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Census (Amendment) Bill [H.L.]

Lord Weatherill: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Weatherill.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Lockwood) in the Chair.]

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Clause 1 [Particulars in respect of religion may be required in census]:

Lord Weatherill moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 1, line 7, at end insert--

("( ) In section 8 of that Act (penalties), after subsection (1) there shall be inserted--
"(1A) But no person shall be liable to a penalty under subsection (1) for refusing or neglecting to state any particulars in respect of religion."").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 1 stands in my name. The Census (Amendment) Bill is a short but nonetheless important Bill which will have the effect of making 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 Bill was generally welcomed when it received its Second Reading in this House on 27th January. I am grateful to your Lordships for supporting the measure in principle. However, in that debate some concerns were expressed, particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, from the Government Benches, that the proposed question on religion should be included in the census only on a voluntary basis and that there should not be a statutory penalty for not answering the question.

I have reflected with care on what your Lordships have had to say on the matter. I feel that we should take the arguments about a voluntary question seriously. In the interests of progressing the matter smoothly, and so that, as the noble Earl and other noble Lords wished, the Bill may pass to another place in a fit condition, I am proposing an amendment which would have the effect of removing the liability to a penalty under Section 8 of the Census Act for those persons who refuse or neglect to state in their census return any particulars in respect of religion. I have discussed the matter with the Minister and understand that he is sympathetic.

Amendment No. 2 is necessary because the Long Title of the Bill as drafted refers only to amending the schedule to the Census Act. Amendment No. 1, to which I have already spoken, is an amendment to Section 8 of that Act. I beg to move.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for moving the amendment, which is entirely acceptable. I believe that it will more or less meet the points I raised at Second Reading. I am glad that I shall not have to express my independence by failing to fill in that item in the census and that I will not risk a fine or imprisonment.

I understand however that, in the past, some people who failed to fill in the census form or answer a question were prosecuted. Therefore, in spite of my noble friend's assurances, people may well have been at risk had this amendment not been moved. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for moving it and I hope it will be accepted and passed tonight.

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Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord one question. He may not be able to answer. Will it be indicated on the census form that the question is voluntary? I am sure that it will be, but perhaps he could say at this stage how it will be indicated.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Monson: I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Weatherill on introducing this amendment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I too was distinctly uneasy at the prospect of an individual being fined for refusing to answer such a personal question. Of course, there are parts of the world where people are proud to have their religious affiliation blazoned across their chest, so to speak; but at the beginning of the 21st century, Britain is not one of them. Once again, the amendment is warmly to be welcomed.

Lord Newby: I do not want to strike too discordant a note in this debate, but I have some misgivings in relation to this amendment.

The arguments for this question to be included on the census form in terms of the benefit to public policy were eloquently made by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, at Second Reading, and I strongly supported them. But if we accept the premise that it is important for public policy purposes to include the question on the census form, it is equally important that it should be answered.

The view expressed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a number of the Churches is that the question should not be voluntary. The worry that might occur in people's minds if it was felt that the census was not a confidential document was dealt with at Second Reading. The truth is that there is no view in this country that an individual's census return will be opened and be available to public view. Therefore, if we accept that it is an important question, which we do, it should be treated four- square with all the other census questions and should not be voluntary.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, for asking whether there would be an indication on the census form that answering the question on religion is voluntary. The only difference between us is that, whereas he would like it included on the form, I would not.

Lord Monson: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask a question. I concede that this Bill is useful for public policy, but can he justify his assertion that it is "important" for public policy?

Lord Newby: If it were not important for public policy, there would be no point in doing it; that is what the census is for. The kind of public policy question for which the Bill will be of use is the planning of educational provision and of care provision. As Members of the Committee are aware, my fundamental point is that it is flawed; it does not allow the Christian box to be divided up between the various denominations to enable it to be of more use to public

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policy-making. But I have no doubt that, if the noble Lord, Lord Monson, were to ask any of the religious groups which it is proposed to include on the census form whether or not they thought it would be of value to them in planning provision in their community, he would receive a resounding "Yes".

Baroness Jeger: What happens to those of us who do not know and do not care? Will we be fined?

Baroness Richardson of Calow: I simply want to add to the earlier answer that was given. The report from the commission makes an estimate of the numbers who are affiliated to specific religions. If that is not known, only guesses can be made. I would always prefer that it be a question that people are required to answer. However, as the amendment has been moved, I see its sense. Only those who are willing and known to be affiliated to a religion will be able to answer the question in any case. I see no problem with the amendment and I am sure the Churches will be willing to support it.

Lord Hylton: I regret that I was overseas at the time of the Second Reading of this Bill. I find myself in the position of being a more old-fashioned liberal than the noble Lord, Lord Newby, speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. In my view, it is none of the state's business to inquire as to one's religious beliefs or affiliations. It is from that background that I welcome the amendment, which at least asserts the voluntary principle as to whether or not the question should be answered. Having said that, I add the caveat that the resulting statistics may not be entirely reliable.

The Earl of Northesk: Needless to say, we on these Benches support this amendment. Indeed, like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, we are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, for taking on board the concerns and reservations expressed at Second Reading.

I need not dwell on the purpose of the amendment. As ever, the explanation of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, has been clear and concise. It does not go quite as far as we might have wished in terms of making the question optional in a transparent way, but I acknowledge the technical argument of the Minister at Second Reading: that to do so could adversely affect the integrity of the census as a whole. None the less, I have the same minor niggle--if I can put it that way--as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Self-evidently, no penalty will attach to anyone refusing or neglecting to state any particulars in respect of religion. Inevitably, that begs the question of how respondents to the census are to be made aware of that fact. I accept that this is a matter of fine detail that will be more correctly dealt with in the appropriate Order in Council. But I hope that the Minister can give me some comfort, if not an outright guarantee, that the census form will be compiled in such a way that respondents are left in no doubt that no penalty will attach to a refusal to answer the question. I make the

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obvious point that without such guidance it is likely that only those who pay assiduous attention to our proceedings will be aware of the fact.

I take this opportunity to make one other small point. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, intervened at Second Reading to question the timing of this Committee. I hope that both noble Lords, Lord Weatherill and Lord McIntosh, will agree that special circumstances attach to this Bill and justify its speedy passage through this Chamber. It is on that basis that we on these Benches were prepared to acquiesce to the Committee stage being taken today. But I should not like to believe that any sort of precedent has been set for the customary waiting times between stages of a Bill being waived in the future. I hope that I can be given some reassurance on that point.

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