HC Deb 06 February 2001 vol 362 cc803-66

Order for Second Reading read.

3.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a small Bill, but it is not unimportant. Put simply, it allows serving and former ministers of religion to become Members of Parliament, where some of them were previously disqualified. It continues the disqualification of any bishops who sit in the other place as Lords Spiritual.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Minister says that the Bill does not apply to any bishops who sit in the other place. However, does it apply to bishops who do not sit in the House of Lords but are on the rota eventually to end up there?

Mr. O'Brien

Providing that bishops are not Lords Spiritual, the Bill will apply to them and they will be able to stand for Parliament if their Church permits them to do so.

From time to time, this place has a chance to do something that sends a message that we are just a bit better then we once were. The Bill provides such a chance.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am extremely interested in that statement, not least because I am always happy when the House of Commons proves that it is better than people think. Where has the need for the Bill arisen? What evidence exists to show that vast numbers of priests and clergy of various Churches are fighting their way on to candidates' lists?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall explain the current need for the measure; I hope that I can do that to my hon. Friend's satisfaction.

The Government believe that the current position on clergy disqualification is archaic. It stems from earlier bigoted, anti-Catholic legislation. If a person wishes to stand for Parliament, the electorate should decide whether he or she should become a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall give way for the last time on this occasion—[Interruption.] I shall give way later after making some progress.

Mr. Key

I cannot let the Minister get away with the comment that the earlier legislation was bigoted. He does not understand Church history. The measures were based not on bigotry against the Roman Catholic Church but on maintaining the Church in England and of England.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman may hold that view; others may beg to differ. Without digressing into a history lesson, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there was anti-Catholic legislation, which was repealed. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 was enacted to allow Daniel O'Connell to take his seat. He had been elected to represent County Clare, but was unable to take his seat because he was a Catholic.

Some ministers of religion are debarred from being Members of Parliament through the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801, and others by section 9 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. The Bill will repeal the 1801 Act, the relevant section of the 1829 Act, and several other provisions, which will become redundant.

Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups, including most nonconformist denominations, whose arrangements for ordaining ministers do not involve ordination by a bishop, are not affected by current legislation or the new Bill.

The House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 prevents Church of England clergy from becoming Members of Parliament. However, former priests can divest themselves of their clerical responsibilities through a procedure in the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870. If the electorate so decide, they can then take a seat in Parliament.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I shall make some progress and then give way to my hon. Friend.

No such procedure is available to ordained clergy of other episcopal Churches. If a Catholic priest wishes to give up his ministry, temporarily or permanently, and stand for Parliament, he is unable to take a seat if elected. He cannot apply to the equivalent of the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 and is likely to be debarred by the 1801 and 1829 statutes.

Most hon. Members are aware of the case of Mr. David Cairns, a former Catholic priest, who intends to stand as the Labour candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde at the next general election. If elected, he could be prevented from taking his seat in the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

That is what it is all about.

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Gentleman is right. [Interruption.] The Bill will remove old, prejudiced provisions from the statute book—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) must give the Minister a hearing.

Mr. O'Brien

The Bill will remove provisions that prevent a person who has been elected from taking a seat in the House of Commons. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to retain legislation that prevents someone who is no longer a practising Catholic priest from being a parliamentary candidate and taking his seat, he must argue his case.

Several hon. Members


Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene on that point?

Mr. O'Brien

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I want to make progress. Perhaps I shall then give way to one or two hon. Members.

The case of David Cairns has exposed the manifest absurdity of the present law. I hope that the House will agree that it is right that this matter should be attended to in the run-up to a general election, whenever that falls. A change in the law is relevant at such a time, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will deal with the matter sympathetically. I hope that they would do so whatever party David Cairns proposed to stand for.

Those who say that the Bill should not be passed are, in effect, saying that this man should not stand because he has been a priest. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) says from a sedentary position that he might object because Mr. Cairns is a Labour candidate. He is entitled to that rather prejudiced view, but he must be very open about it, and it is entirely a matter for him. I suggest that the present legislation is archaic and should not be on the statute book.

The case of David Cairns is clearly the reason for the Bill.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

Mr. Speaker, I have said that I shall not give way at this point.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has made it clear that he will not give way.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

At the time of the Queen's Speech, we thought that it might be possible to make the change without the need for a Bill. Legal advice now suggests that that is not the case, so the Bill is needed.

We could have concluded that the matter was not a priority, but that would have been to accept that David Cairns could not stand. Perhaps Labour could have found another candidate, but our only reason for doing so would have been the fact that the law prohibited David Cairns from standing. The law is wrong. The Catholic Church accepts that it should be changed and so do other Churches.

We cannot begin this century with a law based on the attitudes of two centuries ago or more. We are here because the issue confronts us now. The timing may not be convenient, but the issue is a genuine one and I do not believe that the House wants to acquiesce in any kind of bigotry or unacceptable, archaic legislation by omission.

In September 1998, the Home Affairs Committee on electoral law and administration recommended, at paragraph 127, volume 1, that all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for, and serving as, Members of Parliament be removed; the exception would be in respect of all serving bishops of the Church of England who, for so long as places are reserved for the senior bishops in the House of Lords, should remain ineligible to serve as Members of the Commons. The Government broadly share that view, and I shall come to the second part of the recommendation about bishops in more detail in a moment.

In June 1999, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) introduced a private Member's Bill that would have rectified the position. The Bill had cross-party support, but failed to make any progress on Second Reading. The Government were sympathetic, but wanted to consult the Churches before changing the law. They subsequently consulted the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Churches in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. All were content for the restrictions to be removed.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I have said that I want to make some progress. I shall give way in due course if need be.

It is already open to ministers of the Church of Wales, which is disestablished, to become Members of Parliament by virtue of the Welsh Church Act 1914, which overrides the 1801 Act.

Needless to say, the Government do not envisage a queue of members of the clergy pressing to become Members of Parliament. In the case of serving ministers or priests, that should be a matter between the Churches and the individuals concerned. As I said earlier, it is for the individual to decide whether to stand and for the electorate to determine whether he or she should sit in this House.

The Government believe that there should be no bar in public law to prevent members of the clergy from becoming MPs. However, it will be for Churches and their clergy to consider whether a member of the clergy can carry out his or her pastoral responsibilities effectively and properly while also sitting as an MP. I understand, for example, that the Pope does not accept serving priests being active in public office or in party politics, so we are unlikely to see serving priests, who carry out the mass, standing as MPs.

Why not introduce legislation simply to put Catholic priests on a similar footing to Church of England clergy and allow them to divest themselves of their clerical responsibilities? There are two answers to that question. First, I would expect Parliament to consider carefully whether it has the right to legislate on matters of doctrine or discipline in the Catholic Church, even if indirectly.

My understanding is that the Catholic Church considers that once a priest has been ordained, he remains a priest all his life, even if he no longer practises as one. Section 9 of the 1829 Act is simply a hangover from the days when the participation of Roman Catholics in public life was rejected. Today, the House can opt to get rid of that anachronism and leave the Roman Catholic Church to run its own affairs rather than try to regulate and legislate on the relationship between the Church and its priests.

The second reason not to put Catholic priests on the same basis as Church of England clergy rests on a 1951 Privy Council case. In Re MacManaway, the Privy Council decided that the 1801 Act disqualified not only persons ordained in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but all persons ordained by a bishop in accordance with either the order of the Church of England or other forms of episcopal ordination. In the particular case of Rev. James G. MacManaway, that included ordination in the Church of Ireland. Thus, in broad terms, any clergy ordained by a bishop are subject to the disqualification whereas clergy and ministers of religion not ordained by a bishop are not subject to the disqualification. Current restrictions, therefore, go wider than Roman Catholic clergy.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I promised to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). This might be a suitable moment to do so.

Dr. Godman

I am exceedingly grateful to the Minister. Am I right to think that the Bill extends to the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament? I have no doubt that all Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament and the overwhelming majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly would support it, but can I take it that discussions have taken place with the Executives of those legislatures?

Mr. O'Brien

The Executives will be aware of the provisions, but my hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that they will apply to the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament as they are already enacted in the devolution legislation. For example, there is no prohibition on a Roman Catholic priest becoming a Member of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Bercow

The Minister has fairly referred to the 1801 and 1829 Acts, but is he aware that it has been suggested by at least one eminent authority that to answer the question, "Can a priest sit in the House of Commons?", reference to no fewer than nine pieces of legislation dating back to the 16th century is required? I feel sure that the Minister is intimately familiar with each of the other seven and wonder whether he can enlighten the House.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to set out my great familiarity, of which I am sure he is well aware, with the other ancient and archaic pieces of legislation. Perhaps some are not so archaic; we shall have to wait and see. Parliamentary counsel have assured me that introducing a Bill referring to the 1801 and 1829 Acts will enable us to achieve the purpose that I hope the hon. Gentleman will endorse in due course. He nods; I am glad that he will do so.

Mr. Winnick

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I have to go to a meeting. Is he aware that I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee that produced the report that he mentioned? I hope that the Bill will be passed because, in a parliamentary democracy, people should not be disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons for religious or any other reasons. Surely that is the essence of what we are trying to achieve. Ours, I hope, is an all-inclusive parliamentary democracy, so such a measure should have been introduced a long time ago. There is no reason for anyone to want to oppose the Bill.

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I commend him for his part in ensuring that these matters were brought to the House's attention.

There is always pressure on parliamentary time, and there are always many Bills that Ministers and others want the House to debate. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned seven earlier pieces of legislation, and at some stage Members may wish to raise issues relating to those. The question for us, however, is this: at what point do we need to deal with these matters?

It is true that the case of David Cairns is pressing. I do not dispute that he is seeking to stand as a Labour candidate, and others may try to take party political advantage of that; but, in all sincerity, I do not think that Members should wish to prejudice any member of any political party who wished to stand—they should ensure that no such person is blocked by an old piece of legislation. Indeed, I hope that no legislation would prevent someone wishing to stand as a Scottish National party candidate from at least being tested by the electorate. I suspect, however, that, once tested by the electorate, such a candidate would be rejected by the electorate.

Mr. McLoughlin

The Minister has clearly relaxed into his speech. He described the Bill as a tidying-up measure that is necessary in view of a general election which, as we well know, could take place in the next 14 months. Can he tell us—bearing in mind the competence of the Home Office, which we all admire—when he expects postal vote forms to be available so that people can exercise their votes?

Mr. O'Brien

I very much hope that they will be ready on 16 February. I am not sure how that relates to the Bill, but I am sure that David Cairns—if, indeed, he is able to stand for Parliament—will be pleased to hear about it.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Will the Minister confirm that Mr. David Cairns, whom no one bears any ill will, must have known the law before he applied for selection to his local Labour party?

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman says that Mr. Cairns must have known the law. In fact, the law is very complex. We have been looking at it over the past few months.

The hon. Gentleman may well ask why, if we knew about this matter then, we did not include it in the Queen's Speech. At that stage, we were not sure how its provisions would operate. We are dealing with the interrelationship between the way in which Catholic Church canon law operates and the way in which legislation passed by this Parliament operates. One of the questions is, "At what point does a person cease to be a priest?" That person may continue to be a priest under the canon law of the Catholic Church, but does that necessarily mean that he will continue to be a priest under this legislation? Unfortunately, the existing legislation is somewhat ambiguous in that regard.

As the hon. Gentleman will see if he consults section 9 of the 1829 Act, it appears to suggest that acceptance that a person has conducted a mass constitutes recognition that that person is a priest. That appears to be an on-going recognition—a recognition that the person continues to be a priest. The issue is not entirely clear, however. We cannot allow a situation whereby, if David Cairns stood and the people chose to elect him, an old piece of legislation which I suspect no one would seriously support—I should be surprised if anyone did, but let us wait and see—prevented him from taking his seat.

The case has presented us with a dilemma. We considered it until Christmas, by which time it was clear to me that we needed primary legislation. We therefore presented the Bill at the first opportunity.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Should my hon. Friend not sound altogether more enthusiastic about the fact that priests and former priests are queueing up to stand as Labour candidates and support the Labour party? Is not the pique displayed by Conservative Members caused by the fact that although they used to pride themselves on being described as the Church of England at prayer, they have long since lost the support of all the Churches in the country?

Mr. O'Brien

I am waiting to hear whether the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) thinks that the Catholic Church and other Churches are likely to support her position. It is interesting, however, that she, I and you, Mr. Speaker, all belong to the denomination dealt with in previous legislation which sought to prevent Catholic priests from becoming members of this place. The new legislation perhaps indicates how much this place has changed and how much our society has improved. Indeed—if I may be obsequious now in the hope of craving your indulgence later—we are all very pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien

Will it be a sensible intervention?

Mr. Fabricant

Yes, as always. The Minister kindly sat on the Treasury Bench while I was doing my cost-benefit analysis. Subsequently, he has talked about the number of priests who wish to become hon. Members. However, has he made an analysis of the number of former Labour Members who may wish to become priests?

Mr. O'Brien

I should have known.

I should like to deal with the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations on bishops. There are about 40 Church of England bishops who could qualify to sit in the other place as Lords Spiritual. At any one time, only 26 are summoned to be Lords Spiritual. The Government's view is that it is those bishops who should be disqualified from House of Commons membership, as they already have a "voice" in Parliament.

I should perhaps add that if that number were to change as a result of proposals for reform of the other place, the number of bishops who were disqualified would change. However, the general principle would not be affected. The Committee's recommendation was to continue the prohibition on all bishops from the House of Commons. Although it must be unlikely that bishops would wish to become Members of Parliament while they perform their duties as bishops, the Government feel that it is right to lessen the statutory restrictions and to allow anyone who wishes to stand as a Member of Parliament—except for bishops who have a voice in the legislative procedures, the Lords Spiritual—to do so.

There is no bar to clergy or bishops being elected to the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the National Assembly for Wales, and the House will recall that it accepted those arrangements when the devolution legislation was passed. Nor is there any bar on clergy or bishops being elected as local councillors or mayors. That has worked perfectly well and there has been no backlash, no abuse and no discord in those arrangements. The Westminster position is increasingly anomalous, but the Bill helps to rectify that anomaly.

I hope I have shown that the Bill will be useful in removing some archaic and unnecessary restrictions. I also hope that the House will agree that it is a worthwhile and an uncontroversial measure.

Mr. Forth


Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Gentleman again says that he does not think that the Bill is uncontroversial. We have introduced the Bill because someone who happens to be a Labour candidate would be disqualified without it. I do not think that any hon. Member, including the right hon. Gentleman, really thinks that there is a reason other than party partisanship to maintain such an exclusion. I therefore hope that I can count on his support, which I would value.

Mr. Bercow

I can tell the Minister and the wider public who have an interest in the matter that there will be a free vote on the measure for Members of the official Opposition. Can he assure us that the matter is the subject of a free vote for Labour Members, too; or are they, as usual, the old robots being whipped into line?

Mr. O'Brien

I do not think that there would be the slightest problem with people voting for the legislation; I would be surprised if there were. I have not discussed with the Whips whether there will be a free vote, and I am not sure that it will particularly matter. We shall have to wait and see whether anyone feels that he or she really wants to vote against the measure. I will listen with care to the debate, and at the end I may be able to give a more considered response to the hon. Gentleman.

The disqualification provisions no longer perform a useful function, if they ever did. It is time that they were swept away and the relevant legislation was repealed.

I commend the Bill to the House.

4.15 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I hope that the debate will remain good natured, but I found rather arrogant the Minister's assumption that there could be no possible opposition to the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has pointed out already, the Opposition are making this a free vote because we acknowledge that issues of conscience are involved, and people may have extremely strong views in both directions.

That is exemplified by the opinions of the shadow Home Office team. I am not ecstatic about the Bill, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is extremely enthusiastic. However, I am not so arrogant as to imagine that there cannot be two views, so I rather regret the tone of the last part of the Minister's speech.

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend pointed out that the Bill could—and, indeed, should—arouse issues of conscience, but does she agree that constitutional issues might also be involved? The Bill touches on the composition of this House, and that cannot be unrelated to the composition of another place. Do not profound constitutional issues flow directly from the Bill?

Miss Widdecombe

Indeed, and if my right hon. Friend had restrained himself for only a few seconds he would have heard me come to exactly that point. I began with the question of conscience because I thought that the end of the Minister's speech rather dismissed it as unimportant.

My right hon. Friend will be glad to hear that I do not believe that we should dismiss too lightly the Bill's constitutional implications. For hundreds of years—and not merely since the reformation—the politics of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were dominated by questions of religion. As late as the 20th century, Parliament passed legislation, such as the Welsh Church Act 1914, that dealt with religion. There is an on-going debate today about whether the Church of England should be disestablished. In many ways, to many communities in the United Kingdom, questions of religion are no less relevant today than they were decades, or hundreds of years, ago.

I believe that a priest's vocation is lifelong. Speaking personally, and as one of the three Roman Catholic Members mentioned by the Minister, I would not want a priest to give up his vocation to enter this place, or to mix duties in the House with those in what I consider to be a consecrated office. A priest's office is very precious and spiritual, and it is different from that of a Member of Parliament. I cannot believe that the Minister, who is of the same persuasion as I, does not recognise that that view is held forcefully by quite a large number of people.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The right hon. Lady will have noted that I said in my speech that the Pope takes the view—as, I believe, does the Church of England—that practising priests and clergy should not be active in public life or in a political party.

