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Lord Avebury: My Lords, with his usual wisdom, my noble friend has cleared up that point. I am very satisfied with his explanation.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I can see that, before too long, I shall be out of a job! I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his telling intervention.

The intention of new Section (4A) of Section 57 of the Act, as inserted by Clause 4 of the Bill, is to ensure as far as possible that courts are satisfied when granting a remedy that the remedy sought would not prejudice the investigative or prosecution process. There is now an understanding in the House that that is the case. This aim has, of course, to be balanced by the need to ensure as far as possible that the claimant in a civil case has access to a remedy where he or she has suffered discrimination.

The debate on this provision at the Committee stage was very useful, with helpful points made on all sides. We all learnt from that debate. The Government have considered those points and agree that, logically, damages and a declaration ought to be treated in the same way under this provision. If there is no need to restrict the court's ability to award damages, as we believe, then nor can there be any need to restrict the court's ability to make a declaration. The Government's amendment would therefore remove the restriction on the court's ability to make a declaration. I should also say that the provision as amended would also not restrict the court's ability to make a finding, since a finding is not a remedy. I do not think that it was ever the Government's intention in this instance to restrict the court's ability to make a finding since the award of damages is predicated on a finding. Nor was it the Government's intention to restrict the ability of the CRE to carry out its proper monitoring and enforcement functions under this legislation.

The Government's main concern in this matter has always been to ensure that injunctive relief is provided only where the court is satisfied that it would not prejudice the investigative or the prosecution process. The Government are proposing to leave unamended the test that should be applied when the court is considering granting injunctive relief, since they continue to believe that this is the proper test to be applied in these circumstances.

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1707

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, would, we believe, tip the balance in the wrong direction, making it unnecessarily difficult for a court to award a victim of race discrimination the remedies of damages or a declaration. We consider it highly unlikely that the award of damages, or a declaration, would of itself prejudice criminal proceedings or investigations, once a finding of discrimination has been made.

There is a difference in kind between injunctive relief and other remedies. Injunctive relief could require some action to be taken--for example, in relation to evidence that has been gathered, or is in the process of being gathered, that could compromise a criminal investigation or proceeding. Other remedies such as the award of damages could not have that kind of effect.

Where some prejudicial effect could arise from the very finding of discrimination, we are proposing that, rather than prevent a claimant from getting a finding, or any remedy at all, the courts will be able to stay the proceedings until that risk has passed. It is therefore, in our view, unnecessary and undesirable to restrict the claimant's rights to redress in this respect.

On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will feel able to withdraw his amendment and support that of the Government.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I already support the Government in their amendment. As usual, after these debates, I am better informed. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 16:

    Page 6, line 7, after ("damages") insert ("or

(b) a declaration or, in Scotland, a declarator").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 18:

    Page 7, leave out lines 3 to 32 and insert--

(""(4A) In section 19B proceedings, subsection (2)(b) does not apply in relation to a failure to reply, or a particular reply, if the conditions specified in subsection (4B) are satisfied.
(4B) Those conditions are that--
(a) at the time of doing any relevant act, the respondent was carrying out public investigator functions or was a public prosecutor; and
(b) he reasonably believes that a reply or (as the case may be) a different reply would be likely to prejudice any criminal investigation, any decision to institute criminal proceedings or any criminal proceedings.
(4C) For the purposes of subsections (4A) and (4B)--
"public investigator functions" has the same meaning as in section 57;

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1708

"section 19B proceedings" means proceedings in respect of a claim under section 57 which has arisen by virtue of section 19B."").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think it was established at the Committee stage that there is a good deal of common ground here. We are agreed on all sides on the importance of the questionnaire procedure and we are agreed on the need to ensure that the procedure is not used in such a way as to prejudice criminal investigations or proceedings.

At the Committee stage the Government accepted that there was some force in the argument that it may be unnecessary to provide an opportunity for an early court decision on whether a refusal to respond to a questionnaire issued under Section 55 of the Act is reasonable where a public investigator or prosecutor believes that a reply may prejudice a criminal investigation or proceedings.

However, as we said then, we feel that it is essential to make clear on the face of the Bill the circumstances in which a Section 65 questionnaire need not be completed by a public investigator or prosecutor. That will be to the benefit of claimants, investigators, prosecutors and the court alike.

