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.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 3:34 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, it is plain in the fundamental Act that you can be punished by a fine only if you fail to answer a question which you are required to answer, or if you give false information in answering such a question. Therefore, if the question is not compulsory, there can be no penalty.

I do not want to discuss further the fine detail of the legal side of this. I leave it on the basis that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and I agree that what the people getting the form need to know is that the questions addressed by the Bill are voluntary. We want people to understand that, and know that there can therefore be no penalty, or anything else in the way of harm, if they do not answer them. That is the principal point and a matter the Government can undertake in the light of the Office for National Statistics having a point in this—it has to be satisfied with the poll.

The other thing is that the statute does not come into effect as a new census until there is an Order in Council, which last time was signed by no less a person than our distinguished friend the Leader of the Opposition when she was a Minister. We are very sad that she had to be absent recently due to acute personal problems, but we are delighted that she is back again and in time to pay a most distinguished tribute to our late friend Lady Hollis of Heigham. That is simply to emphasise the point that an Order in Council is required and, at that time, the census form is available in draft. Therefore, we shall have a chance to make sure the draft is in accordance with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, just said, with which I entirely agree.

We have had a lot of forms over the years and some are clearer than others. For example, I had some difficulty with the driver’s licence form over whether I had changed my name, which is an interesting question. Forms are not all equally plain. We are determined that the census form should be plain on this point: when a question is optional, it really is optional. That should be made very plain to the people who get the form.

To come to the second point the noble Baroness raised, one has to remember that, in all of this, there is no question of prosecution without the authority of the prosecuting authorities. Therefore, there is room for discretion in any particular case. I can see that sensitivities in the area the noble Baroness referred to might well be a considerable reason for difficulty. Therefore, the answer to that, so far as I am aware of any possible answer, is that if there was a real problem of that kind relating to a particular case, I would not expect the authorities to take any action in pursuance of punishment or anything of that sort.