Removal of Disqualification of Clergy

Orders of the Day — House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 1st March 2001.

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 1:25 pm, 1st March 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 1, line 5, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (1A),"

The Chairman:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 13, in page 1, line 6, after "ordained", insert— 'to the office of priest or deacon'. No. 12, in page 1, line 7, after "minister", insert "(or the recognised equivalent)"

No. 15, in page 1, line 7, at end insert— '(1A) A person is disqualified from being or being elected as a member of the House of Commons if—

  1. (a) he has been ordained to the office of priest or deacon in accordance with any form of episcopal ordination, and
  2. (b) he is practising as a priest or deacon.'.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I should say at the outset that there will be free votes for Conservative Members on all the issues being debated in Committee and on Report, though the Government obviously intend not to allow that stage of consideration, as well as on Third Reading.

I have moved the amendment to try to distinguish between serving and ex-priests. The Minister will be aware that I said on Second Reading that I was unhappy with the prospect a practising priests, as opposed to ministers in non-conformist Churches, being able to sit in the House. Bishops of the Church of England, who are, of course, practising are allowed to sit in the other place. However, they do not have 70,000 constituents to look after, nor do they have long and complicated Committee interests. Their attendance tends to be confined to debates on issues that have t direct impact on matters on which the Church has, or is expected to have, a view.

An ordained priest who had not given up his orders would serve as a Member of Parliament both as a priest consecrated to the full-time service of almighty God and one engaged in the service of Caesar in this place. That is, in my view, an amazing combination even to contemplate, but we are now putting the possibility of such a combination into law. The proposal needs to be tested on its merits, and should be viewed entirely separately from the issue of ex-priests.

1.30 pm

We all know why the Bill is being introduced: it is to enable a particular prospective Labour party candidate to take his seat if he is successful. It is not about great issues of principle. As I said on Second Reading, the Bill could have been presented on at least four earlier occasions—I subsequently discovered a fifth—had the Government been seriously moved by its merits. The fact is, however, that it was not presented on those occasions, because it was of no interest t. the Government until it affected a Scottish Labour candidate, who suddenly realised that if he won he would not be able to sit in the House. He, of course, is an ex-priest.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I may be able to deal with some of the right hon. Lady's other points later if I catch your eye, Sir Alan, but I now have a question about the narrow point relating to episcopally ordained and practising priests. Does the right hon. Lady extend that to a priest ordained in the Liberal Catholic Church or any of the old Catholic Churches? She should bear in mind, for instance, that our late and distinguished friend Dr. Eric Taylor, Assistant Clerk of the House, was ordained as a priest in the Liberal Catholic Church. Would she have excluded him or his colleagues for seeking election, given that such people are by definition part-time pastors as well as episcopally ordained priests?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The right hon. Lady does not know the answer.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I do, but I am going to stick to the definitions on which we have worked throughout. I fully acknowledge that they are arguable: I doubt whether anyone here would suggest that there is a logical coherence in the definition of what constitutes a priest and, for that matter, the definition of what constitutes an ex-Roman Catholic priest. No one is likely to claim that those definitions are perfect.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The right hon. Lady described David Cairns as an ex-priest. I understand that he is currently a priest, although he no longer conducts the Mass: he no longer does the work of a priest, and I gather that he has no intention of returning to the priesthood. Under the rules of the Catholic Church, however, once a priest, always a priest. That presents one of the difficulties and in many ways illustrates the point that the right hon. Lady appears to making.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Indeed. The Minister may recall that during our last debate I called out, from a sedentary position, "Once a priest, always a priest".

It is already possible for members of the Church of England who have been ordained and have forsaken the priesthood to be elected to sit and to serve. That is not possible if they are currently serving members. There is a distinction between those who have left the priesthood and those who are currently serving. The candidate on whose behalf all this shemozzle is taking place no longer practises—although I agree that "once a priest, always a priest" is one of the more confusing issues.

What I am trying to ascertain is whether, when we gave the Bill a Second Reading—unwisely, in my view—we should have explored in more detail the issue of allowing someone who is currently practising to sit, and allowing someone who no longer practises to sit, regardless of whether his Church has released him from the title or order of the priesthood.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Is not the point that my right hon. Friend has introduced to the debate more properly a matter for the Church or religious denomination or institution itself an. I its adherents than for the law? The issue on which she is now touching—whether we need the law to rescue religious beliefs and believers from themselves—is very important.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

We are already using the law for that purpose. That is why we are having this debate. If we had always taken the view that the matter was nothing to do with Parliament, there would not be a law prescribing who can and who cannot sit in our midst. There is already such a law. No religious denomination really has the power to prevent its ex-priests from doing anything that they like. Therefore, one cannot sensibly argue that we can leave it to the Pope or to the Archbishop of Canterbury when his people have forsaken the priesthood, renounced their vows and decided that they are not going to be bound by the strictures of whoever it was to whom they previously pledged obedience. I think that my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that there is some difficulty in just passing the whole matter over to others.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am struggling to understand why the right hon. Lady—who objects to the legislation because she thinks that a pastor has too great a work load—makes a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and other ministers of religion.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

If the right hon. Lady were to pursue her argument to its logical conclusion, she would be seeking to amend the Bill to exclude ministers of other religions. I am a walking witness to the fact that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is, according to his lights, an extremely good and diligent pastor; I have been to Martyrs Memorial church, which is extremely good value in terms of preaching and in every other term. He also demonstrably fulfils his role as a very diligent, albeit controversial, hon. Member. Why is there a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and those who are ministers of religion but not ordained?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

As I made very clear to the hon. Gentleman on Second Reading, the issue is being debated from the point of view of conscience. He will be aware that some of us regard the priesthood as something that is consecrated and flows from recognising the orders of those who do the ordination in the first place. There are other denominations, to which neither he nor I belong, that do not take that line in their recognition of ministers. I have always held that view. However, it is not only a matter of where I might be coming from; in this case, the law itself makes the distinction. Therefore, operating on the basis of the distinction that the law already makes, I am trying to examine whether, on that same basis, we should be proceeding as was decided on Second Reading.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

The Bill says that we should not make a distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and those who are not, whether they are Baptists, Methodists or any of the other great faiths. Surely we are saying that it is up to Churches themselves to decide what their ministers or priests can and cannot do and that it is not up to the state to do that. Our job is to extend as far as we possibly can the boundaries of those who can stand.

Some of us share and practise the same religion. In a way, the fact that Catholicism is at the centre of this particular case might obstruct us from seeing the overall illogical nature of the debate. However, if we want to go ahead and attempt to define in law what an ex-priest is, we really will have the wrath of the Catholic Church on us.

The Chairman:

Order. The hon. Lady is catching a bad habit from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) in making an intervention into a speech. An intervention must remain an intervention, even in Committee.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Whether the hon. Lady made an intervention or a speech. it did not take us much further. With all due respect, she was raising exactly the same point as that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and I answered it. I do not see much point in repeating the answer. It is worth while debating whether it is proper for people who have been episcopally ordained—I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will complain that I confine myself to that, but so does the law—and are full-time serving priests to sit in this House.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

The right hon. Lady speaks with characteristic courtesy and all the fervour of a recent convert—[Interruption.] To someone born into the Church, she is a recent convert. Would not proposed section (1A) in amendment No. 15 harm the interests of former priests?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

No, I do not believe that it would. On the other hand, my position is straightforward, as I have always said that once one is a priest, one is always a priest. By tabling the amendment, I was endeavouring to debate a distinction that was not made on Second Reading, when we debated matters in the round. What do we accept in the case of ex-priests? If somebody enters holy orders, subsequently leaves and then wants to pursue some other avenue in life, why should not they be allowed to do so in law? There is a quite serious case to be made on that basis. There is a distinction, however, between whether such people should be able to sit in this place and whether somebody who is consecrated, practising and has a flock should be able to do so, which is worthy of debate.

The House will know, because I said it on Second Reading, that I do not believe that the two go together. I believe also, however, that there are other big issues concerning bishops, which may be debated under later amendments. If the Bill were enacted, a bishop would be able to sit in this place. I see a distinction between a fully serving diocesan bishop not being allowed to sit in this place, because he could be called to the House of Lords, and a suffragan bishop, who is not—I was about to say in danger—likely to be called to the other place. We have gone into this rather too quickly because of the Labour candidate in question, and we have not properly considered a host of refinements that raise further questions.

I shall endeavour to press the amendment to a Division because it would at least be appropriate if those of us who do not believe that consecrated priests should be involved in this place had the opportunity to put that on record.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I promise to be brief.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has said a couple of times that once a priest, always a priest. It would be fair to say that that complies with paragraph 3 of canon 285 of the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983, which states: Clerics are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power. Although I have no experience as a parliamentary draftsman, my concern—I asked the right hon. Lady about this—is that the wording of amendment No. 15, against which I shall happily vote regardless of whether it is the subject of a three-line Whip or is a free vote, as I believe it should be because it is a matter of conscience, would harm the interests of former priests. That is a serious charge to lay against the right hon. Lady, whose attention I do not expect to receive, although I am glad that her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), is listening.

1.45 pm

I know a goodly number of fine, decent and honourable men who have given up the priesthood. A man whom I am honoured to say is a very close friend of mine gave up the priesthood after 25 years of selfless and remarkable service to his parishioners in Glasgow. He decided that he could no longer accept the canon law on celibacy and that he wanted to lead an ordinary life, as many others throughout the Catholic Church have decided to do. That man now leads a happily married life in the south of Glasgow.

There is no chance of the right hon. Lady's amendment being accepted because it does not make sense and it is harmful to those who have left the priesthood. [Interruption.] Yes it is, in my view.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I shall give way with, I hope, better grace than the right hon. Lady gave way to me.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for doing so in a state of grace. Amendment No. 15 would not affect those who have left the priesthood because of the use of the word "and", not "or". The amendment says that he would be disqualified if he has been ordained to the office of priest and he is practising as a priest or deacon.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

That is an assurance of sorts, but it is a question of interpretation. I stick to what I said: the amendment is unhelpful.

Of course, I am closely involved in what has become known as the Cairns affair in the west of Scotland. In this place, just three weeks ago, I had to defend the good faith of the members of the local Labour party, who were quite unaware of the anomaly faced by Mr. Cairns. He chose not to make this known at the hustings. That was a decision for him and his conscience. I am saying, in all conscience, that I am deeply disturbed by the right hon. Lady's amendment. She seems to be seeking to subsume the law of the United Kingdom under that of Roman Catholic law. That I find unacceptable.

A priest may choose to give up his parish duties and take up what I think is a more normal life. I have never been convinced about the law concerning compulsory celibacy—I think that it is harming the Church badly. I hasten to say that I speak as a lapsed Catholic. I was born and baptised into the Church, but I left. It was many years before the right hon. Lady entered the Church—there was no link between my departure and her arrival into the Church, I am pleased to say.

It is only right and proper that we enact the Bill. I believe perhaps in a Leninist way—I am old Labour rather than a Marxist or a Leninist—that in the light of the right hon. Lady's comments about a certain candidate, the ends justify the means. That is why I support the Bill but certainly not amendment No. 15.

At present, if that good friend of mine in Glasgow chooses to stand for the Scottish Parliament, it seems that there is no impediment to his doing so and, if he were successful, to taking his seat there. The same holds for the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, and it should hold for this place, too. It might improve matters in this place if we had a few former priests on the Benches.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does my hon. Friend accept that we would take precisely the same attitude towards the Bill if the person concerned was a Conservative or Liberal candidate? I certainly would. It would make not the slightest difference.