Miss Widdecombe

That is so, and we must take that opinion into account when considering these matters. I do not believe that being a Member of Parliament is compatible with the priestly vocation. Like the priesthood, it involves a huge commitment, both in this Chamber and outside. I do not believe that a Member of Parliament could represent constituents adequately while continuing to serve as a full-time priest, or that a priest could administer to his flock adequately while undertaking duties as a full-time Member of Parliament.

I come now to the detail of what is a short but extremely important Bill. A point that may be explored in Committee has been touched on already, and I suspect that it will arise again. It has to do with the position of the more junior Anglican diocesan bishops who are not currently Lords Spiritual.

As I read it, the Bill will allow those bishops to sit in this House. I note that the Select Committee on Home Affairs stated in paragraph 127 of its fourth report of 1997–98 that the exception would be in respect of all serving bishops in the Church of England who, for so long as places are reserved for their senior bishops in the House of Lords, should remain ineligible to serve as Members of the Commons. If I have read the Bill correctly, the Minister is not following that recommendation, but is allowing all Church of England bishops who are not currently eligible for membership of the House of Lords to be eligible for membership of this place. The Select Committee had reason, rather than prejudice, when it recommended that all serving bishops in the Church of England should be disqualified.

Not all Anglican bishops, as the Select Committee recommended, but only those who sit as Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords will be exempted under the Bill. What would happen if, through death or retirement, a member of this House succeeded to one of the seats reserved for senior Anglican bishops in the other place? I presume that a by-election would have to be held. What consideration has the Minister given to that question?

It would be useful for the Committee of the whole House to consider whether it would still be appropriate to disqualify all Anglican bishops, as the Select Committee recommended. The Anglican episcopacy is already well represented in another place—it is, at any rate, represented in another place. I simply pose this question: should junior Anglican bishops be constitutionally allowed to sit in this House when senior Anglican bishops already have seats explicitly reserved for them in another place?

I am not particularly puzzled about why we are considering the Bill now. However, is it not rather odd that the Minister should have prayed in aid the Select Committee report of 1997–98, which is nearly three years old? Since then, there have been two pieces of legislation on electoral matters in which this issue could have been encompassed if the case were as utterly unanswerable and unarguable as the Minister suggested. I refer to the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—but, however unanswerable and unarguable Ministers apparently thought the case, this issue was not included in either Act.

Mr. Fabricant

Is my right hon. Friend surprised to learn, as I have just learned, that whereas we have a one-line Whip for a Bill that we regard as a matter of conscience—and which I will be supporting—the Government are pushing the Bill through, at this late stage, on a three-line Whip?

Miss Widdecombe

I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on knowing more than the Minister, who had not a clue about what his usual channels were proposing with regard to a free vote.

I am disappointed because traditionally in this House, Church matters have been subject to a free vote. I remember the very lively debate on the ordination of women as priests. That was subject to a free vote. Other debates, perhaps less lively, on the ordination of divorced persons as clergy and several other Church issues have been subject to a free vote. I am not surprised, because this is a very dictatorial Government, but I am disappointed.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Before the right hon. Lady moves on from her very interesting point about suffragan bishops, does she seriously believe that the Church of England would appoint a suffragan bishop who was a full-time Member of this House to a diocesan bishopric? If not—as is almost certainly the case—that bishop would have no chance of becoming a Member of the other place anyway.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman has a great deal more faith than I do in what the Church of England might or might not do. I have no idea whether it would make such an appointment, but our duty is not to second guess the judgments of others; it is to try to establish a coherent set of rules that will cause as few problems as possible.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

May I suggest to the right hon. Lady that one of the differences between a whipped vote on this issue and free votes on the other issues that she cites is that, on those issues, we were receiving measures from the Church of England for consideration? We were not initiating those measures. On such occasions, we usually have a free vote. May I also suggest that, if we were to have a free vote on this matter, it would make no difference to Labour support for the measure?

Miss Widdecombe

I usually have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman. I was expecting an extremely difficult intervention from him, but that piece of sophistry is rather disappointing. He suggests that if Church business is initiated by the Government, conscience does not come into play and a three-line Whip can be imposed, whereas if the measure originates from the Church, the matter is entirely different. That is a piece of reasoning to which the right hon. Gentleman would normally award delta double minus if he were in his usual form.

Mr. Field


Miss Widdecombe

The right hon. Gentleman is not in his usual form, so I ask him to sit still for a bit and regain it. Perhaps later on, when he has thought about the ludicrous proposition that he has just made, I might be happy to take a further intervention.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's second point—that a free vote would make no difference—if we applied that logic to issues of conscience, we would be whipped on some that were extremely serious, and he would be the first to decry the practice. We know why the measure is being whipped: because this constitutional business is not being undertaken on its own merits, but for a particular Labour candidate in a particular constituency.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The right hon. Lady is certainly in excellent form; I congratulate her on that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made the point that synodical and Government legislation are dealt with differently. The right hon. Lady is right to point out that we could have a vote of conscience on Government legislation. However, is she really telling the House that a slight change in our electoral law to permit clergy, or others, to stand for Parliament is a matter of conscience?

Mr. Forth

The change is for a Labour party candidate.

Mr. Bell

The right hon. Gentleman intervenes more often from a sedentary position than he ever does standing up. He knows full well that the measure has nothing to do with an individual parliamentary candidate; it meets a long-standing Labour obligation to rectify the constitution and rid it of a small anomaly.

Miss Widdecombe

The hon. Gentleman renders beautifully to Caesar, but he is not wholly convincing. The change is not small; it is major. I do not say that just because a provision has been on the statute book for a long time, it can never be overturned, but the measure overturns a long-standing law. It is not a slight change; it is one that will mean a great deal to many people.

Before that long series of interventions—some clever and some not so clever—I was saying that—

Mr. Fallon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for taking one more intervention; I am not sure in which category she would place it.

My right hon. Friend refers to timing. Although the Bill might well favour Mr. David Cairns, does she agree that, as it is being introduced so late in this Parliament, it also discriminates against people who might have wanted to pursue a parliamentary route but who did not offer themselves for selection by either party? Such measures should be introduced on an all-party basis at the beginning of a Parliament, rather than at its tail end.

Miss Widdecombe

I am extremely sympathetic to my hon. Friend's point—in other circumstances, the Minister would be sympathetic too. It is undeniable that, during the course of this Parliament, opportunities have arisen for the introduction of the measure at a stage when more than one particular candidate could have benefited. However, the point is theoretical; we shall never know whether there would have been other candidates. For the reasons that I outlined, I hope not. We will never know whether others—perhaps from other parties or, perhaps, from the Labour party—might have benefited from the measure, but we know that the opportunities were there.

Before that long series of interventions, I was saying that the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 could have provided an opportunity to introduce such a measure. There was a Select Committee report, and a very distinguished one at that. I might not agree with all its detail, but it was well thought out and properly presented. However, it has not been acted upon, so the Bill cannot be described as a tidying-up measure.

Indeed, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) reminded the Government about the matter when she introduced the House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill under the ten-minute rule in June 1999, before both the Acts to which I refer were even published. So despite the fact that there has been a Select Committee report, a ten-minute Bill and two Acts, the Government did not think it worth while to introduce this very important measure until a particular prospective parliamentary Labour candidate needed to take advantage of it.

The Minister's determination to introduce what he ignored for four years is now so great that there is a three-line Whip and a rushed Bill has been introduced right at the end of this Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has said, the Bill will probably benefit only one person. I agree that if such a measure has to be introduced, it should be done on an all-party basis either at the beginning of a Parliament or at the end of a Parliament, but to take effect after the next one, rather than being done only to ensure that an individual—however worthy he may or may not be—can stand for election.

Although my views on such matters differ from those of many other hon. Members, I recognise that an anomaly exists and that there is a case to be made, but it is being made in entirely the wrong context and in too rushed and too cursory a fashion. Therefore, I am afraid that I shall not be able to support the Bill. That is not a party position; Conservative Members, unlike Labour Members, are perfectly free to take their own line, but I find intriguing the possibility of a priest in holy orders—which demand poverty, chastity and obedience—functioning in the House, but strange things happen.

Mr. Forth

I may wish to develop this theme if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend mentions obedience. In this context, would she care to elaborate on obedience to whom? Is not it perfectly possible that if the Bill were unfortunately passed and an ordained priest were duly elected, there could be a very serious and real conflict of loyalty between obedience to the Caesars of the House and perhaps to other authorities elsewhere?

Miss Widdecombe

Clashes between God and Caesar are not unknown to those of us who take such matters seriously. I think that my right hon. Friend was hinting at the fact—we shall probably hear a lot later—that he believes that people of my persuasion are somehow dominated by some interesting European power, rather than by the monarch and Parliament. That is not so. I find intriguing the possibility that a priest with those vows should function here, but strange things happen. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that issues of Church and state are being determined by the self-interest of an obscure prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour party in Greenock and Inverclyde.

4.34 pm
Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

Unlike some Members, I welcome the Bill as it will remove what are essentially discriminatory and outdated disqualifications from becoming a Member of Parliament. The Bill attempts to correct some of the inconsistencies in our complex electoral law. Although it will introduce only modest reform, it forms part of a wider debate that includes issues of fairness, choice and the changed relationship today between the Churches and the state.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Where is she?"' I shall come to that point. When my hon. Friend introduced a ten-minute Bill to end the disqualification on the clergy taking a place in the House, she concluded by saying: Fundamentally, the rationale behind those antique statutes passed away a very long time ago, and those statutes have no place in the parliamentary electoral law of our multicultural society, with its community of religious faiths, as we prepare to enter the 21st century."—[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 394.] If this Bill is seen through successfully, the first election of the 21st century will not be marred by the continuation of those discriminatory statutes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done on this issue, but I am afraid that she cannot be with us today.

We cannot expect to promote a fair and more equal society—a tolerant, multi-faith and multicultural society—when we continue to draw distinctions on religious grounds with regard to eligibility to sit in the House. The Bill will remove the majority of those distinctions and, therefore, will be an addition to the democracy within our system. It is essentially about equal rights—the equal rights of our citizens to sit in the House. I see this as a matter not of conscience—I understand why some see it that way—but of equal rights.

It is clearly undemocratic that a potential candidate for election could, first, be selected by his or her party and, secondly and more important, receive a mandate from the electorate, but be unable to take up the seat because of restrictions embedded in complex electoral law.

The leading constitutional expert, Professor Robert Blackburn, has said that this aspect of the law is incoherent, illogical and virtually impossible for anyone except a legal expert to discover. The existing arrangement has become a barrier to the provision of equal rights and, as such, responsibility for removing it lies with the House.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Lady said that the candidate had been properly selected but, presumably, the local party organisation either knew or would have been advised that a legal obstacle would prevent that candidate, if elected, from taking his seat in the House. I presume that it went ahead with the selection on that basis. Was that not irresponsible of the local party and the individual himself?

Ms Ryan

The Labour party selects candidates on the basis of equal rights in the party. I am suggesting that candidates should be able to put themselves before the electorate on exactly the same basis.

Dr. Godman

I hope to elaborate on this point if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to make it clear that the local party in Greenock and Inverclyde did not behave irresponsibly. I can give my hon. Friend my word on that.

Ms Ryan

I accept that word.

We have a pressing responsibility. A case in which the electorate granted an electoral candidate the right to sit in the House, only for him to have that right denied, has already occurred in the MacManaway case and could have occurred again when Bruce Kent stood in 1992. We should not wait for such an unacceptable case to occur again before we decide to reform the law, although I accept the point that we have had other opportunities to do that.

One of the basic duties of the House is to serve our citizens—to protect their rights and to protect and enhance democracy. As soon as we know that a piece of legislation inhibits equal rights—in this case, there are numerous such pieces—we should act to change or remove it. We should not wait until an individual is placed in a position where he or she cannot take up a seat when elected, and we are forced to remove the disqualification in those circumstances.

Given the amount of time that the legislation has been in force—on the whole, unnecessarily so—it would be difficult to claim that we are taking a lead in the matter. We at least have the opportunity to jump before we are pushed, and this debate on removing the disqualification is taking place not a minute too soon.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Lady emphasises that the matter has been a festering sore for a long time. I hope she will accept that considered study of the historical background is entirely appropriate on whatever side of the argument one happens to sit. What assessment has she made of the report of the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification in the 1952–53 Session?

Ms Ryan

I have considered the history. It is because of that and my view of equal rights that I am pleased that the Government have introduced the Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ryan

No, I should like to make progress.

Discovering the history of the disqualifications is not for the weak hearted. The intrepid researcher has to begin somewhat earlier than the 1950s, around the 1670s, and plough through numerous conflicting statutes, common law and Privy Council decisions, taking in the constitutional conflict of the MacManaway case, the possible conflict caused by Bruce Kent's decision to stand for election and the problems that may arise in the near future.

The conclusion of such research is that some clergy are able to stand for Parliament, but others are not; some clergy are able to resign their orders to stand, but others are not; certain Christian clergy are disqualified from sitting in the House by statutory provision, but ministers of other religious faiths are eligible; the imam and the rabbi—should their religious organisations agree—could take up a seat in the House, but a Roman Catholic minister would be disqualified from doing so.

The matter has been further complicated by a later decision by the Privy Council, which meant that those clergy who are episcopally ordained are subject to disqualification, whereas nonconformists are not. Although the Clergy Disqualification Act 1870 contains a provision that enables clergy of the Church of England to renounce their position so that they are free to stand for election and take up their seat in the House after six months, there is no parallel procedure for the clergy of other religions.

However, I would not seek such a parallel procedure because it would only make some people less unequal than they are now. If a parallel procedure were introduced, all those people who are episcopally ordained—whether Roman Catholic or Church of England—could renounce their positions and take up a seat after six months, but they would still suffer inequality in relation to ministers who are not episcopally ordained and who could take up their seats with no requirement to renounce their position and wait six months.

We can conclude that the present framework is inconsistent and discriminatory, deriving from multiple sources over different periods of time. The reasons for the prohibitions have long since lapsed or become irrelevant and, as such, can no longer be justified. Roman Catholic priests are no longer thought of negatively by the state and Anglican clergy no longer represent the fourth estate to the realm. The context in which the decision to implement such restrictions was first taken is no longer relevant in modern society.

The lack of clarity in the law is made more incomprehensible by the fact that there is no relation between the active engagement of a minister and his eligibility for Parliament. An active nonconformist minister could stand in a constituency where his church is situated and where many of the electors are of the same belief, but a retired episcopally ordained priest who had changed his personal beliefs and had no adherence would be disqualified from taking up a seat. It is clear, then, that it would be too simplistic to say that those who wish to take up seats in the House should simply resign their orders.

That is especially pertinent for Roman Catholic ministers. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 states: No person in holy orders in the Church of Rome shall be capable of being elected to serve in Parliament as a Member of the House of Commons. It is that definition of holy orders that causes conflict. It can be argued under ecclesiastical law that, once a Roman Catholic priest has been ordained, he will remain in holy orders whether or not he remains active. The law does not, therefore, recognise the status of ex-Catholic priests, so the current arrangements effectively conspire to prevent them from ever taking up their seats, if they are elected. Why should the state legally prevent some ministers from making a choice about their career, while other clergy are free to do so? A civil servant can resign and choose to enter politics, while the existing electoral law prevents some members of the clergy from doing the same.

It is of course reasonable to argue that there is a deal of tension between the role of a Member of Parliament and that of a practising minister of religion. Whether or not it is desirable for members of the clergy to stand for Parliament is a separate question for debate. However, such decisions are matters not for legislation but for the custom of individual faiths or ecclesiastical law. The Bill would officially make the eligibility of the clergy of all religions to sit in this House a matter for the Churches and other religious organisations involved.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if someone has been ordained as a priest but, no matter how deeply held his views, feels unable to continue as a priest, the House and its Members have no right to prevent him from pursuing another career, if he wishes to do so?

Miss Widdecombe

Priesthood is a vocation, not a career.

Ms Ryan

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) says that this is a matter of vocation. The point is that it is not a matter for us, and it is a question of equal rights. However someone's career, occupation or vocation is defined, legislation should not prevent that person from entering the House.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

As I understand it, the hon. Lady is arguing for the Bill on the basis of equal rights for different religions. Does she hold the same argument on the established Church of England? Would she argue for disestablishment?

Ms Ryan

I thought that I had made myself clear: I am arguing for the removal of the disqualification of clergy; I am not discussing the disestablishment of the Church of England.

There are no grounds for continuing to distinguish between the clergy of different religions in this matter. Whether or not ministers of any religious groups should be able to be elected to the House is a matter of choice for the electorate and the parties and religious groups involved, not a matter for legislation. This disqualification does not exist in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, local government or the European Parliament; those bodies have not had to consider a Bill such as this.