The Government's amendment removes the ability of public investigators and prosecutors to apply to the court for an early ruling on whether an adverse inference will be drawn from a refusal to respond to a Section 65 questionnaire. Instead, it makes it clear on the face of the Bill that the court should not draw an adverse inference from the failure of a public prosecutor or public investigator to reply to a Section 65 questionnaire if the respondent reasonably believes that to reply would be likely to prejudice any criminal investigation, any decision to institute criminal proceedings, or any criminal proceedings.

The amendment is consistent with the theme running through Clause 4 of striking a balance between the ability of an individual to seek redress through the civil courts while ensuring that the commitment to reduce crime and the fear of crime, to dispense justice fairly and effectively, and to promote the rule of law is not weakened or undermined.

For the reasons given, we think it preferable to have clarity on the face of the Bill in this matter. That will benefit claimants as well as investigators and prosecutors. On that basis, I trust that noble Lords will agree to the amendment. I commend it to the House.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, we are very glad that the Government have met us completely on this point. The amendment removes from the Bill an unnecessary procedural provision regarding questionnaires. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who raised this matter previously, is in her place. We now have the happy result of a clear, coherent provision in the Bill. We support the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 19 not moved.]

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1709

Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

5.52 p.m.

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Before introducing the Bill, I should declare a personal interest in that I am involved with the Inter-Faith Movement, having served in the last war with the Indian army, with Sikh, Muslim and Hindu troops.

This is a short Bill but it is, none the less, a very important one. I believe that it has general support among your Lordships. It is aimed at effecting a necessary change to the Census Act 1920 in order to enable a question on religious affiliation to be included in the next census of population in England and Wales in April 2001.

The proposal to include such a question was set out in the Government's White Paper on the 2001 census published last March, and has the endorsement of a wide range of faith organisations. In particular, it has had the support of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Inner Cities Religious Council and the Home Secretary's Race Relations Forum.

A question relating to religion would be new to the census in England and Wales, and responses to the question would help to provide information that would supplement the output from the ethnic group question by identifying ethnic minority sub-groups, particularly those originating from the Indian sub-continent. It would help to provide baseline figures against which the Government could monitor possible racial disadvantage and social exclusion within particular minority groups.

More people are choosing to identify themselves in terms of their religion or culture. The 2001 census provides a unique opportunity to collect information from groups such as Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others who increasingly prefer to identify themselves in this manner.

Public tests of census questions have shown the proposed question on religious affiliation to be acceptable; that form-fillers understand the question; and that the quality of the response is sufficiently high for reliable information to be obtained. The question was satisfactorily included in the census rehearsal in April last year.

The amendment to the Census Act is necessary because the schedule to the Act, which specifies those matters in respect of which particulars may be required to be stated in census returns, does not currently provide for particulars on religion to be recorded. Most of the questions that are traditionally asked in the census are specifically covered in paragraphs 1 to 5 of the schedule; others that may from time to time be required are covered by paragraph 6, which provides for,

    "any other matters with respect to which it is desirable to obtain statistical information with a view to ascertaining the social or civil condition of the population".

Legal advice over the years, however, has been that religion is not a matter of either social or civil condition, which attributes are to be regarded as more

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1710

earthly than heavenly, and that a change to the legislation would therefore be necessary. But not until considering the question of the forthcoming census has a sufficiently strong case been made for the inclusion of a question on religion to warrant the necessary change to the census legislation.

Clause 1 of the Bill would have the effect of adding "religion" specifically to those particulars which may be required to be provided in the census.

Clause 2(2) limits the extension of the Bill to England and Wales only. Under the terms of the Census Act, the Registrar General for Scotland is responsible for taking the census in Scotland, and under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998 a census is now a devolved matter. Thus it is for the Scottish Executive to consider whether or not a similar question on religion should be included in the census in Scotland, and it will subsequently be a matter for the Scottish Parliament to approve any such proposal.

The Bill would effect the necessary change to the Census Act to enable a question on religious affiliation to be included in the 2001 census. I believe that the Bill represents an important step towards helping to improve race relations in this country. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Weatherill.)

5.57 p.m.

Lord Newby: My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Bill and are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for introducing it. We have been impressed by the evidence that we have received from a number of bodies in regard to the benefits that might be expected to accrue if and when the Bill is brought into effect.

For example, the Religious Affiliation Sub-Group of Churches Together in England has identified six benefits to the country from this measure. It would help deal with the background to some questions of discrimination; it would be useful in terms of health and community care planning; it would help form the basis for planning in respect of religious education; it would have some relevance in the regeneration of inner cities; it would be extremely helpful in connection with voluntary sector religious groups; and, moving to more earthly matters, it would provide some business benefits in terms of marketing strategies for some companies.

