation. The plain fact is that they are divided on it. They are not united. The Jewish community in particular is divided. It is wrong to suggest that there is overwhelming pressure for the measure from all people who hold deep religious convictions. That is not correct.
The second issue is the purpose to which the information will be put. I have not heard a convincing argument from anyone about what exactly the information will be used for. I have certainly not heard a convincing argument from the Government.
The third issue is the cost. It costs, I think, £250 million, or something very close to that, to run the census. I do not see the Minister nodding or shaking her head. I can only assume that she does not know what the figure is at this minute, but it sounds like a lot of money to run a census. It strikes me that there might be cheaper and more effective ways of obtaining the information--for example, through survey data.
In any case, the three points that I have just made are largely water under the bridge. What we are debating now is whether we should have a voluntary question on religion in the next census. The Government initially wanted a compulsory question, and they blundered when they amended the Bill in the Lords to reflect concern that it should be voluntary. As is well known to the House, they removed the financial penalty, but did not make the question voluntary.
We tried to clear that up in Committee, but the Government refused. That has left us with two clear bits of nonsense in the Bill. The first is that the Government are adding a statement on the voluntary nature of the question on census forms, although the Bill requires recipients to fill it in. The Bill's long title is very clear on that point, which we have made on numerous occasions.
I think that it is worth pausing for a moment to ask what the word "require" means. Can it mean anything other than that there is a requirement? I note Professor Zellick's legal advice on that point. He writes that the word "require" in all its forms and uses imports the notion of compulsion. When I read that, I thought that that was so blindingly obvious that it really was not necessary to put it in a legal opinion. Unfortunately, today's debate has suggested that Professor Zellick was right on the button in making that point.
The second piece of nonsense is that although making a false statement is still an offence, refusing to answer the question at all is not. Clearly that cannot have been the Government's intention when they first drafted the Bill. The Bill is defective in that sense also.
Mr. Forth: Before my hon. Friend leaves that issue, he will not forget, will he, the declaration that has entered the lists quite late in our proceedings as another factor to be taken into account? My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) was very helpful in pointing out that there still exists the overriding element of the declaration at the end of the form, which creates an overriding, compulsory, mandatory and penalty-bearing element that may well feed back into all the other questions.
Mr. Tyrie: My right hon. Friend raises various issues, but I shall briefly address only two of them. The first is that people filling in the form might quite reasonably be confused by the fact that a statement at the side of one question states that it is voluntary, whereas, at the bottom of the form, there is a statement that it is not voluntary but compulsory.
The second point is that that is precisely the type of issue that could generate many problems if there were a judicial review. I would not be at all surprised to hear that there will be a judicial review of the legislation. If there is, the debate that we are having now will at least clarify where responsibility for the mess lies. The mess is not due to the fact that the legislation is a private Member's
Why have the Government not simply made a minor, straightforward amendment to make it clear that the question is voluntary? They could do that and send the Bill back to the other place, which would almost certainly agree to such an amendment. That process would not take very long. I still do not fully grasp why the Government have set their face against doing that. However, I have two possible related explanations for the Government's attitude, one of which I have mentioned already.
The first explantation is that there is a huge logjam of legislation in the other place, and the Government do not want to add to it. We are being asked to pass defective legislation to ease the Government's problem with their legislative programme. I do not think that that is a good reason for not trying to amend the Bill.