The relationship between the various Churches and the state has changed immeasurably since the first discriminatory measures were introduced, and it is now time to reform them. Reform must be based on equal rights for all citizens, be they ministers of religion, ex-ministers of religion or, indeed, not ministers at all. The playing field must be level. We cannot have legislation that lays down different rules for different religious organisations. That is a matter not for the House but for the organisations themselves.

The implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes these changes even more timely. Existing electoral law could be deemed to be a breach of the convention on human rights on several counts. Article 14 of the convention refers to religious discrimination; article 9 refers to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and article 11 to freedom of assembly and association. Article 3 of the first protocol sets out the right to free elections. It is important that we act to remove clerical disabilities in relation to membership of the House before a situation arises where our human rights record is called into question.

The Bill will help to clarify—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am being disrupted by chatter from both sides of the House. I wish it would cease. I want to listen to the hon. Lady.

Ms Ryan

The Bill will help to clarify the relationship between the state and religious groups in this area of electoral law, and will remove some of the complex arrangements for which the state has legislated that create inequality rather than ensure equal rights. Far from interfering in matters that should be left to the discretion of individual religious leaders, the Bill will enable exactly that to happen. It will reduce the influence of the state to some degree.

The Bill is a modest measure. There are many other issues that we should debate, many of which have been raised by Opposition Members from an sedentary position. However, the Bill can achieve an important reform of equal rights. I commend its Second Reading.

4.51 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

One of the delights of being a Member of Parliament is that we have the opportunity to explore rare legal and historical byways from time to time, and this is one of those occasions. Perhaps I should start by declaring that I do not have an interest. When volunteers were called for, I was a little slower than others in taking one pace backwards.

The topic is arcane in the extreme. As a nonconformist—as a Baptist and now a member of the Methodist church—I am not affected by the proposed exemption or legislation, unlike previous speakers who claim so to be. I believe not in the ordained priesthood but in the priesthood of all believers. It would create a problem for the Chamber if that belief were applied in the sense of the Privy Council's decision of 1951. I do not hold with bishops, and to save an intervention from a Conservative Member, it is my party's policy that the Church of England should be disestablished, as the Church in Wales and elsewhere has already been.

I approach the issue from a direction that is diagonally different from those who have already spoken.

Mr. Bercow

Even diametrically different.

Mr. Stunell

It might be diametrically different, but I think that it is more diagonally, and I chose my words carefully.

Fortunately, all Members are equal, although some are more equal than others. I suspect that the reality is that we all recognise that we are faced with legislation that has long outgrown any purpose or value that it had.

If we go back to 1801—we are repealing the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801, among other measures—legislation was introduced because a Church of England priest won an election for Old Sarum. That was when the issue arose. The 1801 legislation was the product of a specific electorial event to decide whether the Rev. Horne Tooke—a name to conjure with, if ever there was—should take his place in the House.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stunell

Why not? The opportunity to repeat that name is always to be welcomed.

Mr. Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at that time, there was not an established party system, as there is now. Does he realise that when the 1801 Act took its place on the statute book, there would not have been a three-line Whip? Is he as surprised as I am that the issue before us, which is primarily one of conscience, is subject to a three-line Whip on the Government Benches, whereas on the official Opposition Benches it is subject to a one-line Whip?

Mr. Stunell

I may have a slight advantage over the hon. Gentleman in age and experience, so I am not at all surprised.

The Bill attempts to look back only 172 years, since when there has been mess, delay and dither on the issue. Fifty-one years ago, Rev. MacManaway—another name to conjure with—created yet another opportunity for the House to look seriously at the situation. There was much detailed thought, but the opportunity to take action and reform matters was thrown away. Three years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs had another go and made recommendations.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made some potent points about why on earth those matters were not considered in electoral legislation that has come before the House since then. However, the fact that opportunities have been missed in the past does not mean that we should fail to take them now. The Home Affairs Committee report stated that there is a picture almost totally lacking in consistency or, in modern terms, any rational basis. Restrictions apply only to Christian ministers and not those of any other faith. They differ between Anglican priests, Roman Catholic priests and non-conformist clergy. And the position differs in England, Scotland and Wales.

One might have understood the position if Church of England clergy were not permitted to offer themselves for election to the House. After all, bishops have a route into the House of Lords. Extraordinarily, however, the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 permits them to relinquish and make their way into the House in certain circumstances. On the other hand, Roman Catholic priests, orthodox priests and Church of Scotland ministers who have no route into the House of Lords cannot seek relief or get excused. Retired orthodox priests cannot offer themselves, but imams, shamans and rabbis certainly can. Presbyterians in England are in a different position from those in Scotland, and retired Anglican vicars in Wales are in a different position from those in England.

The situation is a hotchpotch. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that, contrary to what the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, it is not the case that former Roman Catholic priests cannot offer themselves to the House. They can, if they have been defrocked. Defrocked priests can offer themselves, but those who have merely retired cannot.

Mr. Forth

They know what to do about that.

Mr. Stunell

The right hon. Gentleman would have to go through several stages if he wanted to enter the House via that route. However, that is a matter for him.

The House already has ordained Members—obviously not ordained by bishops, or they would not be here. However, I hope that provides some answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who asked whether it is appropriate to mix those two careers.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Gentleman confirmed the difference between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. Church of Scotland ministers are not ordained by bishops; they are members of an established church. That is the issue.

Mr. Stunell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his informed intervention.

I want to make the general point that it is unusual to hear Conservative Front-Bench Members make the case that those who come into the House should have only one job. It is very much the norm for Conservative Members to have two jobs in Opposition; when challenged, they always claim that that brings advantages to the House. I wonder whether the work load and demands involved in being a Queen's Counsel differ greatly from those of a priest. Certainly, the profession is better paid, but the work load and demands are not very different.

I want to put it clearly on the record that Liberal Democrat Members certainly want an end to the anomalies that the existing legislation creates. We want to end the outdated religious discrimination that underlies it, and the Bill delivers that, albeit late in the day. It is, in principle, right, and we shall support it on Second Reading.

Mr. Bercow

Earlier, I made the point that, for Conservative Members, this is a free vote. I asked whether it was for Government Members and, eventually, it became clear that it was not. Is it a free vote for free-thinking Liberal Democrat Members?

Mr. Stunell

I was about to say that for the Liberal Democrats, every vote is a free vote.

The question that the Government have not answered, and which they must answer, is whether the measure is at the top of their list of priority reforms for this Parliament. I remind the Minister that the second stage of Lords reform, the introduction of legislation for the devolution of regions in England and a referendum on proportional representation are outstanding. Those all appeared in the Labour manifesto, but the removal of clergy disqualification certainly did not.

There must be more than a suspicion that, whereas progress on those matters has been slow because the Government fear the loss of influence and of power, the Bill has been accelerated because it is in the interests of their candidate in Greenock and Inverclyde. It is a pity that such a modest and long overdue reform is tainted with Government self-interest. It would be nice, just for once, to see reform that was exactly that—reform—rather than it turning out to be expedience dressed up as virtue.

I seek an assurance from the Minister. Should the unthinkable happen and the Bill not make progress in this parliamentary Session, would he still see it as an urgent priority in the next Parliament, when his party's pressing need for it will have evaporated? The test of reformers is that they are ready to reform, even when it is not solely in their own interest.

We wish the Bill well; it is long overdue. The pity is that it is tarnished by its cynical timing and its opportunistic intentions.

5.1 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who said that, as the provision has been on the statute book since 1801, we have dithered in removing it. That is probably true, although it sits ill with the view that the Bill is being rushed through Parliament for the benefit of a particular prospective parliamentary candidate.

I was interested in the intervention of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who makes some fine interventions on the Floor of the House. He said that in 1801, we did not have the party system. At that time, there was the Napoleonic throne and William Pitt was Prime Minister. Macaulay stated in his "History of England" that the system of parties began in 1843. As this is a wide-ranging debate, I throw in that insignificant and irrelevant piece of information.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Bell

I await the Exocet missile that will come from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow

Not at all. It is always a pleasure to joust, in the friendliest way, with the hon. Gentleman. My question is simple. Why was the measure non-urgent after 197 years of the anomaly, and why has it become spectacularly urgent after 200 years?

Mr. Bell

I am grateful for that intervention, to which I am able to respond. I imagine that the reason behind the Government's thinking, to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred, was that the legislation has the support of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and Ireland. That being the case, the legislation is appropriate for the statute book.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is right. As I said, a private Member's Bill was introduced. The Government did not support it at that stage because we wanted to consult the Churches. We have now consulted them and they have indicated their support. Moreover, a particular case has presented itself and, if we did not change the law now, someone whom the people might wish to elect would be prevented from standing.

Mr. Bell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and for referring to the case of a particular individual. As the House likes its history lessons, we can go back to the case of Charles Bradlaugh, who was regularly elected and would not swear the oath on the Bible, but wished to affirm and could not do so. It was many years before that anomaly was removed from the statute book.

I speak as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The Church of England welcomes the Government's intention to legislate to remove the disqualification, except in the case of Lords Spiritual.

The Bill responds to a long-standing wish of the General Synod and of other Churches. We have had some debate on whether bishops who are not yet Lords Spiritual should be permitted to become Members of the House, and it has been asked whether such a practice will cause a great number of by-elections. I am reminded of a Dean Inge phrase that was liked by Winston Churchill: I've had a great many worries, most of which never happened. Some of the scenarios about which hon. Members have heard today are not likely to happen during most of our parliamentary lives.

However, questions have been asked about Lords Spiritual and I know that the Church of England has expressed concern about factual language and draftsmanship points. Most of those concerns relate to paragraph 8 of the explanatory notes on the Bill. The Church of England is considering the matter with the aid of our legal adviser and we are seeking to iron out rucks in the Bill—a process that will, of course, improve it.

I do not wish to detain the House—

Mr. Bercow

Go on.

Mr. Bell

Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's encouragement, I shall conclude my remarks. The Church of England supports the Bill and wishes it well on Second Reading and in Committee. We hope that it will be safely launched on to the statute book.

5.6 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I shall vote tonight on the ecclesiastical issues that are raised by the Bill, rather than on the party political ones. As a matter of principle, I shall delight in voting against the guillotine that the Government are imposing.

I do not oppose the Bill. We are assured that the Church of England and other Churches were consulted and are content. I should like to declare an interest, as my late father was a Lord Spiritual, or, more technically, a Lord of Parliament—as opposed to a life peer—during his tenure of the See of Truro. A short while ago, during the passage of other legislation, hon. Members discussed the interesting question whether the time had come for them to record in the Register of Members' Interests their religion and denomination. That is an intriguing possibility, as such a practice would clear the air in relation not only to the matters under discussion, but to similar ones.

The Government are seeking to change the law for the worst possible reasons. The Under-Secretary just managed not to say that the history of the measure started in 1997, but we almost heard him make such a remark. He did not go far back in time, but I shall go much further in deploying my arguments. The introduction of the Bill is in the interests of the Labour party and of one man who wants to stand as a Labour parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming election. I do not know Mr. David Cairns and I hold nothing against him personally. I merely point out that, when the previous Government changed the law a few years ago in the interests of one of our colleagues, that person was ejected by his electors at the ensuing general election in 1997.

I understand that Mr. Cairns served as a Roman Catholic priest. Thus, unlike Church of England priests, he cannot draw up a certificate of relinquishment under the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870. Such a certificate would ensure that he relinquished not his holy orders, but the exercise of them. The Under-Secretary will wish that he had remembered that point. It is not that priests stop being ministers under the 1870 Act, but merely that they relinquish the exercise of their holy orders. As a Roman Catholic, Mr. Cairns has had to obey the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law 1983. Paragraph 3 of canon 285 of that code forbids clerics from assuming public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power. That is what the Roman Catholic Church says.

However, the Government are today inviting us to repeal the whole of the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and parts of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870, the Welsh Church Act 1914, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and the Representation of the People Act 1983. We are tinkering, but on a grand scale, and we must pause to remind ourselves why we are doing so. I say "we" not only as a communicant and practising member of the Church of England, but as a Member of Parliament, which itself has been interwoven for hundreds of years with the Church in England.

The Bill is part of a process of removing civil disabilities on the ground of religion that goes back at least to the 1780s and attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. Those attempts concerned the emancipation of Roman Catholics, notably the 5.5 million Roman Catholics in Ireland who came within the jurisdiction of Parliament in 1800 and 1801. That pattern of reformation continued as the Church of England functioned throughout the 18th and early 19th century as the religious embodiment of the state. Church and state belonged to each other, and the Church was expected to embody and express the religious aspirations of our nation. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and the Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 brought an end to the absolute primacy of the English Church. I stress that it is not only the Church of England but the English Church.

I want to acknowledge the help that I received in sharpening my ecclesiastical history from the staff of Sarum college in my constituency and especially the Very Rev. John Moses, the Dean of St. Paul's. I commend his excellent book "A Broad and Living Way" to those who wish to get more involved in that esoteric subject.

How relevant is the subject to the House? Some of my hon. Friends have said that the Bill has been introduced because it is expedient for the Government before a general election, that not many people are interested in it, and that it has a low priority. I have tried to ascertain the Bill's relevance and the state of belief in this country.

The 17th report of "British Social Attitudes" was published last year. The table for church membership in Britain shows that 46 per cent. of the population declare that they are Christian; 10 per cent. declare that they are of another religion, and 44 per cent. claim to be of no religion. Those statistics are interesting because the trendy talk nowadays suggests that religion is for a tiny minority. The table for church attendance shows that 45 per cent. of the people of this country claim that they go to church, although 13 per cent. say that they go once a week. A little more than 54 per cent. say that they never go to church.

Do people believe in God? According to the report, 77 per cent. of the people who were polled in 1998 said that they did. Forty-eight per cent. said that they believed in God now and that they always had. Only 13 per cent. said that they did not believe in God now and never had. Again, those statistics are interesting for the doubters.

The Bill may be perceived as unfinished business and further ad-hocery. However, it is characteristic of the way in which the Churches have reformed throughout the years. In the 19th century, the process of disengaging Church and state was piecemeal and pragmatic, like the Bill. The establishment principle was qualified but not abandoned. It should not be abandoned in the 21st century.

For 200 years, the British Government have sought religious neutrality for our state. I shall cite some examples: the removal of restrictions on ground of religion for election to Parliament and public office; the abolition of the powers of church courts; the abolition of compulsory Church rates; the secularisation of the ancient universities; the introduction of civil marriages; the provision of public burial grounds and municipal cemeteries; and the establishment of civil parishes.

Another interesting move was made in the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. The redoubtable Enoch Powell spoke passionately in the debate. On the comprehensive nature of the Church of England, he said: It was because the liturgy and the articles of religion, being part of the law of the land, were so difficult to alter, were so near as possible to being permanencies, that in age after age successive waves of thought and religious feeling were nevertheless able to find a place within the Church of England and within its unity."—[Official Report, 4 December 1974; Vol. 882, c. 1673.] Section 6 of the Measure states: Section 3 of the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 (which provides that no Canons shall be contrary to the Royal Prerogative or the customs, laws or statutes of this realm) shall not apply to any rule of ecclesiastical law relating to any matter for which provision may be made by Canon in pursuance of this Measure. In other words, we must go back a very long time—way beyond 1921 or even 1801—when we are asked to revise these issues.

In spite of all that, because the Church of England is the English Church, and because of the nature of the reformation settlement and the responsibilities attached to establishment—which the Church of England should trumpet with much greater confidence—the Church of England has an outreach throughout the land unequalled by any other religion, Church or sect.

The Bishop of Durham said in a debate on the Wakeham report in the House of Lords: The presence of bishops in Parliament can point to an abiding validity of the Christian tradition to public doctrine and ethical norms. It is the national ministry of the Church of England 'by law established' that makes this role possible. Through the dioceses and parishes, through a small army of clergy and licensed lay ministers, through church schools and chaplaincies to many kinds of institutions, the Church of England has a vast constituency of pastoral contact which extends far beyond the core of committed churchgoers. The expression 'national church' is not an anachronism."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 932.] The English Church has, therefore, no cause to feel threatened by the Bill. It should, however, wake up and remember why it is the Church "by law established".

Mr. Bercow

I have listened to my hon. Friend's historical exegesis with interest and respect. I have also noted what he said about church attendances, which I found slightly more surprising. Will he confirm that he is not suggesting that the somewhat better church attendance figures than I had imagined are either an argument for the Bill or against it?

Mr. Key

The figures are an important matter of background information. Some people have suggested that it is a waste of time for Parliament to consider this matter, and that the people outside are not interested. The figures that I have quoted—they are not my figures—prove my point.

The Venerable Bede wrote, in his "Historiam Gentis Anglorum Ecclesiasticum", that there was, in the sixth century, an awareness of England and of the English without parallel in other parts of Europe, and that the English nation was the child of the Church. The Church gave its authority to kingship, to law and to the unity of the nation. It provided the King's chief office-holders and was, effectively, the civil service. The state granted the Church privileges and gave it land and money.

England was never part of the holy Roman empire. The Normans drew England closer to the papacy, but still the English Church fought for independence. The Magna Carta of 1215 asserted: ut ecclesia Anglicana libera sit. That means: thus the English Church will be free.