Does my hon. Friend also accept that there should be no discrimination against anyone in this place? Catholics campaigned to be able to stand for Parliament and so did Jews in 1860. Charles Bradlaugh who represented Northampton, was refused the right to sit in this Chamber four times because he had no religious views. We want an all-inclusive House of Commons, and I hope that that will always be the case.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I agree with my hon. Friend. As soon as this anomaly became known to people in the west of Scotland—I do not think that ordinary people knew about it before—a number of Catholics asked me whether it was yet another element in discrimination that they had suffered down the years. I make that point in relation to amendment No. 15. Catholics and others, from the Church of Scotland and from elsewhere, have said that the anomaly is absurd and should go. I hope that when I address a meeting of ministers and priests in my constituency tomorrow, I shall be in the happy position of being able to say that the amendments—especially amendment No. 15—have been rejected and that the Bill is proceeding on its way to the other place, which should be abolished anyway.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I shall speak to amendment No. 13, though I confess that amendment No. 14, moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), covers a mach bigger point. Although she kindly indicated that we have a free vote, I am happy to tell her that if she chooses to press it to a Division, I shall be in the Lobby with her.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to allow me to let him know that I have asked my officials to ensure that at least some of the letters from the Churches that we consulted will be placed in the Library, as he requested. Letters from the United Kingdom Churches—Catholic, Church of England and so on—should now be in the Library, or at least on their way there. We are still seeking the consent of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland to allow their letters to be placed in the Library. I shall obtain that as soon as possible.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I am not just grateful, but stunned at such speedy action by a Minister. It is important that the responses are in the Library so that we may read the wording used by the Churches on these complex issues.

I was speaking specifically to amendment No. 13. The Bill appears to have been drafted rather hastily. It contains no definition of "ordained", and we should be clear on exactly what we are talking about. My amendment reflects the wording of The House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801, which will be repealed by the Bill, picking out the words "priest or deacon". I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald picked out the same phrase for amendment No. 15, and I hope—indeed pray—that if I support her on amendment No. 14, she may be moved to support me on amendment No. 13. I stress that it is essentially a drafting, technical amendment, and is not as significant as amendment No. 14, which I shall support.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

During this Committee stage, I want to express some irritation. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) initiated a private Member's Bill that would, in effect, have introduced the measure before us, but because of our procedures, it was not enacted. I had previously questioned the Home Secretary about the desirability of such a measure during this Parliament, but he saw me off. We know that the Bill is now being introduced because of events in Greenock and Port Glasgow

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and lnverclyde (Dr. Godman). That is the reason for the Bill's introduction, and it is the worst possible reason for making a change. Nevertheless, it is a change that we should make. Sometimes, I am a moderniser, while some of my good friends on the Front Bench are deeply conservative: they should have taken the initiative sooner as a matter of human rights and enfranchisement, rather than introducing a Bill now for the worst possible reason. I wanted to make that point, and I do so unashamedly. I wish that the Home Secretary and others would listen more to Labour Members and others in this place. It would be better for the House.

Also on a serious note, long before I had an early ambition to be a Member of Parliament, I wanted to be not a train driver but a priest. I remember telling a small group of children about it in later years. They were pretty geared up and they said that it reminded them of a parable. I asked what they meant and they said, "A man came from Jericho and fell among robbers." They were referring to the fact that I took a different course. I persuaded them that the honourable House was not like that, but the course of my life could have been somewhat different had ambitions from early childhood been sustained.

More recently, I remember that the vicar of East Tilbury, who was a good friend of mine in the constituency and has now moved on, was indignant that he was prevented by law from standing for election to the House of Commons. He did not want to stand, but he found the fact that he was prevented from standing an affront to his human rights. He pressed me on the matter; he was the cause of my tabling the original question to the Home Secretary. The fact that he was prevented from standing by virtue of his calling is discrimination that is contrary to human rights and to our traditions of democracy in the House.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Is not the phrase "by virtue of his calling" the key point? That is the higher calling. If the priest exercises his mind overmuch with his rights, is he not giving rather less attention than he ought to his duties and responsibilities to his flock?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am coming to that point. It is an interesting one. I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) when she moved her amendment, and I think that it is fair to say that part of the thrust of her argument was that a good priest—for some reason, she makes the distinction between those who are episcopally ordained and ministers of religion, as if they had different obligations to the people for whom they provide pastoral care—cannot possibly have time to give service to the House of Commons. That is a very dangerous argument for any of us here to advance, and especially for a Conservative Member.

Yesterday, I stumbled across the Register of Members' Interests, which has now been published, and my breath was taken away by the dexterity with which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) can apparently fulfil all their other obligations and still fulfil their obligations to the House of Commons. I am amazed at, and admire, their dexterity.

I invite people to look at the Register of Members' interests. I only wish that Members of Parliament were full-time. We are told that it is perfectly proper and honourable, and that as a matter of capacity, it is possible for people to fulfil the office of Member of the House of Commons and diligently pursue other offices as well—except, if we accept the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, if one is a Roman Catholic priest or a practising priest of the Church of England. It is illogical to suggest that there is an incompatibility.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman attended the Second Reading debate, he will know that I am sympathetic to the Bill. May I counsel caution to him in traducing, deliberately or inadvertently, the track record of hon. Members on a particular side of the House? Does he accept what the empirical evidence will demonstrate to him—that the most active and assiduous attenders of the Chamber sit on the Conservative Benches?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Official Report tomorrow, he will see that I carefully crafted and weighed up every word that I uttered about my fellow Members of the House of Commons. I expressed some amazement, nay admiration, for their dexterity and capacity diligently to fulfil both the office of Member of the House of Commons and other obligations. I only wish that I was as qualified—or even ordained—so to do.

2 pm

There is an important point that relates to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and to a matter that we have also debated in this place: should the parliamentary oath be an impediment to serving here? I am amazed that hon. Members cannot understand that the right to be a representative in this place should come from the people alone. If the people want to put up the candlestick maker, the clock maker, the good, the bad, the ugly, the malevolent, the eccentric—[Interruption.]—the National Front, a minister of one religion or a pastor of another, that is their right. If people overextend themselves so that they are dilatory in discharging their office as Members of the House of Commons, that is something that the electorate can and should take into account if those people offer themselves for re-election. Indeed, their electoral opponents could legitimately draw attention to their conduct, their stewardship and their attendance to the business of the House.

It is irrelevant w here those who offer themselves as candidates come from. It is the right of people in every constituency to choose their representative in this place. It is not for us to impose conditions. As well as supporting the measure, I want a greater extension of the possibilities by doing away with the problem of the oath. Historically, the oath was an impediment to membership of this place, and it remains so.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is my hon. Friend aware that he is using almost the same words as those who argued for the right of Charles Bradlaugh to enter this place? As I pointed out, Bradlaugh was refused on four occasions; and even when he was willing to take the oath, the House said that it would be a mockery. However, he lived long enough to hear the House apologise for its conduct. He established a right without whit h many of us would not be able to be Members of the House of Commons.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Indeed. Furthermore, if those impediments exist, either people are invited to ignore such unenforceable provisions or they have to do so anyway, because their conscience dictates that they are entitled to be Members of this place.

I shall come to the question of whether a priest is laicised or has renounced his priesthood in a moment. However, we are illustrating the absurdity of the amendment proposed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. We touched on the oath as an example. Fianna Fal1 Members were kept out of the Free State Parliament because they had to sign an oath of allegiance to George V. Eventually, De Valera said that the procedure was charade and signed the oath. That is not healthy—

The Chairman:

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I think I need to try to maintain a distinction between matters that are better discussed on Second Reading an, I those that are directly applicable to the amendment that we are discussing. I have given him some leeway for illustration, but he must now come back to the point of the amendment.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan

Amendment No. 15 refers to "episcopal ordination". The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald seems to believe that there can be some material distinction between people who are episcopally ordained—primarily, although not exclusively, in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. As she has invited us to do so, we must look into what episcopal ordination means. It relates to episcopal succession, a concept that even some of the most distinguished theologians of those churches and other denominations consider somewhat dubious. The question turns on whether there has been a continuity, since the apostles, in the laying on of hands in an order, so that there can be political succession.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I will give way in a moment, but I am dealing with the right hon. Lady's argument.

The concept is challengeable by theologians. It is nonsense that it should be an issue in British constitutional law. Bishop Montefiore—a distinguished former Member of another place and the Anglican bishop of Birmingham—challenges that view in one of his tracts. In dealing with the validity of Anglican orders, about which the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England have disagreed for some 150 years, he said that the question of the laying on of hands is dubious.

If the right hon. Lady's proposal were passed, could a part-practising priest be elected to tie House? If he were challenged, his defence might be to challenge the meaning of the phrase "episcopal ordination" That would involve the absurdity of going back not hundreds but thousands of years, and bringing in theologian; as witnesses to say whether the ceremony, rubric and intention of the laying on of hands, which goes right back to the apostles, was involved. I invite the House to consider how absurd that would be.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I shall give way to the right hon. Lady in a moment, but I hope that I am diligently dealing with her proposals from a constitutional and a canon law point of view.

The right hon. Lady failed to respond to the point about the very important—albeit minor—religious denominations that ordain episcopally. For example, Dr. Eric Taylor—Assistant Clerk at the House of Commons who sat alongside your predecessors, Sir Alan—was ordained in the Liberal Roman Catholic Church and became a bishop in that Church. His orders were fully recognised as valid by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. The right hon. Lady has not explained whether that small but fully recognised denomination would be excluded.

Orthodox Churches are now extensively found in the United Kingdom—the Greek Cypriot Church is one of the bigger ones. Would a priest or minister of the Orthodox Church be excluded, and if so, on what basis?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

The hon. Gentleman is trying to suggest that such matters are irresolvable, and that if someone said that his ordination was not episcopal, we should have to go back 2,000 years to prove the opposite. That exact issue arose in the argument about the ordination of women priests, when certain priests of the Anglican Church wished to move to the Roman Catholic Church. The issue was whether their orders could be recognised, because generally, Anglican orders are not recognised by the Roman Catholic Church, as the hon. Gentleman will know. However, the orders could be recognised when the ordination had taken place in a line that was demonstrable from old bishops. Those lines are already established; they are on record. So it is much easier to resolve the question than the hon. Gentleman suggests. My answer to the other question is that where orders are recognised as valid, those involved have been episcopally ordained.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The right hon. Lady implies that she would extend the constitutional impediment to priests of other religions. I understand that the current legislation relates exclusively to priests in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

The legislation also includes priests in the Orthodox Churches because they, too, are episcopally ordained. It might be useful if we were to concentrate on the Greek Orthodox Church, rather than the Catholic Church, because we seem to be going off in a number of directions that are perhaps not that relevant.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

In any event, for the reasons that we have adduced, priests should not be excluded. The right hon. Lady has not dealt with priests who have the approval of the Holy See to stop fulfilling the office of priest—laicisation is the term used. I regret that the current Holy Father has tightened up on allowing his bishops to grant laicisation. The result has been that many people have left the "priesthood"—I use that term in inverted commas, because once a priest, always a priest—without the permission of their bishops. Therefore, they have not been laicised. We then get this absurd blurring of their position. They are still priests and are fully empowered to administer the sacraments.

In the Church of England—it is a very good practice in many cases—some priests are part-time. They may work in commerce or banking and fulfil their priestly duties on a part-time basis. Why should they be impeded from standing for the House of Commons? The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has not dealt with that black and white issue, and she cannot do so because her amendments and her deeply—I do not know—conservative view—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says that I took a long time to get that phrase out, but it is very difficult to find adjectives that adequately describe her troglodyte view. Her view is not mediaeval but, as I have said, goes back 2,000 years.