I have been particularly impressed by the evidence that we have received from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. For perfectly understandable reasons, the board has weighed concerns about personal security and confidentiality of data against the benefits that it believes will accrue from the question. The conclusion reached by the board is that Jewish welfare and social organisations will be better able to understand the health and residential conditions of elderly Jews or young people. Communal resources can then be targeted more efficiently. Communal

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authorities will be able to plan education, housing and social care on the basis of firm information. That argument has also been made by other groups.

It can also be argued that this House has a particular interest in ensuring that this measure is introduced. If the Wakeham report is implemented there will be representation in your Lordships' House of non-Christian religions based on the size of those communities in the nation. As page 154 of the Wakeham report demonstrates, the present estimates of the numbers in those groups are very imprecise. It would be useful if your Lordships had more precise numbers for planning purposes. I suspect that before we consider detailed provisions for the stage two reform of your Lordships' House the census will have been completed and analysed.

So far, so good. But there is a major flaw, not in the Bill but the proposed question. While it would be easy to gain useful information from the proposed question about minority religious communities, for many purposes it would not be possible to do that for the Christian community because it lumps all Christians together. While that has many benefits, for the purposes of education and social welfare planning one needs to know the number of adherents to the Church of England, the Catholic Church and minority Christian religions. Without that breakdown the census would be of much less use than would otherwise be the case.

If one takes the obvious example of education, on the basis of the census figures it would be easy to consider the provision for Muslim schools, if that was to be considered. But if one considers the recent initiative by the Church of England related to the scope for the establishment of further Church of England secondary schools, in which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, is involved, frankly this census would be of no value. I believe that the simple remedy is to have a breakdown in the "Christian" column between the major Christian groups.

That is a concern of the Religious Affiliation Sub-Group of Churches Together. It states that the Christian category should be sub-divided but does not believe that that issue received proper attention during the consultation process. I believe that we should look at the issue again. This happens already in New Zealand and Australia. It is a very simple change, and I do not know why it has not been dealt with in the form of the questions up to now. Perhaps it is believed that the census is too long. However, much of the potential benefit of the question is negated unless there is a breakdown of the Christian religion.

It may be that there is a stronger case for including this question in the census in Scotland. I understand why it is not thought to be necessary at the moment, but if there is a breakdown of the Christian faith in Scotland it will provide the Scots with a considerable amount of useful information. While it is for the Scots to make that decision, if for our purposes we take a lead in this matter they may reconsider the issue. In supporting the Bill, I make the plea that the question

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1712

be looked at again, and I should be grateful for any reassurance from either the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, that that will happen.

6.4 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: My Lords, the bishops of the Church of England have long recognised the changing nature of our society and the importance of other faiths within it as well as the need to improve race relations. Therefore, we welcome wholeheartedly the inclusion of this particular question in the 2001 census. I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, in introducing this Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, raised the question of dividing the Christian religion into denominations. From my experience over the years, particularly recently, the Church of England has suffered from comments in the press about religious affiliation based on denominations. That is extremely difficult to record. Time and time again churches in my diocese of Lincoln, where sadly in many areas the Church of England is the only Christian church working in rural communities, find themselves ministering to Christians of several denominations. We are glad to offer hospitality to Roman Catholics and the opportunity for them to celebrate mass in our country churches, and to provide pastoral care in various ways.

Although one welcomes a more detailed picture of religious affiliation across the whole of society today and supports the point about planning, the more one goes into it the more complicated the issue becomes. I hope that it can be given consideration, although I quite understand if those who draft this Bill refrain from going into great detail. On behalf of the Church of England, I strongly support the inclusion, in the census form, of the question of religious affiliation.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I hope that I shall be forgiven for intervening in the gap, but I do not intend to speak for long. I rise to speak with some trepidation bearing in mind that all the religious groups, including the Church of England, appear to support this Bill. I have some fears about this measure. I am not at all sure that we should allow yet another notch in the ratchet of state intervention into private matters in the form of this particular Bill. Nor am I happy that people should be required to state their religious beliefs in a census. I have always been under the impression that that is a private matter. I and many others are aware that in Germany a certain gentleman called Hitler would have found such information very useful. Although it seems inconceivable that we should ever have such a creature governing this country, even that may happen. Therefore, I am not happy that people should be required to state their religion on a census form.

It may be that I am wrong. The sidenote to Clause 1 states that,

    "Particulars in respect of religion may be required".