In 1392, King Richard II stated in statute 16—the statute of praemunire: The Crown of England, which has always been so free and independent as not to have any earthly sovereign but to be immediately subject to God in all things touching the prerogatives of royalty and the said Crown, should be made subject to the Pope and the laws and statutes of the realm defeated and set aside by him at pleasure, to the utter destruction of the sovereignty of our Lord the King, his crown and royalty, and his whole kingdom, God forbid. That was too much for the Pope, and Richard II withdrew it on pain of excommunication. However, it was an expression of the independence of the English Church that eventually bore fruit in the reformation statutes of the 1530s.

School history teaches us—or probably does not, under this philistine Government—that the Tudor reformation was about Henry VIII' s desire to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It was about far more than that. It was about the extent of papal involvement in English life, the relation of the papacy to the Crown, and the meaning of sovereignty in a nation state.

Henry VIII's reformation Parliament of November 1529 set in train a process that took until Elizabeth I's Parliament of 1559 to establish the monarchy as defender of the faith, and—in the Act of Supremacy 1559—as the only supreme governor of this realm as well in all spiritual and ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal.

Against the background of that and all the strife and struggle that followed the reformation, I wish Mr. David Cairns no ill, but as the House debates the Bill on Second Reading it is well for us to remember that the English Church and state are two facets of one society, inextricably bound together in this nation and both much stronger for it.

Mr. Stuart Bell

The hon. Gentleman has given us an interesting recital of historical background that brings us to the concept of Church and state. In the same mould, does he accept that during the 19th century, between Gladstone and Disraeli, the argument about Church and state and the established Church rippled on throughout? It will continue to ripple on, but will the hon. Gentleman confirm that if one disentangles Church and state, the monarchy itself comes into focus? Whether we have a republic or a monarchy is the next issue to be dealt with.

Mr. Key

That will no doubt occupy those who sit on these Benches in a thousand years. I am sad that some hon. Members have not recognised the interweaving of Church and state in this country, which makes it wholly different from any other nation in the world bar none, particularly our continental neighbours. In 1920, the French Church was disestablished.

Mr. Bell

It was 1903.

Mr. Key

I was several years out, which is terrible, but that intervention makes the point that the French Church was disestablished. Only this weekend, I happened to be in old Catholic Munich for a security conference. As we looked at the two onions of the Marienkirche, a French academic laughed about the fact that no one ever goes to church in France, saying that it was a load of mumbo-jumbo. I thought, "Well, that's just a bit different."

Mr. Forth

I am slightly puzzled, I must confess, given my hon. Friend's analysis of the relationship between Church and state and the continued presence of Church of England bishops in a House of Parliament as of right, that he still seems to think that we are able legitimately to legislate as the Bill suggests without giving proper consideration or reconsideration to the related matters of Church and state and the presence of bishops in the other place. How can he suggest that?

Mr. Key

If I considered such matters in detail, I dare say that I would be ruled out of order. However, I would be happy to explore them because I know that, under the Wakeham proposals, the number of Church of England bishops in the other place would be reduced from 26 to 16. That I regret, but the quid pro quo is that there would be more appointees from other Churches and other religions. I have no difficulty with that. When I was a Minister, I established the Inner Cities Religious Council with a number of distinguished theologians and the Bishop of Leicester, Tom Butler, who is now Bishop of Southwark. Were I allowed to, I should have considered that important development under the terms of the Bill. I would be happy for a wider discussion along such lines to take place.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has a legitimate grievance about which, I might add, he chuntered furiously to me earlier. Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for the problem arising—we do not seem to be dealing with interrelated issues in an orderly fashion—is that the Government have engaged in a disgraceful go-slow on reform of the composition of the other place?

Mr. Key

Yes, of course. My hon. Friend is right. If I appear to take a rather long-term view, I make no apology for that. The seat that I represent, Salisbury, sent its first Members to the House in 1260. We in Salisbury tend to think long. We also find it important to take in our stride reforms that have taken place over those many hundreds of years. There is an historical continuity about this place and about our country.

I shall not be surprised if we give the Bill a Second Reading, but I am very surprised that the Government have chosen to rush it through just before a general election, without blushing. It is heroically appalling that they should hurry to the House to legislate so that one of their own party's candidates can stand for election in a few weeks. Nevertheless, that is entirely in character with the way in which the House, over many centuries, has dealt with such issues, the difference being perhaps that 300 or 400 years ago, someone would have been burnt at the stake. I have no intention to vote for that tonight.

5.25 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Listening to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), I could well imagine him conducting a Church of England service in a church in deepest Salisbury. I have to say that I have heard livelier debates at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. Listening to some of the interventions, I came close to thinking that I should perhaps make a personal statement, given that we are dealing with my would-be successor, Mr. David Cairns.

I welcome the Bill, which is of great interest to those whom I have the honour to represent. Incidentally—as you well know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—my constituency is Greenock and Inverclyde, and not, as some hon. Members insist on pronouncing it, "Grennock" and Inverclyde.

Let me say in response to a couple of interventions from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that I played no part whatever in the selection of my successor. I kept myself at a great distance, feeling that that was the honourable thing to do. Obviously, like every other Member, I tell the truth in this place, so I will say that I wanted to be succeeded by a woman with good, honourable, old-Labour qualifications, but that was not to be.

Let me also say—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) for giving me the opportunity—that at no time did members of my party behave in a deplorable or underhand way in selecting Mr. Cairns to represent Greenock and Inverclyde, if he is successful. If I may borrow a term from industrial relations legislation to respond to a sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), it could be said that they were in a condition of justifiable ignorance anent this anomaly. Anyway, I hope that the Bill is passed.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Godman

I will in a moment.

My earlier question to my hon. Friend the Minister about the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly was badly phrased. The Bill brings us into line with the sensible legislation that established those legislatures: the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998—I played a large part in the passage of that Bill, along with the late Donald Dewar, who took it through the House in his inimitable style and with his wonderful elegance—and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

May I refer the Minister to paragraph 14 of the explanatory notes? It states, among other things: Each of the four statutes—the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Scotland Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998—presently provide that a person who is disqualified from membership of the House of Commons other than by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is also disqualified from the legislative body in question. This would disqualify clergymen because they are disqualified from the Commons by the Acts of 1801 and 1829 mentioned above. In order that such clergymen can sit in these legislatures each of those four statutes goes on to provide expressly that a person who is ordained or who is a minister of any religious denomination is not disqualified from membership of that legislative body. It will no longer be necessary to make that express statement as regards the entitlement of clergy to be members of those bodies.

Mr. Bercow

A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman said that the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency Labour party was in a state of justifiable ignorance. It is important to emphasise that, whether it was acting in ignorance or knowingly, it certainly was not acting illegally. The absurdity of the current situation is that it is legal for an individual such as Mr. Cairns to stand as a prospective parliamentary candidate—there is nothing illegal about that—but illegal for him to take his seat. It is important to make that clear.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he will accept my word that members of the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency Labour party acted in good faith.

Were the Bill not to be passed but Mr. Cairns to be elected by the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency, an important issue might arise to be addressed in a judicial review at the Court of Session in Scotland. I think that if those two events were to happen, there could be an infringement of human rights. However, as the House knows, I am not a lawyer and I never desired to become one, so I may not be entirely correct on that point. Nevertheless, I believe that no one should be denied membership of this place, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Welsh Assembly on the ground of ordination or of being a minister of a certain religious denomination.

Like the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), I look forward to the disestablishment of the Church of England. I also welcome the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) on the Church of Scotland. The principal representative of that denomination is of course the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, who is chosen annually.

Paragraph 8 of the explanatory notes mentions Lords Spiritual and the 26 archbishops and bishops who sit in another place. If we are to continue with that place—one of my abiding regrets as a Member of Parliament is that we have not abolished it and replaced it with a senate—I believe that leaders of other Churches and religions should be entitled to sit, as the bishops do, as Lords of Parliament. Some of the other religious leaders might regard sitting next door as a somewhat doubtful privilege, but if the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York can do so, why cannot the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Cardinal Thomas Winning?

I know that the Church of England is sympathetic to widening the ecclesiastical membership of the other place. However, I also appreciate that there are complicated elements to the issue that will have to be addressed. I hope that that happens in the next Parliament.

Paragraph 9 of the explanatory notes states that the Churches were consulted on the proposals and are content for the statutory disqualifications to be removed. It therefore seems that the Bill has the approval, although perhaps qualified approval, of the Churches concerned.

What will happen, however, if a person should decide to give up and return to his or her Church? As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said, the traditional view of both Catholics and Anglicans is that holy orders cannot be relinquished, and that although one can renounce the exercise of one's orders, one is ordained for life. The right hon. Lady is of course a recent convert to Catholicism. Perhaps I should say that although I am a lapsed Catholic, I maintain a very keen and paternal interest in Catholic Church matters.

As the Minister and the hon. Member for Salisbury said, there is a question whether, even if the Bill is enacted, a Catholic priest who is in "good standing"— I think that that is how it is described in Catholic canon law—can serve as a Member of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman mentioned paragraph 3 of canon 285 in the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983. It states: Clerics are forbidden to assume pubic office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power. That is unequivocal, and at first glance it suggests that a Catholic priest cannot in principle hold political office other than in the obvious and special case of an office in the Curia. However, Catholic priests have held senior political positions. One example is the first President of Haiti, who took that office after the fall of the Duvalier family. I assume that he had a special dispensation from the Vatican.

Would a priest who wanted to stand as a candidate for election to this House while retaining his good standing with his church need a dispensation from his diocesan bishop—or, failing that, from Rome? Alternatively, a priest has the right to petition Rome to have his orders annulled by rescript under paragraph 3 of canon 290 of the Catholic code of canon law. However, that is granted to deacons for only grave reasons, and to priests for only the gravest of reasons. Catholic constituents for whom I have the greatest regard and affection have raised the concern that, regardless of civil law on the subject, it appears unlikely that a Catholic priest in a western European democracy would be permitted by his church to hold political office and remain in good standing. I sincerely hope that I am wrong in that belief.

In conclusion, any cleric—Anglican or Catholic—can simply walk away from his Church and stand as a candidate in an election. However, that person would no longer be in good standing under the law of his Church. My hope is that compassion and sensitivity would determine the outcome when a prospective candidate is caught in such circumstances. If such a problem were to arise with a candidate in Scotland, I hope that Cardinal Winning and his priestly colleagues would show precisely that compassion and sensitivity.

I welcome the Bill and I sincerely hope that it becomes law before the general election.

5.38 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who in opposition used to sit on the Benches behind those occupied by members of my party. We have had a long friendship, although recently we have sparred more than we have supported each other. For example, his final comment concerned the standing of Roman Catholic priests in the western democracies, yet I recall that a priest in the United States was removed from office when he challenged papal authority. That is another possibility that we must bear in mind. The Minister said earlier that we should not introduce theological arguments into our debate, but the harsh reality is that those arguments are part of the debate.

As the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) propounded, the issue at the heart of the debate is that priests are clerks in holy orders who receive remuneration under the Crown. If this reforming Bill is to succeed, the bar on candidates standing for Parliament who are now in receipt of such remuneration—for example, through membership of a quango—may have to be removed. I drew attention to that issue in connection with the Church of Scotland, which is in a different situation. Over the years, however, there has been a barrier to ministers ordained in the Church of Scotland.

I am an ordained minister of a sister Church, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I have not resigned my office; I was relieved from the pastorate. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland allows us to be ministers without charge under the care of presbytery, able to perform duties to help our colleagues and to carry out pastoral work if we are called on to help someone out. Often I do not deal with political or housing issues in my surgery but with some of the issues that regularly came my way when I was pastoring a congregation.

I am one of those with links with 1950. I was a student in Londonderry, in the constituency of Belfast, West, where Rev. J. G. MacManaway sought guidance from the then Attorney-General of Northern Ireland, who I believe was right in his interpretation. I think that even Professor Blackburn would give that impression. The late Edmund Warnock said that he would be qualified to stand for election to the House of Commons and he was so elected, but the electoral court went into more rarefied arguments. I believe that the people of Belfast, West, where I was a constituent at the time, were robbed of a very useful representative, but, at the same time, I can understand some of the arguments.

I do not believe that anyone wants this place to be full of ministerial or clerical clones. However, the issue seems to be that those who have been priests are barred. I sympathise with that, but when does a person cease to be a priest? I read during the week of an elderly priest who was unfrocked because of some obscene behaviour in the past. It is rare for a priest in the Church of Rome to be unfrocked; they are quite often simply removed from the office of public priesthood.

The Minister referred to priests being barred because of their activity in political circles. Desmond Wilson in Belfast, West was barred from public priesthood by Bishop Philbin. I remember Gerry Fitt, now ennobled in another place, coming to me in real anger because Desmond Wilson had published a book with a worldwide imprimatur that gave a different opinion of what was happening in Northern Ireland. He said, "I can never understand why Bishop Daly restored him to the office of public priesthood." That day, I was walking through Heathrow airport to get the plane back to Belfast and I met Dr. Daly. I said to him, "Bishop, my constituents and some of your flock have been asking why you restored Desmond Wilson to the office of public priesthood, when Dr. Philbin, your predecessor, removed him from it." The gracious Dr. Daly was rather taken aback that a mere Presbyterian politician should ask him such a question. He stepped back with a little start and, giving that lovely smile, said, "I tried to win him back but I failed."

I wonder whether the Bill is premature and whether there is any real reason for it. I have no difficulties with people coming here who are elected by their people. I had to face that challenge myself, although, interestingly, it did not come from political circles. When my parliamentary predecessor was murdered, I, as someone interested in public life, encouraged others to put themselves forward, but two of my brothers—not filial but ministerial—from different spheres of the presbyterian ministry asked me, "Is it not your turn?" I could not encourage someone else to stand when danger was involved, unless I faced that danger myself. I prayed about the matter and the doors opened. I believe in and understand the concept of ordination for life. I am an ordained minister for life.

I am glad that the trite expression "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" has not been used today. After my election, I received several letters expressing that view, but they were unsigned so I could not respond to them. I remind all of us who claim the Christian profession that the Master said those words not to disciples—apostles—but to followers. When we are dealing with issues of conscience, it behoves all of us, even in this place, to put that loyalty to the Master clearly to the fore. If the Almighty could shut doors for Paul, who wanted to go here, there and everywhere, and yet open another door that could not be closed, He had a great opportunity, through the selection and electoral processes, to shut the door on Martin Smyth.

Today, we are debating whether the law of the land should shut doors on people or open other doors that may cause problems in the future. We glibly say that anyone who is a leader of any religious community should have a right to be a Member of this place if he is elected, but would we be as keen if they belonged to the strange cults that have developed in the modern world, and could brainwash other people into selecting and electing them?

Mr. Fabricant

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with considerable interest. He presents a powerful case. However, surely those who are ministers of strange cults can be elected to this place anyway. Is not that correct? I look to the Minister for clarification, but he is engaged in a private conversation so I am not getting any help. The Bill specifically aids members of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Forth

That is not what the Bill says.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) makes a valuable point, with Lichfield's two lovely towers, but he is wrong this time. It is possible that the earlier argument is rather superficial and we should be careful about following it.

Mr. Forth

Does the hon. Gentleman share my worry about the Bill? It loosely uses the words "minister" and "a religious denomination" without giving any definition. That could open the door to the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). The measure could be widely or loosely interpreted and might lead us in directions that we cannot yet anticipate.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point and it should be borne in mind. It might be argued that the arguments made earlier were about preventing the election of people who hold offices of profit under the Crown. However, Presbyterian ministers were in that position at one time. There was the regium donum—the gift of the Crown—but many years ago, my forebears commuted their money and invested it in central church funds. As a result, we are under no obligation to the Crown.

Dr. Godman

Can the hon. Gentleman remind us whether he raised similar objections in respect of membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly during the passage of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?

Rev. Martin Smyth

I do not believe that that objection was raised. There was a powerful lot of things in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and we did not always have enough time to explore them and expose some of the weaknesses that are still being worked out in Northern Ireland, not least of which is the failure of having an unaccountable Executive—we do not know where we are with them.

5.50 pm
Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I declare a personal interest, which will become clear shortly. I very much welcome the Select Committee on Home Affairs 1997–98 report, "Electoral Law and Administration", which recommended the change that we are discussing. However, I agree with those hon. Members who have said that it has taken some time to institute a change which is long overdue. For reasons that will also become clear, it is a matter of great regret to me that the change did not occur under the previous Government.

In 1951, a Select Committee report on clergy disqualification recommended no change on the basis of practicality. Various hon. Members have argued today that there is no groundswell of clergy desperate to stand for election to the House. That may well be the case, but this is an issue of principle which should be addressed, and it does not matter whether David Cairns or two other people want to stand for election.

I fully accept that under the current legislation—which dates back centuries, as hon. Members have said—non-Church of England and former episcopalian ordained priests and Catholic priests suffer a double discrimination in that they have no practical remedy, as no provision exists to alter their status if they want to stand for election to, and be eligible to sit in, the House. However, I wish to highlight the issue from a different perspective: for most ministers of religion, especially those who have been ordained and served for a considerable time, it is not an insignificant decision to demit their status.