If we look in the Official Report tomorrow, we shall see that someone said that this issue was not easily resolvable—but, of course, it is. We should pass this Bill and move on to the next argument, which is about the oath. We have got to deal with the problem. I hope that hon. Members will do that, not because of Greenock and Inverclyde, but because it is a matter of matter of human rights. It is a matter of principle to extend our democracy, so I hope that the Committee will dismiss these absurd amendments and the House will support the Bill's Third Reading.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I declare my personal position, because it is important in such a debate that everyone knows where we are coming from. I am not a member of any Church or faith. In that respect only, I probably represent in my modest way more people in this country than most of those who have spoken or who are likely to speak. I can therefore claim to come to the issue from a genuinely impartial point of view. I have no involvement with faith, Church or religion, so I consider the issue from that perspective.

In principle, I support the thrust of the Bill. On this point, I share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). It is a matter for the voters only to judge who should come to this place. However, to elaborate on what he said—I hesitate to say that I am correcting him—the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 contains a list of the people who are disqualified from election to the House of Commons. They include senior civil servants, judges, ambassadors, members of the forces and the police, paid members of the boards of nationalised industries—it is a pity that there are any left—Government-appointed directors of commercial companies, of whom there certainly should be none, and directors of the Bank of England: bless their cotton socks.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Has my right hon. Friend noted that those posts are all connected in that they are, in some sense, offices of profit under the Crown? The difficulty with this Bill is that it deals with a residual issue whereby Roman Catholics were specifically excluded. Will he consider the fact that other disqualifications apply to Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects? However, they are not dealt with by this Bill because it applies to a particular person in particular circumstances. That is what I object to in the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend because I was going to say, in parenthesis, that I will not support the Bill unless the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and myself is accepted. I will not support a Bill that has been introduced at this stage to benefit one individual in a very political fashion, but that is a matter for subsequent debates and perhaps for Third Reading. However, I share my right hon. Friend's view.

2.15 pm

I would support any measure that sought to remove an artificial, arbitrary, historic, traditional or any other kind of discrimination against the members of any Church or faith. Because I see all Churches or faiths in exactly the same way, I see no reason to discriminate. I understand the ramifications of any change for the established Church and the monarchy, and they will have to be resolved properly—not with such indecent haste. My support for the measure in principle is unshakeable but, unless we amend the timetable, I will regrettably be unable to support the Bill in its present form.

My amendment No. 12 may be unique. It is certainly very rare in that it exhibits what I would normally describe as political correctness. When I examined the Bill, a doubt entered my mind as to whether the use of the words "minister", "religious denomination" and "ordained" would necessarily cover all Churches and all faiths. I wish I heard less of it, but I hear endlessly about how we are now a multicultural society and that all faiths are equal and welcome. To the extent that that is the case, such a Bill should cover beyond doubt with equal validity all the people who may be affected. That covers the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made, but in a slightly different way.

I have searched elsewhere for definitions of the crucial terms that appear it the Bill. I looked up the word "minister" in my thesaurus. It first resorted to the term "clergyman", which it defined as one duly ordained to the service of God in the Christian Church. My anxieties were therefore multiplied. The terms of art used in the Bill rely on the words "minister" and "ordination", but I have seen a definition that relates them simply to the Christian Church. Interestingly, the thesaurus offered alternatives to the word "minister"; they included cleric, divine, parson, preacher, priest, reverend, chaplain, curate, pastor and vicar and—because it was an American thesaurus— it offered several other suggestions that I thought I had better not repeat in this place.

That gives us an id m of the difficulty of the issues that we are now exploring. Things get more intriguing when one considers the use of the term "the Christian Church". As the hon. Member for Thurrock asked, does it include the orthodox Churches? Obviously, it must, but what about—I hope that I do not offend anyone—Jehovah's Witnesses or the Plymouth Brethren?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am happy to inform my right hon. Friend that neither of those denominations has ministers, so there is no difficulty. Jehovah's Witnesses are, of course, heretical and potty. What is more, they do not vote in elections as they are still waiting for the theocratic kingdom that is unlikely to come.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is, a matter for Jehovah's Witnesses, but I am not sure that my right hon. Friend has answered my question in the way that he had hoped to. In the list that I cited, "preacher" was offered as a possible alternative to the word "minister". No doubt I shall have to elaborate on this point, because I have not yet satisfied all members of the Committee. However, my point is that the alternative terms for "minister" show the difficulty that we shall face unless we put the matter beyond doubt. That is the reason for the wording of my amendment.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is entirely correct to say that Jehovah's Witnesses do not vote, but I certainly do not identify with what he said about their being potty—far be it from me to cast aspersions. I am a mild-mannered fellow and I would in no way descend to that level of abuse. I should point out that the same goes in terms of non-voting for members of the Plymouth Brethren. However, the fact that neither the Plymouth Brethren nor Jehovah's Witnesses vote does not mean that they are not entitled to ask others o vote for them.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Indeed. The fact that a large number of Labour supporters may not vote in the coming election may also have some implications, but I am not sure whether to get involved in that.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

In order that the House should not be misled by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I should point out that it is not true that the Plymouth Brethren do not vote: only closed members do not vote, whereas open brethren do. That distinction is very important. I have closed brethren in my constituency and they do not vote, but open brethren do. If my hon. Friend has open brethren in his constituency—

The Chairman:

Order. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) are moving to the periphery of the argument. I should like us to return to the centre.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful, Sir Alan. I do not want to be diverted from the main thrust of my argument—[Interruption.]

The Chairman:

Order. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am always ready to help him.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Indeed, Sir Alan; I am always conscious of that.

I was at the end of my list. My right hon. and hon. Friends rather spoiled what I thought was a whimsical point, but I shall persist with it anyway. As well as giving what are now rather contentious definitions, I was going to throw in the Wee Frees—I do not know whether anyone in the Chamber understands Mat term.

It is obvious even from this brief explanation of the matter that the term "minister" is not satisfactorily defined and therefore may raise some doubts That is even more so in respect of the definition of a rabbi as one ordained and having juridical and ritual functions. In the Muslim religion, the term "mullah" is an honorary title referring to ecclesiastical dignitaries. When I got to looking up Hindu and Brahmin religions, there was also mention of the priestly order.

People of various other faiths could be subsumed into the general term of "minister" because the word "ordination" and the phrase "holy orders" arise repeatedly. The definition of "religion" gets us into even deeper water. It refers to belief in a superhuman being or beings, a personal god, a system of faith, doctrine and worship. That would encompass a very wide range of beliefs, activities and adherences.

When I looked for a definition of "ordination", what I found touched on a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) drew to our attention. "To ordain" was defined as to set apart for office or duty, to appoint and consecrate, to dedicate or to confer holy orders. The term "dedicate" was defined as to give up wholly for some purpose. That takes us back to what my right hon. Friend said at the start of the debate.

Frankly, I do not want to get involved in all that. I am not qualified to judge—certainly in the company of my right hon. Friends—but I wanted to draw the attention of the Committee to and gain its support for my amendment, which would put it beyond doubt that where we are seeking to eliminate any disqualification of someone who is a minister or ordained as p in of a religious denomination, we intend to refer to what I have set out as the equivalents. I have tried to expand that in a Pepper v. Hart sense. If we are going down this route—and I hope that we are, because in principle I want to sweep away all historic and arcane disqualifications—we have to get the provision right and make sure that it is all-encompassing.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am worried about my right hon. Friend because it seems to me that e should be drawing a distinction between the decision of this House as to who should be qualified to stand for it and the decision of Churches as to who they should allow to stand for Parliament. It seems to me to be perfectly proper for the Catholic Church to say that it does not want its priests to stand for Parliament. It can make that decision; whether or not one agrees with it is a personal matter—I declare an interest in that I am a Catholic and accept that piece of discipline—but it is not for the House to support that view or in some way to give credence to it. I am not quite sure whether my right hon. Friend has explained why his amendment deals with that issue better than the Bill does, and that is what the Committee needs to know.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I agree with my right hon. Friend, but we seem to have reached opposing conclusions. I am absolutely of the view that it is a matter for religions, Churches and faiths and their adherents to decide or determine whether or not they wish to disqualify themselves from political activity. Some approach the issue in a fundamental way, and others do so in different ways. I respect that; I have no difficulty at all with it.

There is nothing wrong with the Bill in terms of its historic context, but I may disagree with other right hon. and hon. Members in terms of the individual concerned. It would appear that it is necessary for us to put beyond doubt in legislation the fact that anyone who is a minister of religion will not be disqualified by the law from being elected to this place. I hope that we would all respect the right of members of an institution of faith—to use a rather modern, all-encompassing term—to decide what they will do and from what they may be disqualified. That is a different matter altogether. My amendment is designed to put beyond doubt the fact that we wish this to be an all-embracing principle.

Because of our history, we may have started by focusing on the Roman Catholic Church. I understand that, but I want to make sure that now, early in the 21st century, we acknowledge that we can no longer focus simply on the established Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church or other Christian denominations. Our society now consists of many different faiths, both Christian and non-Christian, and, even within the broad umbrella of the Christian faith, many others of which we may approve or disapprove. I have no view on any of them, for the reasons that I have given.

My amendment is simple, direct and uncomplicated and I hope that it will attract the support of right hon. and hon. Members. I really cannot get involved in the amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, for reasons that I have tried to explain. However, I believe strongly that the House should be able to express its view on matters such as this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said that she wanted to express her view and wanted to know the view of the Committee, and I am certainly prepared to help her to divide the Committee so that Members can express their views, although that should not be taken as an expression of my supporting or not supporting the substance of my right hon. Friend's amendment.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can help me. If we posit a scenario in which an individual, either with the approval of his faith and its masters or in the face of their acquiescence, decides to stand for Parliament, is elected and takes his seat, but subsequently finds himself in conflict with his organised religion and subject to a threat of excommunication because of a speech that he has made or a vote that he has cast, does my right hon. Friend think that that would constitute a contempt of the House?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 2:30 pm, 1st March 2001

My instant response is no. I do not believe that our responsibilities lie in that direction. As a general principle, the law should not interfere in the internal workings of a Church or institution of faith. That should be respected as a matter for its adherents, not for the state. Another Bill, which will be discussed at a later date, involves the same principles, and they are of great importance. I do not agree that it is our responsibility to frame laws that would interfere arbitrarily in the internal workings of faith groups, Churches or other institutions, to sort out matters that are, by definition, issues of faith. That would be dangerous, even if we dressed them up as human rights.

I hope that I have persuaded the Committee to support my modest but important amendment. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald wants to divide the House, I shall be only too happy to give her my assistance.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I reject all the amendments. I am especially concerned about amendment No. 15. The tone of the debate worries me. I get the impression that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is interested in the issue only because of her particular faith, and many outside the House would probably agree. The remarks about the Plymouth Brethren and Jehovah's Witnesses were deeply intolerant. Some hon. Members seemed to smirk and sneer at people whose beliefs they do not have much in common with or share. Those who are members of a church that has people who are episcopally ordained—be it the Catholic Church or the Church of England—have put themselves on a higher plain. I absolutely reject that notion.

I was born and brought up a Catholic. I am committed to being tolerant and to working, living and acting in a community that is multifaith and multiracial. I want a community that is based on equality and tolerance. People outside the House will find it impossible to believe that other hon. Members approach communities on the same basis. Some of the remarks were very unchristian.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I hope that the hon. Lady will draw a distinction between my comments on the Plymouth Brethren and the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Plymouth Brethren are respectable and earnest people who belong to a long-standing faith. Although we have different views, I respect those people. However, Jehovah's Witnesses hold a belief that is provably fraudulent and wrong. It is right to be tolerant, but not to be ignorant. Jehovah's Witnesses base their faith on doctrines that are propounded by a crook and a fraud who was arrested and found guilty as such in court. For us not to make that perfectly proper distinction is to mislead our constituents.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

The right hon. Gentleman makes my case. I cannot comment on such remarks.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is well able eloquently to defend himself at all times. However, the hon. Lady is trying it on when she attacks my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) I have taken an interest in the Bill since its inception. To avoid any doubt, I am neither a Jehovah's Witness nor a member of the Plymouth Brethren. However, many of my constituents are, and I have the highest respect for both faiths.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

The hon. Gentleman demonstrates that we all want to be tolerant and respect others.

