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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I had not wished to interrupt my noble friend's flow because it was useful for him to put the case, but I wonder whether he will answer two questions. Bearing in mind that the latest issue of Social Trends shows that today religion is a minority activity, what efforts were made during consultation to obtain the views of people who are not religious and who have no religion? Secondly, can there be no provision for conscientious objection to answering that question, because I have such an objection?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I thought I had answered my noble friend's first point by saying that we shall not pursue him and throw him into gaol. He has a conscientious objection and will not answer the question. That is likely to be the end of the matter.

The question is: "what is your religion?". The first option offered is, "None". I understand that the general secretary of the National Secular Society spoke on the radio this morning objecting to the question, so my noble friend's first question has some point. However, although I share his lack of belief, I do not believe that he is right. It is desirable that we should have such a question for social rather than inquisitorial reasons. I am convinced by the demand, particularly within the ethnic minority communities, that this is a logical extension of the ethnic question which proved to be successful in the previous census and which will be completed and made more comprehensible if the question on religion is included.

The Government support the Bill. It seeks to implement the proposals set out in the White Paper.

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I can assure your Lordships that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights and it is in line with the Government's initiatives on race relations and social exclusion. I hope that your Lordships will give it a swift passage.

Lord Monson: My Lords, perhaps I may put one question to the Minister before he sits down. Why is the Committee stage of this not entirely uncontroversial Bill scheduled to take place one week from today? Surely, so early in the Session it is not customary for there to be such a short interval between Second Reading and the Committee stage.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I understand that the date was agreed with the usual channels.

6.35 p.m.

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, I, too, thank noble Lords who participated in this short, important debate. In particular, I thank the Minister, who dealt fully with many of the technical questions raised tonight. I hope that in the light of what has been said by the Minister the noble Earl will not feel constrained to table an amendment in Committee. If he does, we shall have to deal with it.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that in the wording of the question, which was set out in the Government's White Paper called The 2001 Census of Population, published in March, the several tick-box categories proposed were "None"; "Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)"; "Buddhist"; "Hindu"; "Jewish"; "Muslim"; and "Sikh". A further category also allows for those who cannot find an appropriate category to tick to assign themselves to whatever religion they wish by using a write-in option. I hope that that goes some way towards putting the noble Lord's mind at rest.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, what when I considered moving the Bill, I, too, shared his concern about the possibility of happenings such as those he mentioned. However, I hope that I may put his mind at rest by quoting a letter which I received from Jon Sacker, Director of External Issues of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He stated:

    "The Jewish community in Britain has previously been opposed to such a question. After a debate in July 1999 at which all the pros and cons were fully aired, the Board of Deputies voted overwhelmingly to support the inclusion of the question.

    The concerns that have been raised are about personal security and confidentiality of data. These concerns are important and must be respected. But we have recognised that if personal security were ever to become an issue in Britain, our enemies would not need census files. Most Jews live in neighbourhoods that are easily recognised by synagogues, kosher food stores or Jewish schools. Information about Jewish people and organisations is more readily obtainable by reading Jewish newspapers or purchasing the guidebooks than by scanning the anonymous statistics of a census report".

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I hope that that puts the noble Lord's mind at rest.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was present, so perhaps I may remind your Lordships that during my Speakership of the other place I well remember Mr Enoch Powell pronouncing a sad truth. It was:

    "Small wonder that politicians too frequently get it wrong because they make guesses about the future guided by inaccurate statistics from the past".

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It is important that the next census is accurate. For the reasons stated, I believe that it is important that there should be a question on religion. It will be helpful if the Bill passes through both Houses in time for the 2001 census. I hope that it will be approved by the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

        House adjourned at twenty-one minutes before seven o'clock.

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