The Labour candidate in Ayr at the 1992 election was a victim of the discrimination the Bill will end. He had spent six years at university, training to be a Church of Scotland minister. He then spent 15 years working in some of the poorest areas in Paisley and Ayr. Alongside his parish work he was involved in politics, so it was a natural progression that members of the local party asked him to stand as the Labour candidate in Ayr in 1992. However, as a Church of Scotland minister, he was barred from taking a seat in the House. The Church put no impediment in his way, but the law of the land did.

To stand for Parliament, he had to demit his status as a Church of Scotland minister—the equivalent of a doctor having his or her name removed from the general medical register, or a lawyer having his or her qualified practising certificate revoked. Can hon. Members imagine the outcry if people had to abandon their right to practise law if they wanted to become a Member of Parliament?

Mr. Forth

A good idea.

Ms Osborne

Indeed, but there would be an outcry in the highest places if that were ever suggested and there would no longer be any learned Members.

When I said that I declared an interest in the matter, I should have added that the Labour candidate in Ayr in 1992 was my husband—in fact, he still is. If he ever wanted his ministerial status back, he would have to petition the general assembly of the Church of Scotland at its annual gathering. When I was elected in 1997—a worthy successor to my husband as candidate in Ayr—I was aware that there had been a time, not so long ago, when I, too, would have been barred from sitting in the House—not because I was a minister, but for the specific reason that I was a woman, and no remedy would have been open to me to circumvent that ruling.

In 1992, my husband stood for Ayr—a highly marginal seat at the time, although it is obviously no longer one—with no guarantee of winning. Indeed, as most hon. Members will know, he was defeated by 85 votes out of 55,000—a small margin by anyone's standards, except perhaps in Florida. Yet the law requires such people to sign away years of study, hard-won qualifications and a lifetime of work and service, perhaps 18 months or two years before an election, to stand for a seat that they may well not win.

It was ultimately my husband's decision to make that stand, but a democratic deficit is involved. As I have said, the Church itself placed no impediment in his way. Indeed, the Church of Scotland has a long and honourable record of encouraging not only its members and adherents but its clergy to be involved in the political process. I disagree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) about the clergy's involvement in political activities, as does the Church of Scotland.

The moderator's annual visit to the House is a well-established and happy occasion. Only last week, the press reported that this year's moderator is ready to join an anti-nuclear protest outside Faslane and has declared himself undaunted by the possibility of arrest as a result. The Church of Scotland's church and nation committee speaks out on all issues affecting the life of the Scottish people and is listened to by the Government at Westminster and Edinburgh.

Parallel bodies of the Church exist at local presbytery level to speak out on community and social issues. Countless ordinary members have viewed it as a natural extension of their Christian faith to be involved in politics for the good of humanity and society. That involvement can range from going along to the local tenants group, or campaigning for the cancellation of world debt in the poorest nations, to becoming a local councillor, or even a Member of Parliament. Why should one part of the political process be barred to a particular group of Christians—the clergy—and then only to the clergy of certain denominations?

Many clergy have held elected political office. I think of those who have been councillors. One giant figure of the Scottish Labour movement comes to mind—the Rev. Geoff Shaw. Geoff was the founder of the Gorbals group and went on to lead Strathclyde regional council, serving a population half the size of Scotland's. If he had not died so tragically young, who knows where his politics might have taken him?

Reference has been made to other clergy who have been Members of Parliament. I know from my own experience that people often refer with some puzzlement to the position of the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). They are still bemused when I try to explain that they are not clergy of an established Church, debarred under current legislation. Indeed, going back in the history of the House, Scottish Presbyterian ministers—albeit of denominations other than the established Church of Scotland—have made a significant contribution.

A great figure of the Scottish Labour movement was the Rev. James Barr—a pacifist and socialist. He was elected to the House in 1924 as the Independent Labour party Member for Motherwell. He was a forceful opponent of Ramsay MacDonald's National Government and lost his seat opposing it in 1931. He was returned as Member for Coatbridge in 1935. Along with great early socialists, such as Keir Hardie, he campaigned tirelessly for home rule for Scotland, a minimum wage and temperance. I am sure that he would have given this Government a pass mark of two out of three.

One of James Barr's claims to fame was that he made one of the longest ever maiden speeches—88 minutes and stretching to 18 columns in Hansard. I considered reading out his speech verbatim to hon. Members, but I thought better of it; I am sure that that would be the last thing they would want to hear. However, I know from personal experience that clergymen often like the sound of their own voices, can make excellent contributions to debate, and tend to be accomplished public speakers.

Suffice it to say that James Ban was attacking the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925 in his maiden speech. He vehemently opposed any link between Church and state and thought it wholly the responsibility of the Church to support and maintain itself on a voluntary basis. When the union took place in 1929, he felt so strongly about this that he stayed with the rump of the United Free Church. If he had not, he would have found himself debarred from membership of the House of Commons.

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and, among other matters, has referred to the position of her husband. Does she accept that those hon. Members, such as myself, who are not adherents of any religion support the Bill? Indeed, I do so as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, because the existing position represents a form of discrimination that certainly cannot be justified. Does she also agree that if any criticism is to be made, it is that such a measure should have been introduced years ago?

Ms Osborne

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. If this Bill had been introduced 15 years ago, my husband would probably still be a practising minister in the Church of Scotland. However, he had to demit his status when he stood as a candidate.

Another great figure of the Scottish Labour movement was Campbell Stephen. He was elected as MP for Glasgow, Camlachie in 1922 and he was one of the famous Clydeside group of Independent Labour party Members. He, too, lost his seat in 1931 only to be re-elected in 1935. What is not so well known is that he, like Barr, started life as a minister of the United Free Church of Scotland. He gave up his charge in Ardrossan to fight unsuccessfully the Ayr Burghs seat in 1918 and he never resumed his ministry.

The point of my argument is to illustrate that there is no real difference between a politically active minister of the Church of Scotland and one of any number of other mainstream denominations in Scotland who are not caught up by this arbitrary legislation that debars membership of the House of Commons to ministers of the Church of Scotland.

I do not think that we should be too parochial when considering this matter. Internationally, clergy have played a significant role in the politics of their respective countries. I think in particular of the African continent and north and central America. Other aspects of the issue, particularly the case of former Roman Catholic priests, will be, and have been, taken up by hon. Members. I have concentrated on the Scottish Presbyterian dimension.

I would never wish to suggest that being an MP is the highest expression of political involvement. There are many ways of being involved in the political process and for many people being an MP would not be their chosen way. George Bernard Shaw might have been thinking of ambitious would-be MPs when he wrote: There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it. The third tragedy might be to be barred from achieving what may not be one's heart's desire at all, but should be a democratic right—to become a Member of Parliament.

The Bill should not be about any particular person's smooth passage into the House. It is, like the separate case for the repeal of the Act of Succession, an issue of individual human rights—a matter of religious and civil liberties and an opportunity to add to the democratic credentials of the House.

6.2 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I cannot share the general support for the Bill for a number of reasons. My instinctive reason always in such a case is that, when nearly everyone agrees on something, it is probably wrong. That seems to be so in this case. The fact that the Bill was introduced with smug complacency and the fact that almost all those who have spoken seem to be of one religious persuasion tend to set my antennae quivering. I wonder what it is all about.

The Minister was originally coy, and then blustered when he was asked why we were getting the Bill now. The answer appeared straightforward once we got it. The Bill is the legitimisation of a Labour candidate, and I can think of no worse reason to change the law of the land. There may be many good reasons for the changes to be introduced by the Bill, but to legitimise a Labour candidate now is the worst possible reason that I can think of. We can dismiss that as a proper reason; it does not explain why we should support the Bill at this time.

The tragedy is that the local Labour party either selected the candidate in ignorance of the law—that would not say much for the party's support for its local organisations—or, worse, it selected him knowing that the law as it stands would prevent him, if elected by the voters of Greenock and Inverclyde, from taking his seat. Either way, that is not a good recommendation for the House to approve the Bill at this stage, however excellent the individual may be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed out, none of us has met this man, and, in one respect, we have absolutely no interest in whether he is elected. We would rather that a Conservative is elected in Greenock and lnverclyde, but—although I have been away from the Clyde for quite a long time—I suspect that the chances of a Conservative being elected there are as about as strong as the chances of a Labour candidate being elected in Bromley and Chislehurst.

Dr. Godman

May I point out again to the right hon. Gentleman that local Labour party members were unaware of the anomaly? He should not denigrate decent, ordinary activists in a particular party. How many Members of this Parliament—let alone ordinary activists in a local party—knew of the anomaly?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman should not get too excited. I will denigrate whoever I like, whenever I like, and for whatever reason I like. I, not the hon. Gentleman, will decide whether the good Labour supporters of Greenock and Inverclyde are immune from that. However, my criticism is directed at the professional agent—if there is one—or the Labour party in Scotland, which should concentrate on such matters instead of the other nonsenses that it gets up to. That is where my criticism is levelled. I repeat my point that, because the Greenock and Inverclyde Labour party found itself in this position, that is no reason to change the law. That is my first argument against our supporting the Bill on this occasion.

My next point echoes a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). If we were to change the law now, that would give rise to legitimate grievance among many people who were aware of the law, respected the law and did not offer themselves as candidates. They would find that they had suddenly been put in a most unfortunate position. For whatever reason, Mr. Cairns is being presented as a candidate and he is having the law changed for him just before an election. However, all the other people who may well have wanted to become candidates and who chose not to because they believed that the law did not allow them to would have good cause to say, "Hold on a minute; this is completely and grotesquely unfair." Believe it or not, the law is being changed to benefit one individual when, for the reverse reason, it could disbenefit many other people.

Mr. Bercow

It is very rare for my right hon. Friend and me to be at loggerheads, but may I suggest that the thrust of his point runs counter to his general enthusiasm—an enthusiasm that I share—for risk-taking and entrepreneurship? Does he accept that it would have been entirely open to any other individual to put himself or herself forward as a prospective candidate in the knowledge that it was legal to stand but would be illegal to take his or her seat? That person could hope, plot and collaborate with others to campaign for a change in the law and take his or her chance. Why has my right hon. Friend not considered that perfectly estimable possibility?

Mr. Forth

Of course, it is a possibility. However, in this case it helps if that person is a member of the Labour party and not any other party—a fact that may, unusually, have escaped my hon. Friend's attention. He is right, but I gather that Mr. Cairns is quoted as saying, "Don't worry, chaps. We'll have the law changed, and that will put everything right." My point is that the timing is most unfortunate. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) rightly emphasised that official Opposition Members would have a free vote, she pointed out that there have been several opportunities recently to change the law.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend assures me that were four occasions when we could have legislated on this matter in proper time, allowing time for proper consideration and allowing other people to benefit from the change in electoral law. In almost every respect, the timing of the Bill's introduction is not only unfortunate, but unacceptable and unconscionable. The fact that the Government gave priority not to this measure, but to anti-hunting Bills and piffling Bills on vehicle crime says much about their sense of priorities. I shall return briefly to the issue of timing, because it is important.

I am also uneasy about the Bill because I do not think that it should be dealt with in isolation. In his typically learned and well-researched way, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury provided the background to the matter and brought out strongly the fact that such a Bill cannot be considered as a tiny piece of a large mosaic. It should not be considered entirely in isolation, because it carries with it important constitutional implications, not least, as he suggested, for the position of the established Church.

As a result of our history, there is an unusually complex relationship between the state and the Churches, especially the established Church. Different Churches and religions have a different status. A Labour hon. Member prattled on, as Labour women do, about equality. She used the word frequently and the implication was that as the issue concerns equality, it must be right to change the law. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury explained, we do not live in an age of equality, certainly in this respect. Our different faiths, religions and Churches have an unequal status in society. Whether that is right or wrong is of huge importance. To single out an aspect of it—a by-product of our history—and deal with it in isolation without tackling other important issues is wrong, but that is symptomatic of the way in which the Government have gone about making piecemeal and unrelated changes in our constitution, which have been to our detriment.

We are also suffering from that approach to reform of the other place, which has a direct bearing on the Bill. Our constitutional and statutory arrangements contain a right for a number of Church of England bishops to sit in a House of Parliament and participate in the legislative process. That has a bearing on the eligibility of people to be elected to this place. How much sense does it make for bishops of any Church to have a place, as of right, in a Chamber of these Houses of Parliament, and does that have implications for the question of whether people should be eligible to serve in this place? Those two questions are connected, but we are deliberating on eligibility to this House while paying no regard to the composition of the other place. That makes no sense.

We are being invited to narrow our vision to one individual in one set of circumstances and to change the electoral law of the land, but we are expected to pay no regard to the context within which it was set, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. Having said that, the relative position of different religious faiths and Churches and their representatives should be borne in mind. It is a convention that leading figures of other faiths are given a seat in another place. That might be admirable for as long as that Chamber is not properly elected, which I should like it to be, but it raises the issue of the different status of different Churches. If there are 26 bishops from our established Church in our legislature, why should there be only one chief rabbi or one representative of any other faith or religion? Those are important matters and they relate to the subject of our debate.

Mr. Bercow

I am anxious to establish—although I think that it will gradually become clear—whether my right hon. Friend is objecting simply or primarily to the cack-handed manner in which the matter has been handled, or to the proposed change on principle. If the Government had not introduced the Bill with such haste and had got on, as we would both favour, with the important project of creating an elected other place with no automatic entitlement for bishops to sit in it, would he be in favour of what many of us think is a simple and common-sense measure?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is inviting me to deliver my punch line before I have reached it. As I have such respect for him, I shall accede to his request. My view is simple: whoever is elected by our electoral process to represent a constituency is entirely a matter for the voters in that constituency. Whether people who are elected are acceptable to us is neither here nor there. Debarment by statute is probably wrong. History is important and we should be prepared to adjust our view appropriately, but not in this Bill, not now, and not in the piecemeal way in which we are being invited to consider the matter.

Although police officers and some others are debarred, I want there to be a minimum number of restrictions on people's eligibility to be elected to this place because it is for the voters to decide. By and large, people in this country get the politicians they deserve.

Mr. Stunell

Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman's approach correctly? Is he saying, "Make me good, but not yet"? Is not a little reform better than no reform? Is not a little movement better than no movement?

Mr. Forth

Absolutely not. Perhaps I should start my speech again because obviously I have not persuaded the hon. Gentleman of my case. I condemn the Government and their fellow travellers in the hon. Gentleman's party for doing what he has described and claiming it as a virtue. They introduce piecemeal, disconnected and ill-thought-out change for the sake of it. They usually call it modernisation and think that that will fool us, but it does not. My argument is that the Bill is wrong, ill-conceived and has been introduced at the wrong time. That is why I am unhappy with it.

I want to raise a more sensitive and delicate matter, even at the risk of offending some colleagues and people outside the House—I have, of course, never shrunk from that. I am concerned about possible conflicts of loyalty. My understanding of history does not begin to rival that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, so I am diffident about raising the issue. However, at the time of Henry VIII and the reformation, the question of to whom people in this country owed their primary loyalty must have arisen. Was it to our sovereign monarch and sovereign state, or to something or someone beyond, which at the time was the papacy? That issue is still alive. Indeed, it might be even more potent in our multi-faith society. Some people might believe that sections of our multi-faith, multi-cultural society have, in some circumstances, not only a divided loyalty, but a greater loyalty than that given to the Queen and the state.

Mr. Key

My right hon. Friend might agree that, although the cold war is over, instability is all the greater as a result.

Mr. Forth

Indeed. That is becoming daily more evident, which is why the Bush Administration's concept of a missile defence system is something that we can all wholeheartedly support. The sooner they put their umbrella over me, the safer I will feel.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

My right hon. Friend's point about Henry VIII is important. He was the first successful Eurosceptic, and he showed that a single Act of Parliament can remove the power of European courts. I understand my right hon. Friend's argument and agree entirely with what he is saying about where allegiance lies.

Mr. Forth

I hope that my right hon. Friend's excellent book, which he launched today in the Jubilee Room, will contain more on that matter. I am sure that we will all be much the better for reading it, although I have not managed to get around to it yet.

Mr. Winnick

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the status of Catholics at the time of the reformation. Is he suggesting that Catholics are not loyal to the United Kingdom or have a wider loyalty to an outside force?

Mr. Forth

No, that is a matter for Catholics. I am simply saying that we should not duck this issue. I confess that my understanding of the intricacies of the Catholic Church is limited, but I am making the more general point that it is possible that the total loyalty that someone has, by dint of their vocation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald called it, expressed in formal terms to a deity or moral authority could clash, in some circumstances, with the loyalty that we should all feel to our state and our monarch. That may manifest itself in many different ways, and it is directly relevant to the Bill because of the removal of the disqualification that we are now discussing.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious charge, and a great deal of what he says seems to be based on innuendo. Will he give us an example of circumstances in which loyalties may be challenged?

Mr. Forth

I do not think that I was using innuendo at all; I thought that I was making the perfectly clear point that potential conflict exists and we should not duck that matter or skate over it. My difficulty with the Bill is that in the warm glow of consensuality that is becoming ever more popular in this place and in the body politic, we risk not squaring up to such issues and resolving them to our satisfaction before we move on. Surely, as a political institution, we are still sufficiently mature—although I sometimes wonder—to discuss these matters properly and deal with them or dispose of them before we move on to legislate. That is my point, and if it makes Labour Members uncomfortable, I am doing my job.