It is important that we stick with the Bill as drafted. We would create or perpetuate problems were we to accept the amendments. I have some sympathy with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I doubt whether a practising priest could fulfil his commitment to that role while working here. Being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job. However, the same argument applies to anyone with an outside interest, such as directors of business as, lawyers or barristers. The situation is problematic whether one is a practising Catholic priest or a Church of England minister.

As for the conduct of the debate, it is important to mention—as many lion. Members have—that the Bill has been proposed because David Cairns, who is a man of great integrity, was selected to stand as a Member of Parliament. On Second Reading. my hon. Friend the Minister admitted that that is what triggered the legislation. However, we cannot hold David Cairns responsible. We would have taken the same action irrespective of a candidate's party. The Bill is long overdue and it is right that we propose it. It is wrong to make David Cairns the subject of the debate and responsible for the Bill. This is a matter of equal rights—his as much as any one else's—and he is entitled to be treated fairly.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

None of us wants to over-personalise the issues, but the hon Lady, in common with other hon. Members, has referred to Mr. Cairns. I am not going to pontificate on Mr. Cairns' s integrity. As I said on Second Reading, I have no strong views about him, for the simple reason that I have never made his acquaintance. However, she is unwise to bar g on about his integrity when, on the admission of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman)—for whom I have the highest regard—Mr. Cairns deliberately refrained from telling the constituency Labour party of the problem that would arise in the event of his selection.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

That point has been made. However, it is right that David Cairns was able to put himself forward for selection on thy same footing as other candidates. Legislation that is against human rights and is discriminatory should not be able to place a millstone around his neck that prevents him from being selected. The law is complete y out of date and unnecessary. When David Cairns put himself forward for selection, he knew that he could expect a Labour Government, of all Governments, to do something about his rights.

The Chairman:

Order. I think that we have heard enough on that. The hon. Lady should speak to the amendment.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Thank you, Sir Alan. I was about to sit down, but I should like to reiterate my rejection of the amendments. Two wrongs do not make a right. The Bill as it stands does the right thing.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I am exceedingly grateful to my hon. Friend for showing her characteristic courtesy by giving way to me. May I point out that I was misquoted by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. B scow)? If she cares to read the Official Report, my hon. Friend will see that what I am saying is the truth.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I am certain that my hon. Friend agrees about the integrity of David Cairns and about how good a Member of Parliament he will be for Greenock and Inverclyde.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I rise to speak in favour of amendment No. 15. I started with rather greater enthusiasm for that amendment, having made the same mistake as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and believed that it was a wrecking amendment. I have now heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) correct the hon. Gentleman.

Despite opposing the principle of the Bill, I acknowledge the force of the amendment. It appears to deliver a compromise that should be acceptable to those on both sides of the argument, by delivering the remedy to the problem in Inverclyde that the Bill is designed to solve and at the same time addressing absolutely the reservation held by those who oppose the principle of the Bill, which is that we do not regard I it as proper for a member of the ordained ministry of either the established Church or the Roman Catholic Church to hold a position as a Member of Parliament.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

With respect, that is a Second Reading question rather than one that relates specifically to the amendment.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It is a matter relating precisely to the amendment. It mentions "episcopal ordination", which almost exclusively relates to the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. That is my reason for asking, from a sedentary position, "Why?" A Methodist minister is not covered by the provision, yet the same arguments about compatibility advanced by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and, I assume, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) apply. The difference is purely a matter of rubric, relating to the question of the laying on of hands and the episcopal succession. It is an absurd distinction.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It is a distinction rooted in an historical context. I shall come later to the: hon. Gentleman's question about "episcopal ordination ", but I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) wants to intervene.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

The amendment is even worse. A Methodist minister ordained in America is ordained episcopally; therefore, the amendment would exclude an American-ordained Methodist minister, but not an English-ordained Methodist minister The argument is not about the episcopacy, but about whet her the episcopacy is within the apostolic succession, which is a wholly different argument and one that would exclude Anglican bishops as well as Methodist bishops. My hon. Friend must think twice before supporting the amendment.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I remind my right hon. Friend that the amendment stands in the name of our right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I know that I come rather late to the debate, but at least I come with an open mind. I have a great deal of sympathy with the question raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) says it is improper for a priest of the Church of England to serve as a Member of the House of Commons. Will he be so good as to explain his reasons to those who, like me, have great difficulty understanding why it is improper?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) said that it would be highly unlikely that a clergyman—according to my understanding of the amendment, a priest of either the Church of England or the Church of Rome—could fulfil his role as a priest and carry out the duties of a Member of Parliament. However, the hon. Lady recognised that that might apply equally to any number of other callings—if calling is a proper word to use in that respect—and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) will find that he has some sympathy with that point.

From my point of view, they are clean different things: there can be no comparison between functioning as a clergyman of the established Church or the Roman Church—a very special role, administering sacraments and occupying a leadership role in what I suppose we would now call a faith community—and carrying out an occupation that involves political controversy and political leadership.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I face any number of Members wanting to intervene. As I have referred to her, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Enfield, North first.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Is the matter the hon. Gentleman addresses for us, or for the electorate to decide?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Obviously, since I support the amendment, I would say that it is a question for us and one on which the House should divide. Equally, I think that it is a matter of some impertinence on our part to intrude on the decision-making processes of the Churches. The Church of Rome has a clear position: it does not believe that it is proper for its priests to hold any sort of elective office of the sort to which the Bill would welcome them. Therefore, to introduce the Bill strikes me as impertinent.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Surely if the Church of Rome makes that decision, it is not up to us at all—the matter has been sorted out. However, my hon. Friend must explain one simple issue arising from his argument: if I were, for example, an Anglican worker priest or a Catholic worker priest, I could work in a factory and be a priest, but not become a Member of the House of Commons and be a priest. My problem is that that is to denigrate the work of the House of Commons—to say that what we do is so unpleasant that one cannot be both a Member of Parliament and a priest. I do not approve of that. I think that what we do is as perfectly priestly a function as working on a factory floor.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I disagree profoundly with my right hon. Friend in that respect. I share the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth): I believe that consensus is no friend of the legislative process. The House should divide as often as possible and propositions should be tested by vociferous and rigorous argument. I am prepared to extend that principle beyond the confines of the Chamber to the positions that I take among my constituents: I am prepared to argue robustly about clearly political and ideological questions. I do not therefore believe it would be proper for me to occupy such a position and behave in such a way and, at the same time, to attempt to perform some priestly function and expect constituents with whom I might have profound disagreements—perhaps outside the bounds of good will, as is often the case in politics—to come and kneel at the altar and take the sacrament from my hand. That would be an abomination.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Methinks my hon. Friend doth protest too much. None can gainsay his qualities of robustness, eloquence and ideological purity; in his company I have often greatly enjoyed dividing the House and ordinarily I am in agreement with him. However, did he not give the game away a few moments ago when he said that the practice of a priest and the pursuit of other, outside occupations were, from his point of view, clean different things? Does he accept that, in a matter of this nature, his point of view is not the basis of statute?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am saying only, as Martin Luther said, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Of course I speak only for my own point of view; none the less, it is a point of view that I am prepared to press in the Lobby.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) referred to worker priests. Had he been in the Chamber earlier, he would know that I referred to them. We have at least three diligent and highly regarded, albeit controversial, worker ministers in this place. They are Presbyterian ministers from Northern Ireland. The only distinction is that they are not episcopally ordained. Their pastoral functions and qualities are the same as those of Church of England priests or Roman Catholic priests.

The hon. Gentleman heard the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), whom he is supporting. She alleged that the responsibility of pastoral care led to a conflict in terms of time—

The Chairman:

Order. Interventions must not become speeches. I think that the hon. Gentleman has said enough.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

With respect to the hon. Gentleman's reference to the tradition in Northern Ireland, and specifically the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea)—

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

And the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Yes, and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).

There is a difference of tradition. There is a tradition in Northern Ireland that does not apply here. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) correctly identified, those Members would not regard themselves as members of an ordained ministry in the terms that we are discussing. I am sure that the hon. Member for South Antrim would be appalled at the notion that he had been ordained for any sort of sacramental ministry.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests that the hon. Gentleman is a serving officer in the Territorial Army. I think that that is compatible with being a Member. However, if we accept the argument of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, that is not so. The right hon. Lady says that a Member does not have enough time to do other things of that sort. Apparently a Catholic priest would not have enough time to serve as a Member, but apparently a serving officer in the TA would. We must think the matter through.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It is not so much a question of time, which is important, but of role. My duties as a TA officer take up about one weekend a month. In the past, they took a great deal more time. To suggest that a clergyman—a practising priest—could continue with that commitment while serving as a Member would not say very much for the nature of his ministry.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend says that it is the role that makes it inappropriate. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is telling the Committee that the congregation would be unduly beholden to the candidate or that the candidate would be unduly beholden to the congregation. Perhaps he will make that plain.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am not entirely sure that I understand my right hon. and learned Friend's question.

I do not want to be distracted any further from what I regard as questions involving the principle of the Bill. I have found it odd that my remarks have been taken as controversial. I am speaking for the status quo, and in favour of amendment No. 15.

Amendment No. 15 would spare us the argument that so many Members are seeking to have. It would remove the discrimination to which the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred, which penalises the Roman Catholic priest because he is not able to divest himself of his orders in quite the same way that would be open to a member of the priesthood of the established Church. The amendment would deliver the remedy that is sought through the Bill. At the same time, it would not raise profound constitutional questions, as I regard them. In its present form, the Bill would do so because the priest would have to be practising before he were disqualified. That is the key distinction.

The hon. Member for Thurrock was on better ground when he complained about the distinction of episcopal orders. As he did so, I was reminded of "Decline and Fall". The Committee will recall that the central character found himself having hands laid upon him by an episcopi vagante—a wandering bishop, who bestowed valid holy orders upon him. That blights the rest of his life in so far as it is recounted in the book.

That is not quite as fictional as it may first appear. Wandering bishops exist, and they bestow orders. I clearly recall attending a patronal festival at St. John's church, Holland road. A number of priests, or those purporting to be priests, having been so ordained, presented themselves and asked whether they could sit with the clergy during the festival.

The amendment does not deal with the possibility of those who find themselves ordained in other traditions, such as the orthodox, and those who might have been ordained in another fashion. They would be captured by the amendment. However, as long as they do not practise, the problem does not arise. The amendment deals with that. We might have widened the catchment of those who might be disqualified by the Bill, but by accepting the amendment we will have a safeguard. As I see it the principal problem comes with those who practise.

We have been told that the candidate for whom the Bill is the remedy no longer practises and has no intention to do so. However, there is nothing to say that in future he might start saying mass. If he does not start practising priestly functions, the amendment would provide a proper safeguard.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I am not sure of the religious background of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), but I imagine that he is not a Catholic. If he were, he would understand that his suggestion that Mr. Cairns might suddenly decide to say mass is an unlikely proposition.

