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Mr. Tyrie: It is a great pity that--as you have rightly pointed out, Mr. Deputy Speaker--we have arrived at the point at which we cannot improve the Bill. As you have correctly observed, we are in the position of "take it or leave it." I am moving towards the position of wanting to leave it.
I suspect that the second reason why the Government decided to choose the "take it" option, rather than the option of amendment--if I dare mention that word one last time--is that they encouraged support for the Bill too late. Consequently, Ministers are on a very tight schedule to ensure that everything is in place for the 2001 census. They will have only themselves to blame if they discover that the next census--which will be the first for many decades--is obstructed in the courts. If that happens, we know who will be responsible. If Britain's long, steady series of censuses is interrupted, we will know that that happened because the Government introduced defective legislation. We know where the responsibility will lie--on the Treasury Bench, where Ministers are giggling about it even now.
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I first express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) for the way in which he has introduced the Bill. Although the Opposition want to support the Bill, there are quite a few hurdles in the way, and the Government have not done much to assist us in getting over them.
The Opposition have two fundamental difficulties with the legislation, the first of which could be dealt with even at this late stage--and I am not referring to amendments. In dealing with the question "What is your religion?" in the questionnaire, it would be quite possible to distinguish between people's religious belief and their religious practice. There is quite a large difference between someone who is a regular attender at a place of worship and someone who has a belief but may not worship. If the census results are to be at all accurate, that is quite an important distinction.
Another point on that question--which I made on Second Reading, and the Minister, probably erroneously, overlooked--deals with the proposed fourth line of the question. The question begins, "What is your religion?", followed by, "Tick one box only." The first choice is "none", and the second is
The second difficulty with the legislation has been the stuff of debate both in Committee and in our earlier debate on the amendment. The Opposition believe that the Minister's advice that the question is voluntary is not good advice. She says that she believes in good faith that the question is voluntary, and I accept that she is speaking in good faith. However, we have heard two entirely unrelated legal opinions in today's debates, and although neither of those who gave an opinion knew that the other was giving an opinion, both said that it would remain unlawful not to answer the question. Therefore, the question is involuntary.
As I said in our earlier debate, that may seem to be a nit-picking point. The significant point is that those who might be opposed to the Bill will challenge it in the courts, and there may well be a judicial review. As I said, the question could have been voluntary if the Minister had accepted what I thought were perfectly reasonable amendments.
It is the Opposition's opinion that the Bill will make bad law; it is being passed in an unsatisfactory form. The Conservative party is not in the business of supporting bad law. As I said at the outset, we want to be able to support the Bill, but while we do not oppose the question, we cannot support it either. Under the circumstances, therefore, I shall be urging my hon. Friends to abstain if there is a Division.
Miss Melanie Johnson: I can be brief because on Third Reading we have heard arguments similar to those that we heard at earlier stages. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) for introducing the Bill and guiding it through the House. The Government welcome the opportunity that it will provide to enable a question on religion to be included in the 2001 census. We recognise the importance of a clear picture of the diversity of faith communities in the United Kingdom to our ability to address the concerns and needs of all sections of the community, as the hon. Gentleman said. The census is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to do so for local areas on a reliable and consistent basis across the country.
I made such points in response to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) when the Bill was last discussed in this place on 20 June. As I pointed out to him, he speaks with a strong hint of, "Why bother with a census at all?" He may have been joined by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) in such remarks. That is extraordinary given that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in a previous Government who relied on and drew in census data on a wide range of issues, in order to inform the policies and processes of government, just as we are proposing to do.
The ethnic and faith communities regard the 2001 census as an important opportunity for them to identify themselves in terms of their religion in addition to the broader ethnic group classification that is used in the census. Perhaps it is worth making a point about the form of the question. Some Opposition Members--such as the hon. Members for Chichester and for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway)--spoke about that. The form of the question is the form that was most clearly understood in the road testing and rehearsals that the Office for National Statistics carries out in preparation for the large logistical exercise which a census inevitably is.
We have of course been mindful of the particular sensitivities of such a question. The Government took special note of the concerns expressed in the other place. We listened carefully to the views not only of members of that House, but of members of the general public who would be required to supply information. Consequently, the Government supported the amendment that removed the statutory penalty for anyone who refuses or neglects to state in their census return the particulars in respect of religion--in effect making any such question on religion in the census voluntary.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister for entering into the spirit of debate. Will she explain, in response to what will apparently be the only intervention, what "required" means? What advice has she had on the meaning of the word in the title of the Bill? Will she please spell that out for us?