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1713

But in this House we are always told that "may" means "shall". Therefore, this will be a requirement. When the Minister replies, can he tell the House what will happen to those who refuse to disclose information about their religious beliefs? Will they be fined; and if they fail to pay will they be clapped in gaol? I may well test it myself if the Minister's answer is not what I hope it will be. In a debate of this kind the fears that I have described should be raised. I am surprised that those fears have not been raised by many others who are concerned about the mass of information about our private affairs that is available to the state.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, will be able to reassure me that people will not be fined for refusing to answer this question or put in gaol.

6.10 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, not only on introducing the Bill but on the clarity of his explanation of its provisions. Mindful of the significance of the noble Lord's interventions in the past Session, I am sure that this measure will attract rather less heat.

I am conscious, too, of the Minister's very considerable expertise in statistics--a career spanning over 30 years. To that extent, the Bill may well be something of a busman's holiday for him. The noble Lord has earned this reward--if that is what it is--for his tireless efforts over the years at the Dispatch Box. I must give credit where it is due, especially as I am aware how much of an inconvenience it has been for the noble Lord to make himself available tonight.

We can all agree that the Bill is uncontroversial. I hope, therefore, that I shall be forgiven for asking a few questions about its provisions and on one or two wider issues. By way of reassurance, we on these Benches have no objections to the Bill in principle. However, we feel that there are elements of sensitivity here which justify making response to it by the public optional rather than compulsory. Accordingly--I hope that it will give the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, some satisfaction--we are minded to seek amendment of the Bill in Committee to accommodate this concern.

As the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, explained, the purpose of the Bill is to authorise a question on religion to be included in the 2001 census for England and Wales. Noble Lords will be aware that the judgment as to where to strike the correct balance with respect to the legitimate rights of individuals to privacy is a fine one. Thus, while most of us will be relaxed about the proposition, there will be some who are more ambivalent, who may feel that the question is a step too far--a case of Government poking their nose into areas beyond their remit. After all, for many people religion is very much a matter of conscience. Even though the data obtained by the census is subject to confidentiality, should not that conviction--a personal thing--be respected? I acknowledge the support that the Bill has from all sides of the faith

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1714

community. Indeed, I am grateful to the BBC for receiving a transcript of a recent "Thought for the Day" in which Indarjit Singh made the wholly valid point that,

    "Yes, religion has over the years become a private matter, something we don't talk about in polite conversation. But this was never the intention of the founders of our great faiths".

It seems to me that to the extent that,

    "religion has over the years become a private matter",

that privacy should be respected.

Equally, while I have not researched the approach of other countries to this in any detail, it is interesting to note that, for example, the Australian census question on religion is optional.

Quite rightly, the Census Offices have conducted a consultation exercise on this to ensure, among other things, that the proposition will have,

    "no significantly adverse effect on the Census as a whole, particularly the level of public response".

I simply ask this. What evidence has been adduced to confirm this? In other words, at what percentage of failure of the public to respond would the value of the overall data sample be compromised?

That leads me to a related consideration. It is one which, from a logical basis, constitutes a further justification for making the question optional. In the context of the Bill, and as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, has explained,

    "Responsibility for statistics in areas where policy responsibility is to be devolved will lie with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations".

On the surface, all is good and well. But if, as stated, the Government's intention is to engender more and better information about racial disadvantage and social exclusion, it is at best curious that, in this instance, Scotland is currently to be excluded from the data series. In the face of that, objective opinion could be tempted to conclude that there is a feeling that these problems do not exist north of the Border. That would be absurd.

In turn, it begs the question whether the data series compiled by the census will have any UK-wide relevance. No doubt the Minister, given his statistical background, will be able to reassure me on that point. For my part, I merely flag up our concern in this area that our ability as a nation to comply with our international statistical obligations--for example, to the European Union--could suffer from inconsistency and a lack of co-ordination. As Building Trust in Statistics points out:

    "Official statistics need to be of assured quality, and be compiled and presented in a way which is free of political interference".

The key here is in terms of compilation and presentation. In other words, how valuable can a data series be that excludes a core element of the nation's population?

I note that the Government have expressed their own concern about this at paragraph 4.10 of Building Trust in Statistics. Indeed, there is a wider problem here. For example, education, and thereby statistics relating to it, is a responsibility for the Welsh

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1715

Assembly. But the responsibility to enact the primary legislation remains here in Westminster. Thus, it is all very well for the Welsh Assembly to consult widely about, let us say, the Learning and Skills Bill but the value of such an exercise is undermined if its results and relevant statistics are not readily available to Members of both Houses here in Westminster. No doubt this is a subject to which we shall return in a variety of different contexts. It is enough to say here that, given this background, there is scope for concern about the integrity of the census' outcomes.