I find it strange to argue from the Government Benches that the state has no right, or should have fewer rights, to determine which religious priests should be able to stand for membership of this place, and which should not. I found the hon. Gentleman's contribution disturbing. We would be putting ourselves in the way of individual churches. We would be putting ourselves up as a counter-force to canon law. In my view, it is for any Church, Christian or any other great faith, to decide what its ministers do, whether they can stand for Parliament and what other work they can take up It is not a question for Parliament.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not want to cavil at the way in which the hon. Lady is developing her argument. However, I put it to her that there is a further and obvious lacuna in the argument of those who oppose the Bill and support the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the Shadow Home Secretary, and it relates to the issue of taking one's seat. Will the hon. Lady rephrase the advocacy of her argument and accept that part of the problem is that it is perfectly in order for someone in the situation that we have been describing to stand for Parliament, but that if he or she receives the democratic endorsement of his or her electorate, the individual cannot take up his or her seat in this place? That is an undemocratic outrage.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I was aware of that. I am sorry about the way in which I phrased my argument. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to a further anomaly. An ex-Catholic priest or an ex-orthodox priest, for example, can stand for Parliament. The problem is taking up his seat.

My argument with the amendment of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is not that it suggests that it is difficult for someone to be a full and proper Member and have another job, but that it does not solve the discrimination that we are discussing. If the amendment is agreed, a serving Methodist minister could be a Member, but not a serving Greek Orthodox minister. What logical reason can there be to exclude orthodox priests, but not Methodist ministers? The Bill would still be disturbing and confusing. Some aspects of the argument are being obscured because we are concentrating on the Catholic element, although I well understand why.

3 pm

The legislation is obscure. Currently, some religious officials are disqualified, but others are not. Some priests can relinquish their ministry to become a Member of Parliament, but others are unable to do so. Some Christian priests are disqualified, whereas ministers of all other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, are eligible. All Catholic priests are disqualified. Ex-clergy are entitled to stand for election and to be elected, as we have said, but they cannot take up their seats. Non-conformist clergy are not disqualified, except for the Church of Scotland. As has been mentioned, several Protestant clerics have served and continue to serve with distinction. Finally, all episcopally ordained priests of the Anglican Church are disqualified, but not in Wales.

It is surely not up to us to determine which clerics can stand and which cannot. It is up to us to widen as far as possible people's ability to stand and to be elected, and to allow the voters to decide. If we attempt to define who is and who is not a Catholic priest, we will get into areas that are not within the scope of the business of the House, but which remain the pure preserve of canon law.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It would be helpful if we remembered that the real problem with the law is that it confuses a series of thoughts.

Anglican clergymen are excluded from membership of the House of Commons because they were seen to have an office of profit under the Crown. The established Church was seen as being influenced by the Crown to such an extent that were an Anglican clergyman to stand for Parliament and be elected, he would not be a free agent because he would rely for his living on a Church that was subject to the Crown. That is a perfectly reasonable position; I will say later why I think that it has changed.

Catholic priests were excluded for an entirely different reason. They were excluded as part of the general determination to ensure that the Catholic faith did not return to our land. That was a clear decision, in the same anti-Catholic vein as the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 and the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871, that stopped Catholic bishops being named at the same bishopric as Anglican bishops.

The two kinds of exclusion happened to come together, and the proposed change in the law happens to touch them both, but we should not ignore the reasons why they came about. They are different, and we should argue the case differently.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Is not that why—as I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm on Third Reading—after the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, an Anglican priest who is ordained and serves in the Church in Wales can be elected to the House, even though he is episcopally ordained?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That is exactly true. A clergyman of the Church of England ordained outside England, whether in Scotland, Wales or Papua New Guinea, is not covered by the same circumstance. That important distinction enables me to explain why I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is wrong.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, as I seek information. I am sure that his explanation of why Catholic priests were disqualified from membership is right, but when the various other disqualifications on Catholics were removed, why was that prohibition not removed?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I dealt with the point when my right hon. and learned Friend was inadvertently absent from the Chamber. Unfortunately, all those disqualifications have not been removed, which is one of the reasons why I am so unhappy about the Bill. I would have hoped that this was an opportunity to get rid of a range of disqualifications on Catholics. For example—I shall give just one brief example, as I wish to keep to the amendment—no Catholic church may ring a bell. That would be contrary to the law.

There are a series of such disqualifications. It would have been more proper for the Government to introduce a single, simple, one-clause Bill that lifted all the disqualifications that distinguish Her Majesty's Catholic subjects as against other subjects. Hopefully we would vote on such a Bill with no discussion at all. My objection to the present Bill is that that opportunity, which the Government should have taken, was not taken. However, that is not for this debate.

I shall explain why I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is wrong. The problem with the amendment is that it makes a statement in English civil law about what is a fundamentally ecclesiastical matter. I am among those who believe that there is a distinction between those who are validly ordained and those who are not.

I ceased to be an Anglican and became a Catholic because I believed that the Church of England had ceased to be able validly to ordain priests. That is why I became a Catholic, but it was an ecclesiastical, not a civil, decision. It is a fundamental matter of faith, more important than any civil decision that I could make. I do not underestimate such a decision; I merely say that it is different in kind.

A Catholic teaches that a priest ordained in the Catholic Church is ordained in the apostolic succession and is therefore able validly to administer the sacrament. Many Anglicans take the same view, and all the Orthodox and Armenians do. The amendment would make a distinction between those who do—actually or in their formularies, validly or because they think validly—and those who do not.

My problem with the amendment is that I do not understand what that has to do with standing for Parliament. I passionately believe in the distinction; I believe that there is a fundamental difference between a priest of the Catholic Church and the hon. Member for one of the Northern Irish constituencies who is, in a sense, self-ordained.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No, the particular man is self-ordained because he decided to set up his own Church. That is a perfectly reasonable decision for him to make, but there is a difference between that view of ordination and the historic view of the Catholic Church. The difference is not a secular one; it is an ecclesiastical and religious difference. It is still a vital difference—more vital than any secular thing that I can think of.

Let us not mix the two issues up. We do not enhance the validity of the orders of Holy Church by saying what Parliament thinks about it. It does not matter two hoots to the validity of the orders of the Catholic Church what the House of Commons believes about it. If that were the case, none of us would be here. There was a time when the House of Commons said that not only were those orders not valid, but it would chop our heads off if we were found.

Let us not start saying that what Parliament thinks about the doctrines of Christ's Church is important. It is not.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I shall deal with the established Church in a moment. I am dealing with my right hon. Friend's denomination.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

And mine. My right hon. Friend should not object to my setting out the historic fact. We are not here to tell the Catholic Church what is valid and what is not. That is for God 's Church to decide, not for us.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

All this would be welcome if Parliament had never taken any view about Church matters or about who might or might not sit in Parliament, but, as I pointed out from a sedentary position, we have an established Church. My right hon. Friend and I, together with a collection of non-believers and adherents of other Churches, went through the Lobbies to decide on such issues as the ordination of women as priests and divorced clergy. He did not take the view then that that was not a proper matter for us to consider.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That is not the issue that we are discussing now. I shall deal with the nature of the established Church in a moment. I am speaking about a Church that is not established and which is not and never has been under the jurisdiction of the House. Indeed, it has been specifically as it is because it does not hold that established view, and it is unacceptable for us to purport to say what its priests should be allowed to do.

I now move from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is the other way around."] The truth is—[Interruption.] The joke has been made, so I shall continue. I shall move in my speech from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Church, and I do so with care. The Anglican Church is the creature of the state. The Church of England was created by the state as a result of a series of factors, including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. That is the truth of history and it is a perfectly respectable position. Historically, there was a twofold reason why clergy of the Anglican Church in England—the Church of England—were denied membership of the House. First and primarily, they held offices of profit under the Crown, or if they did not, they were hoping to do so, which was even worse in terms of the fear of simony. Secondly, it was though 1s that they were represented by the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. Those were the two reasons why they were excluded.

However, we now have the following problem: should a person who does not have an office of profit under the Crown, but who has ceased to be a practising Anglican clergyman, be denied membership of the House? It is extremely difficult to claim that such people should be so denied. Indeed, they have not been prevented from becoming Members of the House in the past. There have been hon. Members who were ordained as Anglicans, but as they had cast aside their orders, nobody saw fit to take their cases to court. We know that to be true. In any event, is not it most illogical to say that when the Church of England has decided that something has finished, Parliament can decide that it should not end? That is what is being suggested by those who argue that a laicised Anglican clergyman can be regarded as a lay person by the Church of England, but not by Parliament.

That is a reversal of any sense, and I am not in favour of it. It is much more sensible to argue that it is for the Church of England to decide that Anglican clergyman cannot be Members of the House, if it wishes to do so. Similarly, if the Catholic Church continues to say that its priests cannot be Members of the House, that is for it to decide. However, if people present themselves as candidates and are elected, whether they were once ordained or whatever, it is not for the House to exclude them. That should be the proper procedure, which is why I find the amendment unacceptable.

We must face the issue with which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) dealt: the different roles that are involved. There is a difference between the role of an episcopally ordained priest and that of a Protestant minister. I point that out in case the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan)—I am sorry that she is not present—feels that I am being dismissive. I think that one has to be honest about people's pretensions. I mean that in a non-offensive way. People have particular views about their ministry. The views held by Catholics about their priests are different from those that, for example, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) would have about a minister. Indeed, as was suggested earlier, he would be displeased if one were to suggest that he was in any way a priest, and he makes that view very clear.

3.15 pm

A minister carries out a series of pastoral duties, including the preaching of the ecclesiastical doctrines of his particular Church, and a priest administers the sacraments. That is a very important distinction, but it cannot be of importance to parliamentary representation. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West is not right to suggest that somebody who is ordained as a priest cannot be a Member of the House of Commons, but that is not the case if he is made a minister. I do not believe that that is sensible, although I understand that it is emotionally clear. Becoming a priest is the highest demand that can be made of anybody. For me, it is odd that somebody who has been made a priest would want to do something different afterwards. However, some people have no decision in the matter and it is not for me to say in this secular House—at least, it is secular in that sense—that such a person should be prevented from becoming a Member of Parliament. It is for his religious superiors to make that decision.

With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, I think that he is mistaking his vocation. As a Member of the House of Commons, it is not for him to say what our ecclesiastical superiors, either in the Church of England, to which he belongs, or in the Catholic Church, to which I belong, should decide. Our job is to ensure that if somebody is allowed to stand by somebody else, by his own conscience or whatever, he should not be stopped because he was episcopally ordained.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

I do not think that that squares with what I understood to be my right hon. Friend's position regarding the ecclesiastical legislation that comes before the House. Is he suggesting that we should forswear any involvement in the legislation that has typically been considered in the House? As I understand it, the House still has an Ecclesiastical Committee, although it might not sit or its proceedings might not be very public. As I understand it, that is the forum where we consider ecclesiastical Measures in the House.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

My hon. Friend is correct, but the Ecclesiastical Committee relates only to the business of the established Church. As there is an established Church, it is perfectly proper for the House to have the Ecclesiastical Committee, on which I have the honour of serving. Although it deals with the established Church, it does so on a non-denominational basis. Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics serve on the Committee, but it deals only with matters that relate to the effect of the establishment on the civil rights of the people of this country. That is what it is supposed to discuss.

As I have explained, the amendment would impose restrictions on people who are not members of the established Church, which makes it entirely different in any case. When I was being teased because I said that I was about to move from the Catholics to the Anglicans, perhaps the teasing prevented hon. Members from recalling that I was making that distinction precisely because I believe that it is wholly improper for the House to take on the right to legislate for Catholics, Armenians, Holy Orthodox worshippers and so on. They are not members of the established Church and we have no right to legislate on ecclesiastical matters in respect of them. Of course, there is a question about whether we should have rights in respect of the established Church, but that is a different matter altogether.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend has just said that the Bill imposes restrictions on individuals and cited the case of the Roman Catholics. Of course, he is right in that respect, but the restrictions imposed by the old law go much further. It restricts the ability of local associations to choose their candidates and, even worse, restricts the electorate's ability to choose in a general election the person whom they want to represent them.