I turn briefly now to one or two of the details of the Bill. My first difficulty is whether the term a minister of any religious denomination is sufficiently precise or accurate to do the job that Members imagine the Bill will do. It strikes me that in this ever-evolving world of denominations, faiths and sects, there is at least the possibility of difficulty arising from the lack of a proper definition of the term "religious denomination". I put it no more strongly than that, but with the seeming proliferation of different organisations calling themselves churches and faiths, there could be very real difficulty. We may want to pay attention to that matter in Committee.

Mr. Stunell

I hesitate to provoke the right hon. Gentleman, but is he suggesting that there might be an occasion when the House would want to proscribe certain religions from putting forward candidates? That seems to be the direction in which his argument is going. If I understand him correctly, he is saying that although this measure might be good enough for Roman Catholics and other well-known denominations, there might be others that we have not yet invented which the House would want to prevent from offering candidates. Is that his thinking?

Mr. Forth

Yes, it is indeed. I have in mind the possibility of organisations that many hon. Members may find offensive, subversive, dangerous or threatening calling themselves a religious denomination for the purposes of the Bill and seeking to promote their members as politicians or Members of Parliament. We may have to think about that.

Mr. Stunell

We seem to be moving from a discussion about whether we should repeal legislation that restricts certain people to an argument that we should retain that legislation in case we want in future to restrict certain people who are not currently covered. I look forward with considerable interest to the right hon. Gentleman's amendments in Committee.

Mr. Forth

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to that. Let us hope that we have enough time in Committee to deal with all the matters in detail and at whatever length is necessary. However, that is the next debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you would not want me to anticipate that, would you?

I have another simple query that I am sure the Minister will be able to answer. The heading of clause 2 is "Short title, commencement and extent", but I see no reference in the Bill to a commencement date. When does the Minister envisage that will be? Timing is an important consideration, and here we must pause for a moment and work backwards from when the Minister thinks the general election is likely to be. As the whole reason for the Bill is to allow one individual to be elected to this place, it is obviously essential, if the Bill is to fulfil its purpose, that it is enacted and commenced in time for the general election. We are therefore entitled to hear a bit more from the Minister about whether he believes there is sufficient time left properly to consider the Bill in all its stages in this House and in the Lords before Parliament is dissolved.

I ask because no date has yet been named for the remaining stages of the Bill, and I understand from the next item of business that the Government are to ask the House to deal with the matter in a Committee of the whole House. We have a short recess coming up, so I assume that the matter cannot and will not be dealt with until afterwards, which takes us to the end of February. That means that the Government will presume upon the House of Lords to deal with the Bill rapidly and peremptorily in time for it to be enacted so that the individual Labour candidate gets statutory cover for his candidature and can come to the House.

I shall be interested to see whether the Minister has any comment to make about that. It strikes me that, in their typically arrogant way, the Government are making a series of presumptions about the parliamentary process, both in this House and in another place. I think that those presumptions are unacceptable, but the Government have long since ceased to bother themselves with that. Perhaps as a result of the matters that I and other Members have raised, we will pay attention to the Bill in Committee and on Report, and the House of Lords will want to examine it closely. I hope then, at the very least, that the Government are presuming too much about the parliamentary process, and all their plans, ploys and plots to get one person elected by altering the law of the land may well not come to fruition. If that is the case, I will certainly shed no tears.

6.27 pm
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

I take the opportunity to speak in this debate because it is about fairness and tolerance. I remember that, many years ago, when I was at St. Mary's Catholic junior school in Jarrow, one of the highlights was when the Catholic missionary from Africa or elsewhere came to the classroom to inform us about his work with the poor. That gave us an insight into his vocation and into what seemed to be an idyllic existence, helping the poor in an exotic country. I also remember the tales told in school about the famous Father Rooney from Hebburn, a town in Jarrow. He was a great priest, a fund-raiser for the Catholic Church, who travelled widely and had many famous friends, such as the Kennedys and the Sinatras. He even had a racehorse named after him, such was his notoriety in the Catholic world for his good work.

Of course, as I grew older, reality sank in and I realised that the priesthood is not the glamorous life that it was portrayed to be when I was a young child. Very few people become a priest because it is such a hard life and such a difficult vocation. That is why those who make it, and those who stay in the priesthood, are such special people. Priests are great men because they have a vocation and a way of life that very few people can follow. Very few people embark on becoming a priest without serious thought. Once they are in the priesthood, they must make an important decision if they want to leave. Some young men get so far, fail and do not bother trying to be ordained. Some are ordained and then decide that they do not have the calling, so they drop out.

The question is whether those who decide, after they have been ordained, that they do not have the calling, should be discriminated against for the rest of their lives for their honesty. They are honest to themselves, to their God, to their community and to their congregation when they say, "I don't think this life is for me. I want to serve God in the community in a different vocation." Should they be classed as second-class citizens, and should they be discriminated against for the rest of their lives? Surely that is what the debate is about.

Mr. Key

Is not the greatest discrimination that the Roman Catholic Church refuses to ordain women?

Mr. Hepburn

I shall continue with the point that I was making. Any sort of intolerance or unfairness should not be tolerated by any society. It is not for me to comment on what the Catholic Church does internally. I am talking about what the state can do to try to create a fair environment in which people might prosper.

We know that the Bill is not entirely about Catholic discrimination, but it was the Catholic issue that caught my eye originally. We know that there are anomalies. Some members of the clergy are disqualified and some are not. Some priests can relinquish their ministry and become Members while others are unable to do so. Certain Christian priests are disqualified whereas ministers of other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, are eligible. I merely point out the anomalies.

Is it right that a Catholic priest, who decides that he no longer wants to continue in that role and wishes to join society, to marry and to have a family, for example, because the vocation is not for him, cannot become a Member, whereas a practising Jewish rabbi or Muslim cleric can stand for Parliament and become an elected Member? It is obviously not right.

Ministers of the Church sit in the House. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made his point clearly. The example should be given again of Bruce Kent, a former Catholic priest. No matter what anyone thinks about him politically, his views were pinned to the mast. He is a CND supporter and a socialist. He has always seemed a loving and caring man to me. He stood for Labour at Oxford in 1992. If he had been successful, he would not have been able to become a Member. There seemed no reason for that.

The present position is nonsensical. It stems from some historical row that took place about 100 or 200 years ago, or 500 or 600 years ago when Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. I do not care especially what the reason was. The unfairness should be challenged.

One valid concern is whether the passage of the Bill will result in the House being awash with clergy. However, that is a matter for the Churches and not for Parliament. If the Churches want people to stand for Parliament, that can be done.

We are in a new era of fairness, equality, caring and modernisation. We do not stand for discrimination in our modern society. That should not be tolerated on any basis, whether it be age, gender, disability or religion. What goes for Members should stand also for the monarchy.

When I was younger, there were young people alongside me who decided, "I might go for a calling and go into the priesthood." Some might have been successful and become missionaries, for example. Some might have become great priests doing a great job for local congregations in carrying out the work that suited them. Others may have tried. Some might have been ordained, only to decide that it was not for them. I would hate to see those people condemned for life because of religious discrimination that stems from centuries ago, which we as a responsible Parliament, made up of all parties, seem to be upholding.

6.34 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). He represents the area that was the home of the Venerable Bede. On this occasion, I find myself agreeing with him entirely. Perhaps that is dangerous.

It is extraordinary that we are debating this issue as we enter the 21st century. It is an old hangover from old law and prejudices. There is a list of those people who are not allowed to stand in Parliament. They include, as we all know, undischarged bankrupts, offenders sentenced to more than one year in prison, persons convicted of corrupt practices at elections—they are disqualified for seven years—and those holding offices listed by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which includes the class of people that we are now debating.

It includes also senior civil servants, judges, ambassadors and members of the regular armed forces. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) in his place. I had the pleasure to speak after he made his powerful maiden speech. The hon. Gentleman was in the armed forces. The list continues with members of the police force and paid members of the boards of nationalised industries. How few such board members are left? Also included are Government-appointed directors of commercial companies and directors of the Bank of England.

I will not name those who I think are disreputable and those who I believe are to be admired. However, it is astonishing that included in the list are practising clergy of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church of Ireland and former or practising priests of the Roman Catholic Church.

I would not wish to try to emulate or even compete with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in his historical knowledge, but I read some information that told me that in 1678 there was the second Test Act. It did not effectively prevent Roman Catholics from serving in Parliament, but it required them to make a declaration abjuring transubstantiation, worship of the Virgin Mary and the celebration of mass. In practice, that would bar all Roman Catholics, especially Roman Catholic priests, from serving in this place.

There might have been a problem at that time with dual loyalty. I usually agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and there might have been a dual loyalty between the Holy See and that of England. I am sure that now there would be no conflict of interest in, to use my right hon. Friend's word, a deity and the House of Commons. Most of us probably believe in a god of some sort, and I hope that most of us exercise our conscience from time to time. Conscience is often dictated by one's religious views, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Islam or whatever.

I was keen to speak in the debate because I believe that one of the greatest Prime Ministers that we ever had, certainly until the 1980s, was Benjamin Disraeli. He was baptised at an early age, but if that had not happened and if he had followed the religion of his antecedents—Benjamin Disraeli is considered generally as being Jewish—he would not have been able to be Prime Minister. I think that we all agree that that would have been wrong. It is equally wrong now to say that Roman Catholic priests should be barred from membership of the House.

Mr. Winnick

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Disraeli. We all know the story of why he was baptised by his father. It arose from a dispute with the synagogue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that being the supreme opportunist that he was, even if Disraeli had not been baptised, he would have made sure, without the slightest hesitation, of becoming a Christian at the appropriate age so as to be able to come to this place?

Mr. Fabricant

It is not for me to try to imagine what Benjamin Disraeli might or might not have done. I do not think that he was an opportunist. He was a patriot. He recognised that in years to come there would be a party like the Labour party, which would seek to nationalise everything. He knew that he had to create the modem Conservative party—which he did, in effect. If that is called opportunism, I say "Hear, hear". I remind the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that new Labour tries to emulate today's Conservative party, especially that of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Let us not have no doubt whatever about that.

Although I do not object to the principle of the Bill, I object to the way in which it is being introduced today. As hon. Members have pointed out, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended in 1998 that such a Bill should be introduced in Parliament. The hon. Member for Walsall, North and I serve on that Committee, but I did not have the honour of doing so when it made that recommendation. One has to ask oneself why the Bill is being introduced now? I have to say that the answer is plain, simple opportunism, and is to do with the Labour candidate who is standing for Greenock and Inverclyde, who earlier fought for Ayr, where he was rightly rejected by the electorate.

Incidentally, I note that in The Independent, Mr. Cairns was reported as saying that he is "confident" that the law will be changed before the next general election. I wondered how he could be so confident? After all, for my party, the Bill is to do with one's conscience and there is a free vote on a one-line Whip. As I have argued, there are good reasons for introducing the Bill, although perhaps not at this point. I popped out of the Chamber when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was speaking and checked with an honest and honourable Labour Member—whose name I shall not divulge in the House, lest he be hanged, drawn and quartered—who showed me his Whip. I was amazed that, for the Government, this is a three-line Whip, not a matter of conscience. Mr. Cairns therefore has every right to say that he is confident that the law will be changed before the next election.

Dr. Godman

If I may say so, I was hoping to leave this place—but that is another story.

May I help the hon. Gentleman by putting the record straight? He said that Mr. Cairns fought the Ayr parliamentary constituency in a previous election. That is simply not the case.

Mr. Fabricant

I stand corrected. A previous speaker—I cannot remember who, although perhaps it was the hon. Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne)—said that about Ayr.

Ms Osborne


Mr. Fabricant

I think that the hon. Member for Ayr wishes to intervene and set the record straight. However, all that I am saying is that I was listening to the debate, and took that information from her. I may have misheard her, but I shall give way to her.

Ms Osborne

It was my husband, a former Church of Scotland minister, who stood for Ayr.

Mr. Fabricant

Earlier, I said that, although I am good at languages, I am not good at dialects. I do not mean to be offensive, but I must have misheard the hon. Lady. I happily withdraw my remark.

Nevertheless, David Cairns is standing for election. Why have the Government left the matter for so long? I do not expect that the Government in power acted a year later on the second Test Act of 1678. However, given that the Home Affairs Committee reported on the need for change more than two years ago, it seems that the Government are motivated to make a change by introducing the Bill now to enable David Cairns to stand for the constituency of Greenock and Inverclyde and, they hope, to be elected.

That is wrong and it is equally wrong, as I said earlier, that the Government have subjected the Bill to a three-line Whip. That breaks a sort of understanding in the House that, on matters of conscience—no matter what hon. Members have said, this is a matter of conscience—there should not be a three-line party Whip. I am rather pleased that members of my own Front Bench have demonstrated that principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has yet to make his speech, but he has said already, as I have, that he supports the general principle of the Bill. However, I know that our right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is not keen on the Bill for good reasons of religion and conscience. I do not agree with her, but she is free to oppose the Bill because Conservative Members believe that matters of conscience should remain so and should not be a question of party political opportunism.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

What a pile of nonsense.

Mr. Fabricant

That opportunism has been created, as the Government Whip has just pointed out.

Is the Minister aware of any Labour Members who oppose the Bill on the ground of conscience? Will they be allowed to vote against i,t or will the full might of the Government Whip be thrown at them, which, in the shape of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), would be a very frightening prospect indeed? [Interruption.]

Mr. Bercow

I am truly horrified by what has just been uttered by a Member from a sedentary position. Did my hon. Friend overhear the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)—who, unless I am mistaken, is a lifelong and inveterate opponent of the death penalty—advocating the death penalty for any Labour Member foolish or brave enough to vote against the Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Perhaps it would be a good idea if we returned to the contents of the Bill.

Mr. Fabricant

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In conclusion, the Bill is overdue in the macro-chronology of events. It should have been introduced in the House two and a half years ago and should have been voted on according to conscience. I will support the Bill if it is put to the vote, but what would have been a renowned Bill, which would have been respected in the House, has been degraded by the Government, who have acted opportunistically, for party political ends, in their embittered fight against the Scottish National party in Scotland. For that reason alone, the Bill, as it appears before the House today, is to be deplored.

6.47 pm
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I rise in response to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who argued that this is a case of allegiance. While I rush to give him historical illustrations, what I mean by saying that this is a matter of allegiance is very different from what it would have meant in the 16th century when these debates were initiated. I do not believe that, in the modern world, the problem case is that of the Catholic priest. Paradoxically, it is that of the Anglican.

If we look at the list of disqualifications, we see that civil servants have been disqualified from membership of the House. I believe that even the present Government intend to continue that disqualification. That is sound: the argument runs that the prime loyalty of a civil servant is to the Department, the service in general and to a particular Minister who may be either in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. He may also be loyal and responsible to one Minister in the other place and another in the House of Commons. It is therefore thought inappropriate, if not impossible, for someone to stand for election, to continue that prime loyalty to an individual Minister through the civil service and, at the same time, to do the job of a Member of Parliament, exposing the pros and cons of Ministers and subjecting the Executive to the necessary scrutiny and examination. That decision is right.

One problem in the case of the Anglican priest is that we still have an established Anglican Church. Ultimately, the Anglican priest reports to, or is responsible to, a peer in the other place. There is some similarity or analogy between the argument about the prime loyalty and allegiance of the civil servant to the Minister and the argument that the prime loyalty and allegiance of the full-time, employed priest, through those to whom he reports, is to the bishop who is sitting in the other place.

There could be a complication, were the practising Anglican priest to secure election to the House. If his career as a priest also flourished and he was invited to become a Lord Spiritual—the ultimate honour in the Anglican Church—he would immediately have to vacate his seat in this House or be faced with a difficult and painful choice. The problem arises both for the individual and for the House as a result of the fact that the Church is still established.

I am in favour of the Church remaining established. Perhaps the Government intend to introduce legislation to disestablish the Church, in which case the Bill would be more consistent and would make more sense, but the Government are putting the cart before the horse by including serving Anglican priests in the current legislation.

Mr. Stunell

I have been following the right hon. Gentleman's line of thought carefully. Does he think that we should pass legislation to forbid the sons of the remaining hereditary peers to stand for election to the House, on the ground that one day there might be a by-election?

Mr. Redwood

No, that would not be sensible. Given the way the hereditary peers have been treated by this miserable Government, a further insult to them would hardly be justified or sensible.

The Bill deals with a far more important set of cases. I hope that when the Minister responds he will try to answer my dilemma. I broadly welcome freedom. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and other colleagues, I want to open up access to the House as widely as possible. I am a democrat. I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to come forward. I certainly do not wish to penalise anyone for having a faith other than my own.

There are elements of the Bill that I therefore find attractive, but I am worried by the general conundrum concerning the role of an established Church. It used to mean a great deal. The relationship between Church and state has been carefully thought through and worked out.