The document, The 2001 Census of Population pre-dates Building Trust in Statistics by some six months. It is no surprise, therefore, that it contains no references to the Government's appointment of a national statistician and proposed establishment of an independent statistics commission. Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether the intention is to bring responsibility for the census within the remit of this new arrangement? If so, will appropriate levels of funding--over the 13-year period 1993-2006 it is currently estimated to be £254 million--be made available over and above the

    "provision that has [accordingly] been made available for this purpose"--

that is, the Commission--

    "following the Comprehensive Spending Review"?

As a codicil to the Bill, the Minister will be aware that I have been banging the drum, albeit in a minor way, for the Government's proposals for statistics to be put on a statutory basis. Building Trust in Statistics states that,

    "The Government acknowledges the arguments for legislation but has decided to implement the new arrangements on a non-statutory basis in order to secure the benefits as soon as possible".

They also state their intention to keep the matter under review. In the absence of a fully fledged statistics Bill, that has to suffice. None the less, in the appropriate context of this Bill and for the record I simply reiterate that we would prefer that the Government come forward with firm legislative proposals for their statistics agenda sooner rather than later. I make the obvious point that the measure before us today is statistical in character and that the likelihood is that adequate legislative time will be found for its passage through Parliament.

I began by affirming that we on these Benches are content to support the Bill, subject only to the reservation that I have defined. Needless to say, I look forward to the replies of the Minister, or from the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, to assist us in deciding whether it will be appropriate to amend the Bill in Committee. In the meantime, I conclude with good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, and to the Government, and the hope that we shall be able to pass the Bill to another place in as fit a condition as we can.

6.19 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for bringing forward and explaining the Bill and to all

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1716

noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. The Bill will be particularly welcomed by many members of ethnic minority communities who regard the census as an important opportunity for them to identify themselves in terms of their religion, in addition to the census question on ethnic groups.

The Bill makes it possible for the census to collect the sort of information that it needs to monitor possible racial discrimination and social exclusion, particularly at the level of local communities, which is the sort of geographical area level for which only the census is able to provide statistics that are on a reliable and consistent basis across the whole country. I shall come to what I mean by the "whole country" later on.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, helpfully gave six reasons how this data could be used and why that is desirable. We subscribe to all the reasons. The Office for National Statistics, which is the department responsible for carrying out the census in England and Wales, has for the past four years conducted an extensive programme of consultation with users on their requirements for information from the 2001 census. It carried out a series of both small and large-scale public tests and cognitive research--namely, research about meaning--on possible census questions, to make sure that they meet a set of four strict criteria. These are: first, that there has been a clearly demonstrated need for the information obtained; secondly, that user requirements cannot be adequately met by information from other sources; thirdly, that they should be shown in tests to have no significantly adverse effects on the census as a whole, particularly the level of response; and fourthly, that practicable questions can be devised to collect the data that is sufficiently accurate to meet users' stated requirements.

It is particularly important that the ONS should apply these criteria to a potential question on religion because we have not asked such a question in a census in England and Wales in the past. So a special task group was convened by ONS in March 1996 to consider the case for a possible question on religious affiliation in the 2001 census. This religious affiliation sub-group of the 2001 census content working group comprised members of a wide range of faith organisations as well as government departments with an interest in the sort of information that such a census question might provide. In particular, in addition to those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, the organisations involved included the Muslim Council of Britain, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Buddhist Society, the National Council of Hindu Temples and the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe, and a number of representatives from Christian Churches in Britain.

Public reaction to a census question on religion was assessed in two major tests of census questions, in the 1997 census test and in the 1999 census rehearsal. The evidence suggests that the public are generally prepared to answer the question, at least to a level

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1717

comparable with those of other census questions, and that the quality of responses is sufficient to provide the sort of information that would meet users' needs.

The Government have confirmed their intention to include a question on religion in the 2001 census, as we proposed in the White Paper published last March. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, pointed out, it is necessary to amend the Census Act 1920 before we can do that. The schedule to the Act prescribes matters in respect of which particulars may be required to be stated in census returns. The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, has clarified why a question on religion may not be included under the provisions of paragraph 6 of the schedule. Legal advice has consistently been that there is no specific guidance as to what is meant by the term, "social or civil condition" in paragraph 6. The words must be given their ordinary meaning when interpreting the statute. Legal advice has been consistently that a change in the legislation is necessary.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and my noble friend Lord Stoddart asked whether the proposed question on religion could be included in the census on a voluntary basis. We thought about that a great deal. We have come to the conclusion that it would not be a good idea. Perhaps I may set out in some detail why we think that. First, the value of the census is that it does indeed encompass the whole population of the country at a single point in time. The purpose of a religious question is to complement the proposed question on ethnic groups, but particularly the identification of different sub-groups within south Asian communities who increasingly prefer to describe their culture in terms of their religion. The noble Earl suggested that there may be some sensitivity about that, but I believe that the overwhelming support of the faith groups is sufficient evidence.

