Amendment 1

Part of Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 18th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:45 pm, 18th June 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for tabling his amendments, and thank all those who have taken part in this debate. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that the census is an important civic event; we should all discharge our responsibilities and complete it. I will try and deal with the various issues that have been raised during the debate.

We had a useful and informed debate on this in Committee, when the noble and learned Lord did not press his amendments which sought to clarify whether removing the penalty also removed the offence. He did that after an offer to have further discussions before Report to see if there was a way through. I am very grateful to him, and to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who I saw having a discussion outside the Bishops’ Bar last week; I realised that if I joined it I would not understand a word that was exchanged, but I noticed that a cloud of white smoke emerged. They subsequently agreed to come to a meeting with Ministers and officials last week, where I hope we found a way through which satisfied all concerned. I hope that this afternoon we can validate this great meeting of minds.

In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, raised an important issue on ensuring that there is no ambiguity as to the voluntary nature of certain census questions in the minds of those who will answer them. By removing the penalty attached to a failure to answer, the clear parliamentary intention is to remove the criminal offence. I agree with him that from the point of view of the respondent—the most important person—this must be clear. So far as the guidance on the front of the form is concerned, we have no issue with his proposal. I can confirm that the Office for National Statistics is committed to the inclusion of wording on the front page of the census for England and Wales, as proposed in the amendment. This will make it clear that the census is compulsory, that some questions are voluntary and that not answering these voluntary questions is not an offence. I hope this commitment will meet the shared objective of the noble and learned Lord and others, and of the Government, on ensuring clarity for the public.

I also confirm that the voluntary questions in the form will be clearly marked as “voluntary”, as the amendments would require. This has been the case for the voluntary question on religion since its introduction in the 2001 census for England and Wales, and it has been effective. In each of the last two censuses, 4 million people in England and Wales—over 7% of the population—have chosen not to answer the religion question. This suggests that the public clearly understand this question to be voluntary.

To best fulfil the intent of the noble and learned Lord’s amendments, the wording on the form should be tested with the public to ensure that the messaging is as clear as possible, ahead of finalising the census questions. Stating the precise wording in the Bill would mean that it could not be amended in the light of that testing. The ONS is committed to carrying out this testing, following which the census forms for England and Wales will be put before Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, respectively, in census regulations. While the regulations are not amendable the ONS will engage with interested parties, including noble Lords, as it finalises the form and guidance.

The census is a devolved matter. Decisions on the questions, questionnaire and guidance to be issued in the 2021 censuses in Scotland and Northern Ireland are for the relevant authorities in those Administrations, through a similar secondary legislation process. I hope your Lordships agree that it would be inappropriate to make a decision for Northern Ireland, although we will of course make that Administration aware of the changes we propose for England and Wales through the ONS.

The secondary legislation for the 2021 census in England and Wales will begin to be brought forward later this year. As my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said, an Order in Council will set out the detail of the questions to be asked in the England and Wales census. That order is in part subject to the unusual amendable affirmative procedure before both Houses. It will be laid in the autumn and the regulations, to which I have already referred, will follow in 2020.

I will try to deal with some of the questions raised during the debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, asked about the questions being voluntary and whether the penalty for a false response should be removed. The answer is no: Parliament rejected an amendment to this effect in 2000 and it was right to do so. Not wishing to provide a response and wilfully providing a false response are different issues. Removing the penalty for providing a false response would pose a risk to the quality of census data in a way that allowing people not to provide an answer does not.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked about military service—as she said, I wrote to her on it. The Armed Forces question is there to help public services serve those who have served their country and is underpinned by the Armed Forces covenant. No one in the household will know whether an individual fills in their own return; it will overwrite the household return. She was concerned about a lodger who might not wish to disclose their previous service to their landlord or landlady. The landlord would fill in the form for the household, but the lodger could apply for their own census form and fill it in without the knowledge of the householder. That would override the household return. No alternative data source fully meets the data that we need.

I think that I have answered all the questions that were asked. I recognise the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and remind all noble Lords that we are happy to do a drop-in session to explore these points in more detail. Finally, I repeat my gratitude to the noble and learned Lord for his help in this matter and express the hope that, as a result of the commitments that I have given, he will not press his amendments.