If the Minister wants to win over someone like me to his cause, I hope that he will explain how it is possible for us to continue—rightly, in my view—with a disqualification for a civil servant who reports to a Minister and could otherwise get into a conflict of interest, but not to have similar worries about an Anglican priest who reports to a Lord Spiritual and bears allegiance to the established Church of the country, which is still carefully interwoven with our partly written and venerable constitution. I hope that that point will be cleared up.

I hope, also, that the Minister will say more about the timing of the legislation. I was disturbed by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who believes strongly that the Bill is a rush job, with a particular candidate and a particular election in mind. Good law is not made out of hard cases. These matters need considering in the general and in the round, and the relevant legislation should be put through when it is not particularly contentious.

If it is the Government's plan to rush the legislation through before the election for electoral purposes, we can discover that if the Minister will give us an honest answer about the timing of the Bill's coming into force. I would be more swayed if he promised me that the legislation would not come into force in time for the likely general election in April or May this year. We would then know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield had, uncharacteristically, been too sceptical about the Government, and that they had no intention of legislating for hard cases in the run-up to an election.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Is he seriously saying that he wants to keep the disqualification on the statute book, and that he would vote for the Bill only if it did not become law until after the general election, so that someone would be prevented from standing in a constituency where he might be elected to Parliament simply because he was a priest, although no longer practising as such? Is that really the right hon. Gentleman's view?

Mr. Redwood

No, I was not saying that that was my view, but I have found out something very interesting about the Minister's intentions. Although he has not been prepared to write into the Bill, or to tell the House, the date by which he wants the legislation to pass and come into effect, we have now discovered that it is a rush job and that the Government failed to think about the matter in good time, over the past three and a half years, when we could have had a more leisurely discussion and the House could have given the Bill proper consideration. Now they suddenly have a problem and they are trying to rush the Bill through before the general election.

I repeat that that is not a good way to legislate. I do not want to trespass on the debate that might follow on the timetable for considering the legislation, but it is relevant to this important debate on its principles that there is no date in the Bill, and that the Minister seems to have expressed the wish to move rapidly to a conclusion.

Dr. Godman

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Redwood

I shall give way when I have dealt with the Minister's point. [Interruption.] I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). This is a debate, and I am delighted that hon. Members are taking it seriously.

I shall complete my answer to the Minister. I am not saying that people should be barred from standing for election. I have just explained that, in general, I welcome the broadening of eligibility as much as possible. However, I have raised one issue, and if the Minister can deal with that satisfactorily, he may well sway me, even as regards Anglican vicars. I have already said that I have no problem with other types of minister. I was always referring to people who are practising and are on the payroll in their Church, not to people who have ceased to be on the payroll and are moving on to an entirely different career.

Dr. Godman

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. May I point out to him that if the Bill becomes law, it will bring us into line with the laws governing election to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly? He speaks of the relationship between the state and the Church. May I remind him that this Parliament governs a multinational state, not an English state?

Mr. Redwood

I agree that this is a Parliament for the whole United Kingdom, but it is also the Parliament responsible for the established Church that covers the biggest part of the United Kingdom. We know that successful battles have been fought in the past to disestablish Churches in the United Kingdom. I understand why that happened, and I understand the historical context.

There is still an established Church for the largest part of the United Kingdom, and the way in which that Church is established and its relationship to the House of Commons are important parts of our inherited constitution. I am asking the Minister to explain a little more how it will be changed, damaged or improved if the legislation goes ahead. From what I have heard so far, I do not think that that issue has been thought through fully.

The fact that the same rules do not apply in the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly does not surprise me. If, in Scotland, there is no established Church like the Anglican Church in England, there is not the same complication as the one that I raised for the Parliament of the Union. That is exactly my point. The fact that the Minister remains in his seat suggests that he cannot answer the conundrum.

Mr. Stunell

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman was not present for some earlier speeches, when he would have heard a number of times that the Church of Scotland is directly affected by the legislation. In the light of that, will he reconsider his last remarks?

Mr. Redwood

I do not need to reconsider my remarks. I did not say that the Church of Scotland was not affected by the legislation. I said that it was in a different position. I am speaking of the established Anglican Church and its relationship to this Parliament. That is not a matter for the Scottish Parliament and it is not a complication in the case of Scotland.

Ms Osborne

The Church of Scotland is the established Church of the Scottish nation.

Mr. Redwood

The Church of Scotland has arrangements with the Scottish Parliament different from the arrangements that the established Anglican Church has with the Parliament of the Union. That is my point. I am interested in the latter, because I am a Member of the Parliament of the Union. As the hon. Lady knows, I am not a member of either the Scottish Church or the Scottish Parliament, so that is not my direct concern. The Bill is of direct concern to the House of Commons, which is the Union Parliament and also the Parliament of the established Anglican Church.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I speak as the son of the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland is an established Church in this Parliament. Its relationship to this Parliament is precisely the same as that of the Church of England.

Mr. Redwood

I cannot accept what my hon. Friend says. Of course, the Church of Scotland has an arrangement in which this Parliament has a legitimate interest, but it does not have the same arrangement as the established Anglican Church, because of the differing histories of those Churches. I, as an Anglican and a Member of this House, am primarily interested in that relationship, which is the dominant relationship because the Anglican Church is the established Church of the largest part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Stuart Bell

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The Church of England fully supports the measure before the House and believes that it has no relevance or significance to the established Church.

Mr. Redwood

I am delighted about that, but it does not surprise me. Of course the Bill provides a greater freedom. If a civil servant were present and it was proposed that we should remove the disqualification of civil servants from the House of Commons, he might say that it was an excellent idea that provided greater freedom. However, that would not necessarily mean that it was the right thing to do.

I do not want to prolong my remarks, as I know that hon. Members want to make progress. However, I hope that the Under-Secretary will clarify the Bill's bearing on the important constitutional balance that was fought over and debated for many centuries in order to achieve an established Anglican church for the greater part of the United Kingdom. Will he describe the Bill's impact on the reporting lines of the clergy in respect of Lords Spiritual? I suspect that he will argue that there is no truth in my analogy between a civil servant reporting to a Minister and a vicar reporting to a Lord Spiritual. Why does he believe that to be the case?

7 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), with whose remarks I agree almost entirely. I am sorry that I have not been present to hear all the speeches that have been made. I was especially sorry not to hear the one by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who understands better than most people the history of the matters under discussion.

The House must carefully consider any proposed changes to its composition and should not introduce them in a hurried fashion. A number of modifications have been made to the electoral system during the current Parliament. Indeed, we debated other disqualification measures last year, when the Government proposed that people who owed no allegiance to this country should nevertheless be entitled to sit in Parliament, even though the taking of an oath of allegiance is a condition of membership of this House.

The Bill is important and deals with a matter that is not to be trifled with. Even if we live in more secular times than we used to, I greatly deplore it. Nevertheless, the Church of England is the established Church in this country. Every coin in our pockets bears testimony to that fact, as each coin of this realm carries the two letters "FD", which stand for the term "fidei defensor". Her Majesty the Queen is defender of the faith—the Anglican faith. That is inextricably bound up with this Parliament and the way in which it enacts legislation. That is why I believe that the matter should not be dealt with hurriedly.

Miss Widdecombe

The title "fidei defensor" was granted by the Pope, and related to defence of the Catholic faith.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that additional information, although it does not detract from the fact that Her Majesty is defender of the faith today. I understand that the title was conferred by the Pope on Henry VIII, so she is correct, but I hope that she will agree on today's practice, in which Her Majesty is the defender of the faith. Perhaps the cardinal archbishop will have noted her enthusiasm to leap to the defence of her newly espoused Church.

Miss Widdecombe

It was seven years ago.

Mr. Howarth

Seven years is not a long time in my right hon. Friend's political career, past or future.

When the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification considered the matter in 1951, it reported that no evidence was offered to Your Committee of public demand for an alteration of the law. The same applies today. I have not received from my constituents any letters urging me to change the law. I have not even received letters from members of the clergy in my constituency, or anywhere else in the country, urging me as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to bring about a change in the law. The Bill appears to have sprung out of the ether.

Mr. Forth

Has my hon. Friend received any letters from Labour candidates asking for the law to be changed?

Mr. Howarth

I confess that I have been sent no letters by Labour candidates, although I have received a letter from a Member of Parliament—the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The letter begins with the words "Dear colleague" and is signed by the hon. Lady herself, who I do not think is present. It states: I am writing to each of the members of the Home Affairs Select Committee to alert you to the above measure, which is receiving its second reading on Tuesday 6th February. This government Bill is entirely based on a recommendation of your committee, which in turn formed the basis of a Ten Minute Rule Bill that I introduced unsuccessfully in June 1999. I am taking the liberty of enclosing some notes that I have prepared. In the attached notes, she sets out the Church's view and explains why she believes a change in the law to be necessary. However, she does not refer to an important fact of which I have since been advised: her research assistant is intended to be the Bill's immediate beneficiary.

I find it astonishing that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden did not come clean with me and other hon. Members. Why did she not explain that she had a clear interest, because her research assistant was a candidate in Greenock and Inverclyde and was to be the first and principal beneficiary of an extensive and wide-ranging proposal to change the law governing the composition of the House of Commons? It appears that the Bill is not a matter of conscience for the Labour party or even of implementing a recommendation made two years ago by the Home Affairs Committee. Instead, it appears that it has been produced hurriedly—indeed, I suspect that it was formulated at the last minute—in order to benefit a chosen Labour party candidate.

I ask the Under-Secretary to imagine what would have happened if the Tories had done the same thing. Mr. Campbell would have been weaving his way around all the Fleet street editors saying, "What a disgrace. The Tories want to use Parliament to change the ancient laws of this land simply to benefit one of their own."

Mr. Redwood

Is my hon. Friend saying that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) paid a research assistant, out of House of Commons research allowances, to produce a brief recommending a measure that would advance his future career, but not revealing that that was the case?

Mr. Howarth

My right hon. Friend asks an important question that I cannot answer. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is not in the House and I am relying on a briefing, so I may be entirely wrong. However, she may have paid her research assistant to produce the briefing and then have failed to tell hon. Members what was going on. It is no good the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shaking his head. That is the perception that the Government are promoting.

I am not against the Government saying that they have a problem. They could have told us that they had a good candidate and wanted to clear the way for him to stand for Parliament and take his seat if he was elected. They could have said that the matter focused attention on the fact that, as Professor Blackburn pointed out, the law was somewhat archaic in this respect. Furthermore, they could have told us that they wanted to seize the opportunity provided by an individual case to tidy up the law. If the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department had said that in the first place today, I would have understood. However, they did not do that. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden cited the report of the Home Affairs Committee and sought to dress up the issue as a matter of principle.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Is it not a convention of the House that hon. Members should inform other Members if they intend to launch a personal attack on them? The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) began the onslaught. I cannot explain why my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is not present; there may be serious reasons for her absence. However, if she is to be attacked, it would have been courteous to inform her in advance. The attack is obviously premeditated.

Mr. Howarth

I am sorry if the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) perceives my comments as an attack on the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. Does the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden expect me to remain silent on a matter about which she has written to me, not only as another Member of Parliament but specifically as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which produced a report that she cited to support her contention? She has claimed the Bill as hers. I cannot account for her absence today; I understand that there may be good reasons for it. However, her absence should not prevent me from taking the opportunity to point out my anxieties about the submissions that she made to me. She chose to stay away; I did not choose to exclude her from the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am not absolutely sure of the facts, but it is possible that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has a very good personal reason for not being present today.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful for that guidance. I made the point to the hon. Member for Don Valley that there may be good reasons for the absence of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. I was not criticising her for her absence. However, she took the trouble to write to me, but she did not declare that she had a specific interest in the measure. I believe that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) is good enough to acknowledge that by nodding his head.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would be a good idea to consider the content of the Bill.

Mr. Howarth

I am more than happy to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was trying to respond to a challenge from the hon. Member for Don Valley.

Mr. Redwood

I should like to respond to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). My comments were not premeditated. I listened to the debate and a question occurred to me. I should be delighted if the matter could be cleared up. I was not attacking the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, but I should like to know the precise relationship that we are considering and how the research reached my hon. Friend.

Mr. Howarth

Like my right hon. Friend, I generally support the idea that the law should be tidied up. I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee, but I was not present to vote on the conclusions of the whole report on electoral law reform. I made it clear during our discussions, when Professor Blackburn appeared before us, that currently ordained and serving clergy of the Church of England were debarred from membership of the House for the good reason, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham explained, that they are represented in the other place by the Bench of 26 bishops.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham explained why it would be difficult for a clergyman who had been ordained in the Church of England to serve in the House while answerable to his—or nowadays her—bishop, who might sit in the other place. The Anglican clergy are all over the place on some important issues, and their presence in this place would be a disaster for the Church of England, of which I am a staunch member. It would not be beneficial for the Church of England to have many practising clergy here.

If a clergyman resigns from the Church of England and ceases to run a parish, or resigns from the Catholic Church, as Mr. Cairns has done, it is logical that such people should be able to stand for Parliament. I have no problem with that. I also have no problem with the current arrangement whereby some of the nonconformist Churches permit their ordained members to serve in the House. That seems to work, and I have no desire to turn the clock back and exclude them. However, as long as we have an established Church with 26 bishops in the other place, allowing currently practising clergy from the Church of England to serve in this place would cause difficulties and overturn the longstanding relations between the House and the Church.

Mr. Key

I have been to the Library and confirmed that David Cairns is employed in the House out of the public purse. Does my hon. Friend share my distress at the Government's refusal to come clean about Labour Members being on a three-line Whip and at our discovery that the man who stands to benefit directly and financially from the Bill works for a Labour Member of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster? The Government did not tell us that.

Mr. Howarth

You have already ruled on the matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but perhaps you will permit me to say that, sad to say, my hon. Friend makes an important and valid point. What would the Minister think if the Government were Tory and had put Conservative Members on a three-line Whip? The Opposition would have gone berserk. I do not oppose the Government's attempt to change the law, because some legislation is anachronistic and needs reforming. However, that is not the reason that the Government advanced.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

I do not want my position to be traduced in the way some hon. Members have traduced it. I introduced David Cairns to the debate. I mentioned him first and pointed out that he was a Labour candidate. I also said that I believed that, whatever political party a candidate represents, it is right that legislation should not prevent electors from voting for that person. I believe that the hon. Gentleman shares that view.

Mr. Howarth

I am sure that hon. Members are grateful to the Minister for making that absolutely clear. I am also acutely aware that a former hon. Friend sought to change the law. I do not oppose the principle of the Bill, but it is unfortunate that the reason for it was not made clear at the outset. I accept that the Minister mentioned it in his opening speech, but we should have advance knowledge of the reasons for measures. We know why the Criminal Justice and Police Bill and the Hunting Bill were introduced. However, I had to get a briefing from the Library to learn the reason for the Bill that we are discussing. I subsequently received the letter from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that said that she had introduced a ten-minute Bill in 1999. I picked up a briefing this morning on which I read Mr. David Cairns name. I therefore discovered the true purpose of the Bill only this morning.

Mr. Fabricant

I was present for the opening speeches. The Minister was less than open, unusually for him, when I asked him whether there was a three-line Whip. He did not volunteer the information that David Cairns is a paid employee who works in the House.

Mr. Howarth

I understand my hon. Friend's point.

I shall not support the Bill in the Lobby. I do not believe that we should stick to the status quo, but I oppose the proposal that all clergy, whatever their denomination, whether currently practising or not, should be allowed to stand for the House of Commons. I believe that Church of England clergy should be excepted because they are answerable to their bishops who sit in another place.

7.20 pm
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

This has been a good and instructive debate, to which 14 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. This is a grim, and arguably gruesome, occasion for me because it is one of the relatively rare—and, I hope, decreasingly common— occasions on which I find myself substantially in agreement with Labour Members, to whose defeat I have dedicated the past four years. I also find myself somewhat out of sympathy with a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which is a deeply uncomfortable experience.

Rarely do I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I feel somewhat unclean at the prospect of siding with him in a Division. However, Conservative Members have a free vote and, in the event of a Division, I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not all go into the same Lobby. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made it clear that she had substantial reasons for conscientious objection to the Bill, which would cause her to vote against it. For my part, I have studied the Bill and the sequence of events that form the centuries-long background to its introduction, and I am sympathetic to it.

The presentation of the Bill has, however, been badly handled, shabbily introduced and inappropriately conducted in typical new Labour fashion—in other words, in a disingenuous, untoward, hasty and arrogant fashion that is contemptuous of the rights of the House of Commons. Nevertheless, one has to make a judgment about the content of the Bill, and I agree with its provisions.

There have been good, well-considered and carefully thought through contributions from both sides of the House. In circumstances such as these, we should try to disagree with one another while respecting one another's motivations. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who argued the classic position in support of the Bill that keeping the disqualification on the statute book was undemocratic, a violation of rights and an historical anachronism, and that the time had now come to dispense with it. A similar argument was developed in witty and entertaining fashion by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and, with his customary gravitas, by the parliamentary representative of the Church Commissioners, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell).

We are accustomed to the historical exegesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), which I always find entertaining and from which I always learn things of which I was previously ignorant. His speech today represented no exception to the general rule.