The Chairman:

Order. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind that we are discussing the amendment, not the Bill as such.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am happy to return to that discussion, but what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said is germane because passing the amendment would not only exclude those who have been accorded the grace of episcopal ordination, were they still practising as clergymen or priests, but prevent the associations that wanted to adopt them and those who had already voted for them from getting such people elected to Parliament. That is wholly unacceptable, for a rational reason.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald and I do not always agree on ecclesiastical matters, but we are usually on the same side in respect of reason. We are having a rational argument, but it is not rational to say that such people should be excluded, because nothing in their experience enables the House to say that they should not be Members of Parliament. Making a slight change by allowing those who are not doing the job to stand would be even odder, because that would suggest that those doing the job should not stand.

Some Methodists in America do not have bishops. Why should a Methodist minister who was not ordained by a bishop be allowed to sit in the House when an American Methodist who is a member of the United Methodist Church, and who was ordained by a bishop, would not be allowed to do so, even though that bishop is not in the apostolic succession and even though those people do not believe that such ordination is the same as ordination as even the Anglican Church teaches it? The amendment would take us to a pretty peculiar position.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I merely point out that my right hon. Friend has raised profound issues that touch on the very establishment of the Church of England. The beauty of the amendment is that it would avoid all that by giving Labour Members precisely what they want—a candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde—without stirring up those other issues, to which my opposition and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is total.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

My hon. Friend cannot have that.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Well, he can have it, but it is not true. We can all have things. I do not want to return to the Jehovah's Witnesses, but they, too, can have it, although it is not true. The fact is that all that will not wash, for the simple reason that I cannot explain to my constituents why an Armenian is not allowed to stand for Parliament if he has been ordained in the Armenian Church, while a Baptist is allowed to stand. On the other hand, Methodists of certain sorts are allowed to stand while Methodists of other sorts are not.

If I may say so, there is another aspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has not thought through.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Let me put it this way. If my right hon. Friend has thought this aspect through, I would love to hear her answer. Some Pentecostal Churches have people who are called bishops. Therefore, when such a person ordains someone, one could say that he has been episcopally ordained. Can my right hon. Friend explain why a minister of the Elim Four Square Gospel Tabernacle is allowed to be a Member of the House whereas a minister of the Apostolic Tabernacle is not? They are charming people, all of them, and many of us would be hard put to distinguish between their doctrines—but, I am sorry to say, the fact is that accepting the amendment would mean that the House was suggesting that one could be a Member and the other could not. I would find it difficult to explain that distinction to the people of Walberswick. Intellectually able as they are, people in the local pub—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

No, not the Mitre. I am happy to say that it is a non-ecclesiastical pub.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am happy to say that no pub in my constituency is called the Turk's Head. [Interruption.] Why not? Because we are politically correct. If we started to use ecclesiastical terms of the clarity demanded by the amendment, we would get ourselves into severe trouble.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I thought that I should rise to the occasion once the mirth had subsided. My right hon. Friend's rebuke of me for making a distinction based on episcopal ordination would be valid were that concept not already what underlies the old system, which the Bill seeks to change. I have tried to stick with the old definitions, but not to make changes as significant as those that the Government want. That is all.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Perhaps my right hon. Friend missed my remark, but at the beginning of my speech I said that that principle did not underlie the legislation. Two principles underlie the Bill: first, the nature of the established Church of England and the fact that its clergymen were considered to hold offices of profit under the Crown; and secondly, the exclusion of Catholic priests from the House because it was the fashion of the time to believe that they were too dangerous. I only wish that they were as dangerous today, because that would be good for us all. That distinction was made, and my right hon. Friend must not introduce a false one.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I apologise. My right hon. Friend should not introduce a misunderstood distinction, which has been used to explain an even more complex issue.

I must now address my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West on the question whether it is acceptable for a priest to be involved in party politics. I understand what my hon. Friend meant. I deeply oppose two attitudes to the priesthood, the first of which is that priests should be involved in party politics. I remember a minister who took that view: the late Lord Soper thought that it was impossible to be a Christian without also being a socialist. I think that that is wrong and I object to any suggestion that one cannot be a Christian and at the same time either a socialist, a Liberal or a Conservative. One cannot be a Christian and a communist or a Christian and a fascist, but one can be a Christian and a member of any of those democratic parties.

Therefore, I deeply oppose parish priests who espouse political views that derogate from their ability to be priests. However, I want priests in the pulpit to be able to talk about politics and to have a powerful voice in that respect. A fortnight ago, I was at mass and I listened to the parish priest make some telling points about the bombing of Iraq. I would not say that I agreed with every one, but a priest of the Church of God made proper statements about politics and I needed to listen to them.

The Government and the Opposition have to ask themselves big questions about bombing from on high people who are unable to defend themselves. Those moral questions have to be examined. I have still failed to get any answer to questions that I tabled about the bombing of an aspirin factory in Sudan. To me, that is a moral question. However, I am told that it is such a delicate matter of national defence that my question cannot be answered. It is right for the priest in the pulpit to be able to raise such issues, so I say to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West that priests who do not take politics into account are not doing their job properly. Politics is too big a part of life for the gospel to have nothing to say about it. The question is, could those priests be party politicians in the House while they were ordained? I would be unhappy about that, but it is not for me to decide; it is for the priests to decide.

3.30 pm

There are one or two Members of Parliament who are independent—or, as in the case of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), independent in practice. Although I disagree profoundly with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge?Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on a range of matters, it cannot be said that he is not independent in the House. I do not consider it unreasonable for someone to come to the House with a political label and then behave independently. Others, of course, come to the House as independents in the first place.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more independent-minded Members we have, the better?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I do not want to be led down that route, but one of the joys of debates such as this is that we hear some Members speak from the heart. That does not usually happen in the House. It is important for the House to have independent-minded and independent Members, and I would consider it perfectly proper for someone to perform such a role even were he an episcopally ordained minister of the Church of England or a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. Paragraph 3 of canon 285 in the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983 states: Clerics are forbidden to assume public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power. Despite the explicitness of that law, I am given to understand by the Minister that the Catholic Church in Scotland, and indeed the Catholic Church in England and Wales, have no objection to the Bill as it stands.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

The Church has no objection because it thinks that this is its business rather than ours. I do not understand why we think it is our business; it is the business of the Catholic Church, and we should work on that basis.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

So it is the business of the Church of England to establish how many bishops should take their seats in the House of Lords, is it? I accept that it is for the Church to decide which bishops they should be.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am not discussing the established Church; I am discussing the Catholic Church. [Interruption.] There is a fundamental distinction to be made, and my hon. Friend must make that distinction. We happen to have an established Church in this country; we could have an argument about whether we should have one or not, but we do have one. We are now discussing something that straddles the established and the non-established Churches.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred quite properly to the canon law not of the Anglican Church—which has its own canon law—but of the Catholic Church. He was merely saying that the Catholic Church had reasons for what it decided. The Catholic Church has no bishops in the House of Lords—although if there were some there, they might say things that would shock, and would stand up to debate rather more powerfully than what I have heard from a number of bishops who are currently in that House.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

At least the Catholic bishops believe in God.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That is certainly true.

Things used to be different. Bishops used to play an active part in politics, but they have decided, perfectly properly, that that is not how they wish to act in future. That is a reasonable decision, and we should respect them for it. In any event, it is their business. The question of how many bishops of the Church of England should be in the House of Lords, however, is a matter for the establishment, and hence a matter for the House of Commons, because that is what we have ordained. We have not ordained the same in the case of the Catholic Church, for two reasons. First, the Church did not want it; secondly, we would not have it. After all, we threw out the Catholic Church. We said, "We're not having you as the established Church. We're going to have this lot, and we're going to do things this way." We could not have said, "But while we're about it, there are one or two things over which we will retain control." That would be a very peculiar approach.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Does my right hon. Friend not understand that in its current form, the Bill entitles a bishop in the Church of England, or the established Church, who is not a Lord Spiritual in the other place, to stand for Parliament, and that the same applies to an ordained and practising Church of England clergyman?

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

That is another matter. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that unless the Bill is changed, a bishop in the Church of England could stand for Parliament.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

As it happens, that is the subject of a later amendment. I shall confine myself to the subject of amendment No. 14, which relates to clergymen.

I was trying to make a distinction between two arguments that are different. The reasons for them are different, and we should approach them from a sensible historical position. We should say first that we should not exclude Catholic priests, because they do not operate under the jurisdiction and within the structure of the established Churches, and secondly that we should not exclude Anglican clergymen, because there seems to be no rational case for doing so. Things are not the same now: Anglican clergymen no longer have an office of profit under the Crown as they once did, and it is reasonable for us to respect that. When it comes to the bishops, no doubt we shall all say what we think.

I want to say something about the whole question of independence. [Interruption.] I think we have had rather a good debate so far, and I do not want sedentary interruptions to spoil it.

I know nothing about the person who is to stand as a candidate, and I would say nothing that would denigrate his position or what he said to the selection committee. I do not think any of that matters. Let me, however, say something seriously to the Minister. Although I agree with every word of the Bill, I consider it an affront that, either through ignorance or for some other reason, the Government did not present a simple Bill to exclude all the discrimination that can be applied to Her Majesty's Catholic subjects under our law.

I do not think it proper that the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster is forbidden by law to walk down Victoria street in his clerical clothes. That is unacceptable, and in this day and age we should have removed the law. A short Bill would have removed it. [Interruption.] It is easy enough to say that earlier Governments should have done that. I am not making a party political point; I am merely saying that the present Government had a real opportunity with this Bill.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Five Bills passed by Parliament gave the Government an opportunity to introduce these measures, but they did not take that opportunity. We must conclude that that is because the Bill that we are discussing is all about the prospective Labour candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

It is true that such action should have been taken before, and that there were a number of opportunities for it to be taken. We know why this Bill has been introduced. I do not think any member or supporter of the Government could possibly claim that it is here for any other reason—but that, in a sense, makes my point even stronger.

I support the Government in opposing the amendment, but I do so with a heavy heart, because I think that they had an opportunity to rid us of a manifest inequity. I do not understand the logic of the Home Office in not even asking itself whether we should think about other issues. Is it not about time we ended the present circumstances in which Westminster Cathedral commits an illegal act every day when it rings the bell? Is that not unacceptable? Does the Minister realise that when the millennium peal rang out at midnight, every Catholic church was doing something illegal?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I rather agree with my right hon. Friend about the removal of all disabilities from Catholics, and I am sorry that it has not happened. My wife and my children are Catholics. In the spirit of inquiry, however, may I ask him whether his views extend to the succession to the Crown?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are moving from bells to the succession. I think that it would be a very good idea if the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) returned to the amendment under discussion.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Mr. Lord, as my neighbour in Suffolk you have often come to my aid, but today you have given us a spectacular example of that. I thank you very much indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has moved her amendment in a spirit of compromise, and of care to bring the two sides together. I think, however, that history is against her. The problem is that the two historical strands that have got us where we are do not admit of a compromise. We have to leave the Catholic Church, in its universal majesty, to make its own decisions and not to propose that this place has any right to shackle in any manner what the Holy Church does. Conversely, in the case of the Church over which, because of its establishment, we do claim some curious control, we have to say that there is no rational reason for clergymen not to stand for election to this place, nor, if they are elected, for this place to say that they may not sit here. That surely is the rational response.

For those reasons, I think that we should oppose amendment No. 14.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I should like to begin with an apology—particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), as I did not hear her speech—for missing the earlier part of the debate. However, I know my right hon. Friend views, because I have occasionally had the opportunity to read them.

I shall be very brief because, apart from anything else, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has said everything that could possibly be said on the subject, and a few additional words, too. I am a libertarian, and I ask myself four questions which I think deal with the matter pretty conclusively.