Secondly, when we tested the question on religion we showed it to be no more sensitive than any other questions traditionally asked in the census. In practical terms it has been shown that making a question voluntary seriously affects the response not only to the question itself where response bias could devalue the information obtained, but also as regards other questions because people are confused about some questions being voluntary and others being compulsory.

We take the arguments about a voluntary question very seriously. Voluntary questions are not part of a procedure that is normal in a census. There would have to be exceptional circumstances to depart from that. My noble friend Lord Stoddart asked what would happen if someone--he even went so far as to say himself--refused to answer such a question. I am not sure whether I should say this in public, but I do not believe that he would be fined or put in prison. In practice, for the first time next year there will be encouragement for households to return their census forms by post rather than having them collected by an enumerator. They will be involved only when the forms are not returned by post. I do not believe that a representative from the Office for National Statistics is going to come round and say, "You did not answer

27 Jan 2000 : Column 1718

Question 33(c). I am taking you down to the police station". I do not believe that we need go to that extent or worry about the analogies with Hitler that my noble friend suggested. Confidentiality of the census has been a tradition and a requirement for 200 years. Confidentiality within the household is important. If any member of a household does not want his or her answers to be revealed to anyone else, it is possible to have a separate form and for it to be returned in a sealed envelope. Confidentiality from government has always been a requirement; in other words, no government department knows the identity of anybody giving a specific answer to a question or answers given by any individual. There is also confidentiality against outsiders in a sense that answers relating to individuals or even being identifiable from the use of enumeration districts, are not made available outside.

For all those reasons we do not believe that it would be a good idea to have a uniquely voluntary question. We hope that we can persuade the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, of that argument.

The question of devolution was raised. It is indeed a devolved matter. The noble Earl quoted from paragraph 10 of the White Paper Building Trust in Statistics. In particular the White Paper notes,

    "Where policy responsibilities are devolved, increasing divergence in policies to reflect the circumstances of particular countries is possible. It is expected that statistics collected to monitor and inform these policies will reflect this".

The Scottish Parliament will have the opportunity to debate the proposals for the census in Scotland when it considers the draft Scottish census order on 10th February. At present it is possible or even likely that there will be no question on religion in Scotland.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, asked whether that would pose difficulties for us in our international statistical obligations. The purpose of having that question on the census is not really to collect national statistics, with millions of people subscribing to particular religions, but to provide the information on a local basis for local use by ethnic communities, religious organisations and for those in government and in the voluntary sector concerned with local social conditions and public policies. Information on a nationwide basis on issues of this kind can be obtained, and I declare a past interest, by sample survey. I do not believe that we shall run a serious risk of defaulting on our international obligations.

There is also a responsibility for producing statistics from the census in Wales. Under the terms of the Census Act, the Registrar General is responsible for the census in both England and Wales and he will make available statistics which are appropriate to the requirements of the National Assembly for Wales and to other users.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, questioned whether it was sufficient to have a single category for all Christian denominations. My first answer is that no firm need for that further division was expressed by the Christian communities. I understand his point, but it fails to meet the criterion of a clearly demonstrated need for the information obtained.

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There are difficulties in framing questions that would identify particular Christian communities. If we are precise about the Church of England and the Catholic Church, as I am sure we can be, it is more difficult to be precise with regard to other denominations. I shall not go into the issue of the Wee Frees and the subdivisions which have been further subdivided. However, one can anticipate the difficulties. It is true that once one starts on that route one might start to distinguish between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims and between different organisations within the Jewish faith. There is a write-in question if anyone feels impelled to be more precise, but we reached the conclusion that a more detailed question would not fulfil the strict criteria for introducing additional questions.

If the Bill is passed, the Government propose to make the necessary legislative arrangements to provide for a question on religion to be added to those which have already been approved for inclusion in the 2001 census after your Lordships have had an opportunity to consider the census order. The Government support the Bill. We believe that it has cross-party support, with the exception referred to by the noble Earl.

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