Amendment 1

Part of Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Judge Lord Judge Judge 3:34 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I see many people are leaving. This is not riveting stuff so I do not recommend that your Lordships all stay.

In Committee in June I moved an amendment to the Bill that is rather difficult to follow unless you have the original 1920 Act before you, and I shall not bother the House with it. In summary, it required that there be an express provision in the Bill that if you elected not to answer questions to do with sexual orientation or gender, you would suffer no penalty. My amendment wanted to make it express that that would be no offence. We had a very interesting argument, to which I listened. I was told that the Commons had rejected such an amendment when it was considering the same provision in relation to religion in 2000, and that it would certainly complicate proceedings if the problem were dealt with in one way in relation to religion but differently in relation to sexual orientation and so on. I understood. Actually, there should have been a Bill covering the whole proceedings.

Then I was told that it might put us in England and Wales out of step with Scotland, then I understood that it worked perfectly well and then I was told that I was wrong as a matter of law. I did not agree that I was wrong as a matter of law, but the Minister had rather a powerful weapon up his sleeve: he asked me in a conversation after the Committee had concluded its discussions whether I would have a word with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. Everyone in this House knows that the noble and learned Lord is the oracle. When the noble Lord, Lord Young, suggested I speak to him, I thought, “Well, that’s the oracle”. What the noble Lord did not know, and there is no reason he should, is that the noble and learned Lord is also the Lord Chancellor who appointed me as a judge, so this was a real double whammy.

So of course I spoke to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. We had a conversation and we did not agree. I saw the force of what he was saying and he understood the point I was making, but our discussion revealed that we are doing a bit of a Don Quixote and tilting at windmills. Who will read the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill? No one. The form will simply arrive in your letterbox. What seemed to me—and, if I may say so, to him and, when we spoke to the Minister, to the Minister—to matter was that the form should be clear and unequivocal so that the individual citizen reading it should understand what it meant.

That is the purpose of this amendment: to forget, if I may say so, about esoteric points of law and concentrate on the practicalities. The amendment I have now tabled would deal with the front page of the census form so that it stated in terms that you would not commit any offence if you did not answer any of the questions. Within the census form itself, there would be a headline saying “Voluntary” and an explanation that the question was voluntary. I respectfully suggest that this would be a practical way of dealing with a rather refined legal problem, and I beg to move.