The first question that I ask myself is whether Members of Parliament are in fact capable of performing functions outside the House in some other capacity. I declare an interest: I am a practising barrister. I think that it is a very good thing for hon. Members to have external interests and to practise at them. My conclusion is that there is nothing about this place that prevents hon. Members from pursuing other activities as well. Indeed, I believe that it is a good thing that many do so, as it brings a wealth of experience and independence which I greatly welcome.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Would my right hon. and learned Friend be kind enough to say that even more clearly? It is surely to the detriment of the House if hon. Members do not engage in business and other outside activities. If they do not, all they can bring to the House are their memories or their theories. Those with activities outside the House—I restate my interest—at least bring to it current knowledge of how the world outside works.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I believe that very strongly. My right hon. Friend is right. He has described independence and independent-minded Members of Parliament. I believe that independence flows at least in part from having an existence and an experience outside this place, and also from having the resources to be able to say boo to the goose—by which I mean those from the Whips Offices who sit on the Front Benches.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My hon. Friend can remember it as much as he likes.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

For the avoidance of doubt, and to respond to the earlier observations of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, so far as this Bill is concerned, he sees no qualitative difference between the practice of a religious faith or responsibility and the practice of a profession or business arrangement?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 3:45 pm, 1st March 2001

My hon. Friend's mind is as logical as my own, because that was my second point. Having asserted that I think it is a very good thing for hon. Members to have current interests outside this place, my next question is precisely the one that he has just asked: is there anything about the role of an ordained priest that causes one to depart from the conclusion to which I have come in response to the first question? I think that the honest answer is no. I can see absolutely nothing qualitatively different about the role of a priest that makes it possible to distinguish it from, for example, that of a barrister, a practising doctor or a practising dentist—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford). If I am wrong about that—being a modest man, I am always prepared to accept that I may be wrong—I believe that it would be a matter for the associations that adopt those people and for the electorate whose support they seek at the poll. That is my third point. Let us therefore have hon. Members in this place who have outside interests—which would surely apply to ordained priests. Nevertheless, if one is wrong about that, let the matter be for the associations and the electorate.

Finally, I find it quite impossible to distinguish between the reasons for disqualifying priests of the Catholic Church and the Church of England and those for not doing so in relation to the members of many other Churches, including the apostolic Churches identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal.

I am sorry to be robust with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

It would not be the first time, would it?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

No, it would not be the first time. I have disagreed with her on other occasions and about other matters.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend sounds resigned. I am afraid that, so far as I am concerned, she is going to have to be resigned. I have disagreed with her on various occasions when she has spoken, and this is another of those occasions. I really cannot even get into the lists in terms of understanding the arguments in favour of this group of amendments. I think that they are wholly and utterly wrong. I shall therefore take very considerable pleasure in opposing amendment No. 14.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I should like first to apologise to the Committee for being absent for an earlier part of the debate. I notified Mr. Speaker and the Government and Opposition Front Benchers that I would miss it. I am sorry also to have missed what has evidently been a very lively debate. It has certainly been lively since my arrival.

I am very much with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and very much against the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on this group of amendments. As I made clear on Second Reading, I do not approach the issue as someone with a Catholic or Episcopalian background; I am a Baptist by profession of faith. As I have also made clear, I disagree with many of the very fine points of distinction that have been drawn between ministers and priests—on who does what, and on whether there is a major difference between the roles.

I believe in the priesthood of all believers and that belief is founded on the New Testament. On another day and in another place, I might argue that case in great depth. However, if we were to accept New Testament teaching on the priesthood, the consequence would be that all of us who are practising Christians would be excluded from membership of this place. That fact perhaps demonstrates the folly of the current restrictions, which are a way of keeping good people out of the House. We should be worried about whether that is really in the long-term interests of democracy and of the House.

The restrictions not only keep some good people out, but are entirely arbitrary in their effect. I fear that amendment No. 14 would make the impact of the restrictions even more arbitrary and strange.

We already have a situation in which a priest or other clergy member of the Church in Wales may stand for Parliament and, if elected, sit in this place. A retired clergyman or clergywoman in the Church of England may stand for election to this place. If one is a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, one may stand, but, if one is a retired Catholic priest who has not gone to the trouble of getting defrocked, one cannot stand. If one is an orthodox priest or a retired orthodox priest, one cannot stand. If one is a rabbi or a Methodist minister, one can stand. The distinctions are meaningless, not just in secular law but in New Testament theology.

The sooner that we sweep away the remnants of religious discrimination in our democratic practice, the better. That is not specifically the Liberal Democrat line. I am sure that in my party we would find people who hold a different point of view, as on many other subjects[Interruption.] That may not surprise hon. Members, but I am happy to stand here in my own right to say clearly that it ought to be offensive to us in this day and age that religious discrimination is built into our legislation.

I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal; perhaps we should have gone further. We certainly should have gone sooner. However, the fact that we should have gone sooner or further does not mean that we should now go nowhere. To that extent, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is misdirecting her efforts, and so are those who support her case and her cause. We should be trying to eliminate religious discrimination, not entrench or refine it. To that purpose, I shall certainly vote against the amendment and support the Bill.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said that the debate was lively. My instant reaction was that he was not talking about the debate that I had heard—but of course he was not; he was in a different debate.

The debate has been sensible, if lengthy. Sometimes it almost verged on being an argument about angels on a pinhead, but that might be appropriate in this case. The debate has none the less been good humoured, and certainly constructive. I extend my thanks particularly to my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) and for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) for their contributions and for their support for the Government's position.

I found surprising—indeed, almost frightening—the extent to which I agreed not only with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), with whom I have agreed on several issues, and even with the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), whose civil libertarian views I have some sympathy with on occasion, but—although I thought I would never say it—with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Indeed, during part of the debate, I almost expected him to speak in favour of an inclusive, multi-faith, multicultural society. He did not quite do so, but in a very Tory way he almost advocated some form of political correctness.

I agree strongly with the right hon. Gentleman that the House should be open to as many people as possible, that it should be the choice of the electorate whom they send here and that it is not the job of the state to interfere with the internal organisation and practices of Churches. That is a Tory way of being politically correct, and I agree with him.

A number of points were raised with which I shall deal head on. Evidently, the Bill was introduced to address the case of David Cairns. I was open about that at the outset on Second Reading. Let me make it clear that that is the reason the Bill was introduced. It was patently obvious to us that an injustice would be done if David Cairns was prevented from taking the seat that the electorate might put him in a position to take after the election. It would have been wrong to allow that situation.

There are many demands on parliamentary time, all the time. Arguably, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal raised several points with which Parliament might like to deal. There are many other issues, too. I have been trying to secure the introduction of a fire safety Bill for a couple of years. There is always a premium on parliamentary time. However, a patent injustice was about to be done with which the Government felt it appropriate to deal. Other issues may well have to be dealt with at some point; that remains to be seen.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, then to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and then to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and then I shall make some progress.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does not the Minister agree that although it would have been inappropriate for him to have included in the Bill a series of clauses about fire safety, it would not have been inappropriate for him to have included a series of clauses that removed all disqualifications on Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects? That is the gravamen of the attack. He could have done so without the need for any extra parliamentary time. The fact that he did not do so is at least a disappointment and at most a serious wrong.

4 pm

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I have much sympathy with the principle that the right hon. Gentleman is advocating, but I do not assent to the practical effects of introducing a Bill to remove some of the distinctions. The bells, oh the bells! I can imagine the debate about whether people wanted more bells to ring or whether the muezzin should have rights to call the faithful to prayer, and to what extent we should allow that through loudspeakers. With his experience of Parliament, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman can imagine that, too. So, I do not accept that introducing such a Bill would have been easy. We wanted a focused Bill, and that is what we have got. A particular case exposed the particular principle involved.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman has spoken of the injustice to Mr. Cairns—just as there would be injustice to Mr. Cairn's association and electorate—and I agree, but would not the problem go further? Would not it probably breach Mr. Cairns's convention rights if he were prevented from standing? Would not it be difficult for the Home Secretary to make a declaration of compatibility on the Bill if the amendment were accepted?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall tread with a little caution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly asks me to express a view on whether the amendment might cause us to breach the European convention on human rights.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

It is the law of the land, and it is right that we take due account of it. I want to reflect on the matter. I suspect that we might get very close to an infringement. Indeed, I suspect that if we had not introduced such legislation as this Bill, we might well have found ourselves challenged in the Court under the convention on the Cairns or some other case. That was not particularly why we introduced the Bill, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a good point.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) will not spoil the argument, because I for one—I suspect that I will be joined by colleagues in this observation—could not give a tinker's cuss about the view on the European convention on human rights. I am motivated by different factors in my support for the Bill and in my opposition to the amendment.

I in no way dissent from what the Minister has said, but will he nevertheless confirm that one effect of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary would have been to enable Monsignor Bruce Kent, had he been elected, to take his seat in 1992 to represent the people of Oxford, West and Abingdon? If the Minister accepts that that correct—I believe it is—why did no Labour Member propose such a measure in the run-up to that election? Was it on account of the fact that Labour knew that Father Bruce had not the slightest prospect of being elected or was it because it did not wish him to be? Which is it?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am not aware of any discussions that went on before 1992. 1 was not in this House, and neither was the hon. Gentleman. Therefore neither he nor I were in a position to bring forward such a Bill as this. When the case of David Cairns was brought to my attention, I thought that justice needed to be done, and I think that in due course the House will do justice to David Cairns.

Let me explain why this issue was not dealt with in a Bill introduced earlier in the Session: we wanted to consult the Churches, and that consultation has now been completed. [Interruption.] I am being interrupted by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) who, from a sedentary position, and in her usual vociferous style, is waving her five fingers in the air and saying that there could have been five Bills. We could not have included this measure in five Bills in the period following the consultation. That was not the case. There were two possibilities, but the consultation period on this measure had not been completed in time to include it in those Bills. The short title of the Bills would not have enabled us to include this issue. None the less, short titles can be dealt with. However, by the time the issue was before the House and the consultation had been completed, it was not possible to include it in those Bills.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde

I disappeared from the Chamber for a minute because I dashed to the Library to obtain a copy of Cardinal Thomas Winning's letter, which was part of the consultation. Cardinal Winning says in his letter, inter alia: I would not be in favour of any priest being elected to the House of Commons. That, however, would be because of Canon Law and not because of what can be seen as discrimination in the civil law of our country. That is the anomaly that I had in mind.

In his letter of 4 February last year, Cardinal Winning asked whether the restrictions would be lifted on "clergy"—that is, on bishops, priests and deacons, or simply on priests alone? Has that question been answered?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

All the restrictions on bishops other than bishops of the Church of England who are Members of another place would be lifted. Therefore, any restrictions on deacons or anyone else would be lifted. The only people who would, as a result of their ecclesiastical background, continue to be excluded from this place would be those who were actually Members of another place and therefore had a voice in the legislative process.

The key principle is whether we should exclude certain citizens from participating in the legislative process. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst read out the list of those who were excluded. As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal pointed out, many of those are in receipt of some funding via the Crown and there are therefore reasons for excluding them. However, that does not include the sort of people we are now discussing, who are priests or ministers in various ways of particular religions.