I understand and respect the motivation of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and I accept without question his assurance that his constituency Labour party selected Mr. Cairns in ignorance, perhaps, of his background, but, certainly, of the fact that unless the law were changed, he could not take his seat in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made a perfectly legitimate point about the level of intelligence, or information, in that constituency Labour party. That is a fair point to make, but I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde that his constituency party did not know that this problem would arise. It is now for the House to decide how we want to tackle the issue.

Dr. Godman

I think that I used the term "justifiable" in my arguments about my constituency activists. May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that a large number of my constituents are Catholics, and that the Catholic Church in Scotland supports the Bill?

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and I shall go on to say something about support for the Bill in a moment. May I also clarify an observation that I made a moment ago, which was possibly infelicitous? When I referred to the intelligence level of people in the constituency Labour party, I was not suggesting that they were dim-witted. I used the word "intelligence" in the sense of the possession of information.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) explained clearly the background to her strong support for the Bill, and that is respected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst gave a characteristic tour de force, and he was joined in that enterprise by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).

It is not surprising to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is a supporter of the Bill, as he frequently supports the reform of institutions that he judges to have become antiquated and indefensible. He gave us another example today of his relatively modern outlook on politics. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) is no longer in the Chamber. He, too, made a sincere contribution, and that is respected.

The position on disqualification is obviously anomalous. Whatever view we take, we all recognise that. The disqualification applies to some people and not to others. It applies to members of the clergy in the Church of England and Ireland—but not Wales—to ministers in the Church of Scotland, to Roman Catholic priests, significantly, and to priests ordained by a bishop, all of whom are disqualified from sitting in this House.

There are no similar disqualifications for ministers of other religions. Nonconformist ministers are unaffected by the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. We are, therefore, specifically concerned with the practical effect of the 19th century legislation, which is to constrain non-Church of England, former episcopally ordained priests, including Roman Catholic priests.

I shall not dilate on the MacManaway case. However, an awareness of that case and the follow-up to it are essential to an understanding of the issue. The individual concerned, the reverend, had been ordained a priest in 1925 by the Bishop of Armagh, but subsequently relinquished all his rights as a priest in the Church of Ireland. The question arose as to whether his election in 1950 in Belfast, West should be allowed to stand.

The Minister, who is undoubtedly well versed in the intricacies of the matter, will be aware that a Select Committee considered whether Mr. MacManaway's election was void. In a report in 1950, it concluded that immediate legislative action was necessary to clarify the law. Regrettably, the Home Secretary at the time referred the issue to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council at the request of this House, and that Committee concluded that the use of the words ordained to the office of priest or deacon meant that that disqualification extended beyond priests and ministers of the established Church to all episcopal ordinations.

I challenged the hon. Member for Enfield, North earlier on the subject of the rather pusillanimous response of the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification as long ago as 1952–53. I emphasise that point, to which I know all my right hon. and hon. Friends are keenly attending, because the Select Committee recognised that the situation was anomalous. It then pondered whether to recommend reform, but timidly retreated from the fray. It stated in memorable and, frankly, damning words: Your Committee think that it would not be desirable to introduce any legislation to deal with the anomalies ahead of any general legislation which may hereafter be contemplated to deal with the qualifications and disqualifications of Members generally.

In a nutshell, that meant that the Select Committee at the time saw that there was a problem, worried that it was a hornet's nest and did not want to stir it up. I politely suggest that, 48 or 49 years on from its inconclusive and hedging report, there is now a good case for acting and for not allowing the problem to fester any longer.

Two key developments have brought us to where we are now. The first is the Select Committee on Home Affairs report of 1997–98 on electoral law administration. Giving evidence in that report, Professor Robert Blackburn, whose contribution was mentioned earlier, said that answering the question "Can a priest stand for Parliament?" involved consulting no fewer than nine separate Acts dating back to the 16th century. Significantly, the professor also said: The present situation whereby the disqualification of clergy operates in a discriminatory fashion between different faiths is no longer acceptable.

Many, and perhaps most, right hon. and hon. Members agree with that verdict. If we agree with that verdict, if we believe that there is a case for change and if we consider there to be no reason for the discrimination to persist, I do not believe that objections to the procedure—there will be a free vote, however—and to the Government's rather grubby handling of the matter should allow us to neglect the big issue, which is whether the Bill is right or wrong.

Miss Widdecombe

It is wrong.

Mr. Bercow

My right hon. Friend, chuntering from a sedentary position, suggests to me that the Bill is wrong. I say to my distinguished boss, who will be Home Secretary in a matter of weeks, that she thinks that I am wrong, but I know that she is. That will have to do for tonight as that was a risky thing to say to the person who will soon be Home Secretary.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Although many may agree with my hon. Friend that it is wrong to discriminate between different faiths when considering whether people are eligible for election, does he agree that it seems a bit daft to go ahead with the Bill when we are doing nothing about the most appalling discrimination in the other place? The Home Affairs Committee report referred to the Church of England, which has a number of bishops sitting in the other place even though other Churches such as my own and the Church of Scotland have no entitlement whatever. Instead of introducing a Bill to sort out a problem for one candidate in one seat, would it not be wiser to consider discrimination between the faiths throughout the parliamentary system?

Mr. Bercow

My hon. Friend speaks a lot of good sense, but my response must be that two wrongs do not make a right. I share his enthusiasm for speedy Government action to reform the composition of the other place. For my part, I favour a fully elected second Chamber and wish to goodness that the Government would get on with that important project. However, the fact that they have chosen not to do so in no way justifies us failing to take the right decision on the merits of this case, although the overall position lacks consistency and has no rational basis. It ought to be changed.

I must tease right hon. and hon. Members about matters tactical for future reference. They had a good case, but they spoiled it in two material particulars, at least as far as I and, I suspect, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are concerned. First, most Conservatives—certainly those of us here present—could not give a tinker's cuss as to the view of the European convention on human rights about the matter. The fact that we might be under pressure from the European convention or as a result of passing the iniquitous, ghastly, risible, detestable Human Rights Act 1998 matters not a jot as far as many of us are concerned.

Secondly, Labour Members should not ruin the argument by jabbering on about the merits of Father Bruce. I refer, of course, to the fortunately defeated Labour candidate in the Oxford, West and Abingdon constituency in 1992. If there were one good reason to keep the discrimination, it might conceivably be to keep out the discredited former leader of communists, neutralists and defeatists. Really, that cuts no ice with me. Even though I have no regard for Monsignor Kent, I could not bring myself to do other than support the Bill in a Division. I could not have brought myself to do other than that even when he was standing for Parliament and would have taken his seat in the House if elected.

I make my final observation by way of an appeal to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. As Conservatives, we oppose wholesale change and we believe in gradual reform. We favour evolutionary rather than revolutionary development, but we most certainly do not oppose change on principle. My view, which hails from that of Burke, the father of modern Conservatism and one of the most distinguished statesmen ever to serve in the House, is as follows: The state which lacks the means of change lacks the means of its own conservation.

A good case has been made. The content of the Bill is sound. We can no longer defend the current iniquity. That is why, if there is a Division, I for one shall vote for the Bill, though I know that many will be inclined to do the opposite.

7.34 pm
Mr. Mike O'Brien

With the leave of the House, I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for supporting a measure introduced by the Labour Government, which he will not do often. I wish that I could thank the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), but we shall wait and see how she votes.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham. In passing, I remind him that the support given by Conservative Front Benchers to the Human Rights Act 1998 is noted by us and will be commented on by us at every possible opportunity. May I deal with the free vote and the Whip? The Conservatives have a free vote because their Front Benchers are split. As usual, they are rowing among themselves, but they want to make a virtue out of a quarrel. Just because they cannot agree does not mean that everyone else has the same problem.

Labour Members are united: we oppose discrimination; we oppose the disqualification of priests; we support equality; we support the Bill. This is a Government Bill, it is whipped and the Whip will be applied, but Labour Members, even on a three-line Whip, are not obliged to vote against their consciences. If any consider the Bill to represent an issue of conscience, they can exercise their conscience. Furthermore, Opposition Members are under a one-line Whip. They are not only split, but have been told that they need not even bother to turn up for the vote. We heard all that verbiage and nonsense about matters of conscience, but this is not enough of a matter of conscience to make the Opposition ask their Members to turn up to vote. That is the shambles of today's Conservative party, but enough of party politics: let us deal with the more serious points raised by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald.

The right hon. Lady does not believe that priests should be both Members of the House and practising holy orders. I understand that view, but, with the greatest respect, that is not the issue. Whether priests should be MPs is a matter for the internal rules of their Church. The issue is whether the state should intervene to forbid priests of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Scottish Church from being MPs when most other religions encounter no such state prohibition. The Government believe that the state should not exercise that prohibition, but should leave it to the people to decide who their representatives should be and to the Churches to decide their own internal rules.

The right hon. Lady also said that she did not believe that a priest should sit in this place. Although David Cairns remains a priest under canon law, he no longer practises as a priest and no longer celebrates mass. That does not mean that he is not a practising Catholic, which he remains. The law, because of the way in which canon law operates, forbids him from becoming a Member of Parliament. I believe that that is wrong. Obviously, the right hon. Lady is entitled to her own view. However, if she believes that no clergyman—even a man not practising his holy orders—should be allowed to sit in the Chamber, does she therefore favour extending the ban to cover all ordained ministers, such as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)?

Miss Widdecombe

Theology is not much discussed these days, but the Minister will know that there is a massive difference between priest and minister—and I said "priest".

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Lady did indeed say "priest", but if she takes the principled view that those who are ordained should not be Members of the House, surely she cannot seek to use the law of the state to exclude only Catholics and members of the established Church.

The right hon. Lady also asked why we have not used the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to make the changes. There are a number of reasons, and the obvious one is that the short titles did not allow it, although we could have dealt with that. At that time, we were awaiting responses from the Churches to inquiries about their views and, following the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and the selection of David Cairns as a candidate, we wanted to ensure that we knew those views before legislating.

Let me add that at that stage we were not sure whether the legislation was needed. We were exploring the possibility of non-legislative means and considering whether there was a way in which, within the law, David Cairns could become a Member of Parliament. Following a full investigation, the level of doubt was high enough to make us feel that we should present this Bill.

Miss Widdecombe

I thank the Minister for his elucidation, but two issues are being considered. The first is the case of David Cairns, an ex-Roman Catholic priest; the second is the question of serving clergy.

It was always clear that the second issue would have to be addressed through the law, and that there would never be any question of a non-legislative option. I think that the Minister is trying to make the best of a very bad job. He knew about the position for a long time, but did not do anything about it until faced with an immediate case. We have already dealt with the disqualifications legislation; the word "disqualifications" should have made it possible to encompass this provision in that Bill.

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Lady is not making an entirely unfair point. It is because we are now faced with the case of a particular individual who wishes to stand for Parliament, and who would be excluded under existing legislation, that allowing the current law to stand has become an immediate question of unfairness. I have always been clear about the fact that the David Cairns case is the reason for urgency. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, the existing law is wrong, and it would be unjust to allow that law to prevent someone's election because of that person's former membership of the priesthood.

The right hon. Lady said that the process was all too rushed. I think that after 200 years we are entitled to argue that when a case such as the one we are discussing arises, getting rid of prejudice—far from being too rushed—is long overdue.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) asked why we had waited so long. To some extent, I have already dealt with that. Parliamentary time is always at a premium, and many members of the hon. Gentleman's party constantly demand the presentation of this or that Bill. Members of Parliament are here to be legislators, after all, but the injustice of David Cairns's position is manifest, which is why we had to present our Bill now. That is not opportunist; we are dealing with the practical circumstances of an individual, and a case of injustice would have had to be dealt with had we not presented the Bill. The hon. Gentleman may not care about injustice. He may well feel that those who seek to deal with a particular injustice are mere opportunists. I say that this is a matter of principle—and I am glad to note that the hon. Gentleman will support it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) said that we were discussing an issue of equality. It is indeed the case that the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are subject to restrictions that are not placed on other religions. It is time to end that inequality.

In what I considered to be the best speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) said that this was an issue of principle, regardless of whether David Cairns was involved. She was entirely right. We should all heed her description of the problems that arose in her constituency and the way in which she and her husband were personally affected—it lent a particular conviction to her passionate contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) set out his case with characteristic clarity and, again, passion. He asked whether a priest could renounce the priesthood. Catholic priests can be defrocked; indeed, a Catholic priest who had committed child abuse in my constituency was defrocked yesterday. I am very pleased about that, as I cannot think of a better case for defrocking, but David Cairns—whose case has brought this issue to the fore—is not a defrocked priest, but a priest who no longer celebrates mass and acts as a priest. He cannot cease to be a priest without enormous difficulty, which is why we should ensure that he is not prevented from becoming a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Minister rightly says that no one should be disqualified from holding an office in the state, serving this Parliament or otherwise, simply because of his or her religion. Do the Government consider that that applies to the position of head of state?

Mr. O'Brien

There are always exceptions to every rule, and there are always exceptions relating to those who can stand for Parliament. The hon. Gentleman was not present earlier—I know where he was: no doubt he was working very hard on the Hunting Bill—but if he had been, he would have heard the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) list all the people who, for various reasons, were prevented from standing for Parliament. I certainly accept that in many instances there were justifiable reasons for restricting their candidature, but this is not such a case.

We listened carefully to the hon. Member for Belfast, South. He has the benefit of being ordained, and as an ordained person he illustrated the value of not shutting the doors, as he put it, on members of other religions who are also ordained.

I turn now to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which I always do with particular pleasure. He said that the Labour party in Greenock and Inverclyde had selected someone in breach of the law. As I have said, the law was unclear at the time, and the party cannot therefore be challenged on that basis.

I welcomed the right hon. Gentleman's support for the principle, although I do not think he liked the Bill or its timing. I hope I have been straightforward about why the timing was necessary.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to question the loyalty of Catholics to this country. Catholics will be deeply offended by his comments. He says he does not care about that, and it is certainly his right to make such comments, but I think he will find that many conclude that some of the old prejudices are still rampant on the Conservative Back Benches. I suspect that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will have to watch her back.

Mr. Winnick

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but his questioning—it could only be described as such—of Catholic loyalty to this country, and having a wider loyalty, was surely unacceptable and, indeed, downright disgraceful.

Mr. O'Brien

I agree. The right hon. Gentleman always seeks to be provocative, and on this occasion he was indeed provocative. There is no justification for questioning the loyalty of Catholics to this country: many sacrifice their lives fighting for it and seeking to protect it. I am sure that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will feel that his comments were unjustified.

The right hon. Gentleman said that Catholic priests would not come here because the Church would not allow them to do so; but former priests will, I think. The Church of England is content for its clergy to be here if they choose to be so, but it is indeed the case that the Catholic Church does not allow practising priests to become MPs.

In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) asked why a priest who no longer acted as such should be banned from Parliament, while a rabbi, mullah or Methodist minister could be an MP. That, I think, sums up the Government's basic case.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked another question, which I forgot to mention earlier: he asked whether there would be enough time to deal with the Bill before the election. I can only say, "I hope so; I do not know; wait and see." He also asked for the commencement date of the legislation. It will come into force by Royal Assent, and an amendment will be tabled for that purpose at the Committee stage. He asked about the definition of "minister". It is in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978. I do not think that we have had any problems with that definition, and we are relying on it.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked whether a Church of England minister could be subject to instructions from a bishop. I thought the analogy with a civil servant's allegiance to a Government Minister was particularly spurious, but there is no evidence to suggest that a Church of England minister who became an MP would be suborned by a bishop, whether he belonged to the Church of England or the Church of Scotland.

The right hon. Gentleman began to dig a deep hole for himself when he challenged the established position of the Church of Scotland. At that point, it looked rather as though he had wandered into the debate at a late stage, with a speech that he had not particularly considered. Indeed, I think that that is exactly what had happened.

Mr. Redwood

The hon. Gentleman does me less than justice. I was very clear about the different established position of the Anglican Church and its very special relationship with both Houses of Parliament. He has also not done justice to the question that I asked. Will he explain to the House what difference it will make to the role of the established Church if junior members of the priesthood of the established Church can be Members of Parliament, in the lower House, when the spiritual peers are in the upper House?

Mr. O'Brien

I can see no particular change that that would create in relation to the established Church. A bishop would not seek to suborn a Member of this place. That is just not going to happen, and it is an entirely spurious point. The right hon. Gentleman can accept that or not, but it is certainly my view.

Mr. Stuart Bell

May I echo the position that the Minister has just confirmed? It is totally impossible for the Church to suborn its bishops in the Lords and have them vote in a particular way. The idea that they could suborn a Member of Parliament is ridiculous.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He proves the point that I was making about the way in which the right hon. Member for Wokingham made his point.

Whatever justification there may or may not have been in the past, there can now be no reason to keep measures on the statute book that prevent ordained clergy, though they be few in number, from being elected to serve in this place. The Government are firmly of the view that Catholic priests should have similar status to Church of England clergy and that both should be able to present themselves to the electorate unless they have a voice in another place.

The Bill is a small but significant measure that will remove unfair and anachronistic legislation that prevents both serving and former ministers of religion from taking seats as Members of Parliament if they are elected. It deserves the support of all hon. Members and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.