Amendment No. 13 would limit the meaning of ordination as relating to ordination as either a priest or deacon. It would echo similar words used in the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801. We consider that the additional words are unnecessary, although their effect would not be inaccurate in terms of the purpose of the clause. Parliament has not thought it necessary to retain that gloss on the meaning of the word "ordination" in the more recent legislation that refers to disqualification on grounds of ordination—that is, the 1998 devolution enactments and the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. We are trying to place election to this House broadly on all fours with the sort of provisions that relate to the devolved Parliament and Assemblies and also the European Parliament.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst for explaining the purpose of amendment No. 12. Our view is that the amendment is unnecessary. The meaning of "minister" does not need broadening. Those affected by the disqualifications in the 1801 Act and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 are sufficiently identified in clause 1(1)—that is, persons who have been ordained or are a minister of any religious denomination. The addition of "or the recognised equivalent" would provoke doubts as to the sufficiency of the phrase referred to in clause 1(1), which appears in the 1998 devolution enactments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. Accepting the amendment would therefore necessitate making similar amendments to those pieces of legislation.

The proposed words would also run the risk of being construed in a way that was restrictive. It is to do with the way in which the legal interpretation rules apply. If an additional phrase is added to a list, it may well restrict the breadth of the interpretation of those words. That could result in the amendment having precisely the opposite effect to the one intended by the right hon. Gentleman. In addition, including this wording could mean that we had to add it to the other relevant pieces of legislation. Accepting the amendment could cause problems.

For the purposes of Pepper v. Hart, the Government intend the Bill to receive the broadest possible interpretation and to cover the sort of circumstances about which the right hon. Gentleman is concerned. He and I agree on that issue, although I am not able to accept his amendment.

On amendment No. 15, I recognise that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has strong reservations about the possibility of ordained clergy sitting in this House if they are also practising as priests. She mentioned this on Second Reading, and I recognise her concerns. She and I are of the same religious background, and I have some sympathy with the ecclesiastical idea—the religious idea—that priests have a full-time job and should not do another one. A number of arguments were presented most eloquently by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal about worker priests and other circumstances. However, the key argument was put forward by Members on both sides of the House—it is not the job of this Parliament to tell the Catholic Church what rules to follow and how its priests should carry on their work. It is Parliament's job to open to people the right to elect those whom they wish to elect.

The Catholic Church is not an established Church. The established Church may well have particular rules that apply. It is my view that election to this House and, indeed, to the devolved Assemblies and Parliament and to the European Parliament should be open to as many as possible, without artificial and unnecessary restrictions.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs looked at the issue in 1998 and recommended the removal of all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for and serving as Members of Parliament. It commented: these restrictions seem to us to be out of place in modern times. There should be no restriction on ministers of religion becoming Members of Parliament, and certainly no distinction between those of different faiths or of different Christian traditions. Whether such persons should serve as an elected representative should be a matter for the rules or customs of their own faiths or churches and for the electorate, and need not be restricted by law. The Government share that view.

Secondly, we consulted the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Churches in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. All were content for the restrictions to be removed. Representatives from the Roman Catholic Church pointed out that it would not affect them, because canon law would prevent serving priests from sitting in this place. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham referred, quite rightly, to the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales was disestablished in 1912—[Interruption.] I am corrected—it was 1914. The effect is that its ministers are able to stand for election to this House. If I remember rightly, back in 1979 Rev. Bill Morgan was a member of the Church in Wales and was able to stand at Worcester, in England, without restriction.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

If the amendment were carried, ministers of the Church in Wales would, for the first time, not be able to stand for Parliament, because they are episcopally ordained. If they were in full-time ministry, they would be excluded.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman may be right. I look to see whether the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald agrees with that; it appears that she does. I find that even more worrying. The arguments advanced by my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Greenock and Inverclyde and by others on both sides totally demolished the points made by the right hon. Lady. I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment, although I hear her saying that she intends to press it to a Division. That is her right, and many hon. Members will wish to express their strong views in opposing her. Her amendment is wrong in principle and would put the House in the position of interfering—wrongly—in the internal operations of Churches that have a right to make their own rules. It should not be for us to interfere with them.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I do not intend to withdraw the amendment. Members on the Government Benches are not being allowed a free vote, which is wholly inappropriate for a decision of this sort. They are being whipped to vote by the Government. I urge those who are free, who do not approve of what the Government are doing and who seek a workable compromise to support my amendment.

The Committee divided: Ayes 17, Noes 264.

Division No. 139][4.13 pm
AYES
Amess, DavidMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterRobinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Syms, Robert
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Viggers, Peter
Wells, Bowen
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Duncan Smith, IainWilkinson, John
Fallon, Michael
Heald, OliverTellers for the Ayes:
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Mr. Eric Forth and
McIntosh, Miss AnneMr. Desmond Swayne.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Dobbin, Jim
Ainger, NickDobson, Rt Hon Frank
Allan, RichardDowd, Jim
Atkins, CharlotteDrown, Ms Julia
Austin, JohnEagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Bailey, AdrianEdwards, Huw
Ballard, JackieEfford, Clive
Barnes, HarryEnnis, Jeff
Beard, NigelEtherington, Bill
Beith, Rt Hon A JField, Rt Hon Frank
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)Fisher, Mark
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Fitzpatrick, Jim
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Foster, Don (Bath)
Benton, JoeFoulkes, George
Bercow, JohnGalloway, George
Best, HaroldGapes, Mike
Blears, Ms HazelGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
Blunt, CrispinGeorge, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Gerrard, Neil
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Gidley, Sandra
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Godman, Dr Norman A
Bradshaw, BenGodsiff, Roger
Brand, Dr PeterGoggins, Paul
Brinton, Mrs HelenGolding, Mrs Llin
Browne, DesmondGordon, Mrs Eileen
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Buck, Ms KarenGriffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Burden, RichardGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Burns, SimonGummer, Rt Hon John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Hancock, Mike
Healey, John
Cann, JamieHenderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Caplin, IvorHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Casale, RogerHendrick, Mark
Caton, MartinHepburn, Stephen
Cawsey, IanHeppell, John
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Hill, Keith
Chaytor, DavidHinchliffe, David
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Hood, Jimmy
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Hope, Phil
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Hopkins, Kelvin
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Hoyle, Lindsay
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Clelland, DavidHumble, Mrs Joan
Coaker, VernonHutton, John
Coffey, Ms AnnIddon, Dr Brian
Cohen, HarryJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Coleman, IainJenkin, Bernard
Colman, TonyJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cooper, YvetteJones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Corbyn, JeremyJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cotter, BrianJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Cox, TomJones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Crausby, DavidJoyce, Eric
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Keeble, Ms Sally
Cummings, JohnKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Kemp, Fraser
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs ClaireKhabra, Fiara S
Dalyell, TamKidney, David
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairLadyman, Dr Stephen
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Laxton, Bob
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Lepper, David
Davidson, IanLevitt, Tom
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Dismore, AndrewLinton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Quinn, Lawrie
Llwyd, ElfynRammell, Bill
Lock, DavidRaynsford, Nick
Love, AndrewRobertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
McAvoy, Thomas
McCafferty, Ms ChrisRoche, Mrs Barbara
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)Rooney, Terry
Roy, Frank
McDonagh, SiobhainRuane, Chris
McDonnell, JohnRuddock, Joan
McGuire, Mrs AnneRussell, Bob (Colchester)
McIsaac, ShonaRyan, Ms Joan
MacKay, Rt Hon AndrewSarwar, Mohammad
McKenna, Mrs RosemarySawford, Phil
Mackinlay, AndrewSedgemore, Brian
McNulty, TonySheerman, Barry
Mactaggart, FionaSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McWalter, TonyShipley, Ms Debra
Mahon, Mrs AliceSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mallaber, JudySkinner, Dennis
Mandelson, Rt Hon PeterSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall-Andrews, RobertSmith, John (Glamorgan)
Maxton, JohnSoley, Clive
Meale, AlanSouthworth, Ms Helen
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Spellar, John
Milburn, Rt Hon AlanSquire, Ms Rachel
Miller, AndrewStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Mitchell, AustinStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Moffatt, LauraStringer, Graham
Moonie, Dr LewisStuart, Ms Gisela
Moore, MichaelStunell, Andrew
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Morley, ElliotTemple-Morris, Peter
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Timms, Stephen
Morris, Rt Hon Sir John (Aberavon)Tipping, Paddy
Trickett, Jon
Mowlam, Rt Hon MarjorieTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Mullin, ChrisTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Tynan, Bill
Naysmith, Dr DougVis, Dr Rudi
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)Walley, Ms Joan
O'Hara, EddieWard, Ms Claire
O'Neill, MartinWareing, Robert N
Öpik, LembitWatts, David
Osborne, Ms SandraWhite, Brian
Palmer, Dr NickWhitehead, Dr Alan
Pearson, IanWicks, Malcolm
Pendry, Rt Hon TomWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Perham, Ms LindaWillis, Phil
Pickthall, ColinWinnick, David
Plaskitt, JamesWoodward, Shaun
Pollard, KerryWoolas, Phil
Pond, ChrisWorthington, Tony
Pope, GregWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Pound, StephenWright, Tony (Cannock)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Tellers for the Noes:
Primarolo, DawnMr. Mike Hall and
Quin, Rt Hon Ms JoyceMr. Clive Belts.

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I beg to move amendment No. 4 in page 1, line 9, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of, insert 'a see in'.

Amendment No. 6, in schedule 1, page 2, line 8, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of, insert 'a see in'.

Amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 13, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of', insert 'a see in'.

Amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 18, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of, insert 'a see in'.

Amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 23, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of insert 'a see in'.

Amendment No. 10, in schedule 1, page 2, line 28, at end insert— 'or Bishop of the Church of England'.

Amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, after first 'of', insert 'a see in'.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

It is an extraordinary side effect of this Bill to enable David Cairns properly to contest his seat in Scotland that the Government should now propose that any bishop should be able to become a Member of this House. That is an enormous change, and something that certainly requires further consideration.

The Minister has prayed in aid of the change that he has recommended today the Home Affairs Committee report, but that same Select Committee report was careful to exclude not simply the senior diocesan bishops but all serving bishops from the change that is proposed. Indeed, the change was not recommended by Professor Blackburn, on whose paper the Committee relied. The House would be making a serious mistake if it allowed bishops to become Members of Parliament.

Of course, we are not simply talking of those senior diocesan bishops who are already represented in the House of Lords. Another 16—we may call them junior diocesan bishops—may well in the fullness of time move through to the House of Lords. Two other bishops may not—the Bishop of Sodor and Man and the Bishop of Europe. There are many suffragan bishops; there are also honorary assistant bishops. We would need to think carefully about suddenly allowing bishops to become Members of this House.

It seems to me that there would immediately be a recipe for a conflict of loyalty. Under the Bill, a diocesan bishop could be, say, a Labour Member of Parliament, and his suffragan bishop could be a Conservative Member of Parliament. We would have not only a conflict of loyalties between their duties to their Church and to their Parliament but a conflict of loyalties between bishops within the same diocese. If a junior diocesan bishop were elected to this House and a month later a senior diocesan bishop happened to retire, as the Bishop of Chichester has just done, and if the junior bishop was next in line of seniority to move through, he would have to cease being a Member of this House, even though he had been elected by his constituents, and proceed up the Corridor to the other place.

It is technically possible under the Bill for a senior diocesan bishop to retire and stand for election to the House of Commons all over again. It gives a new meaning to the phrase "flying bishops"; we could have bishops flying up and down the Corridor. I know that Lords Home and Hailsham sat in both Houses twice. but the House ought to think carefully before having bishops here, in the other place, and then back here. Why should a constituency that has elected a bishop to serve it here in Parliament suddenly face a by-election because that bishop becomes senior enough to proceed through to the House of Lords? That would inflict a wholly unnecessary by-election on that constituency simply as a result of the rotation of diocesan bishops.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I remind my hon. Friend that there is a precedent for that difficulty. In a previous incarnation, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) exposed his constituency to a by-election. Indeed, under the old regime, any eldest son of a peer who was elected to the House of Commons and then saw his father die would cause a by-election. We have been here many times before, and the House thought that the situation was wrong in that case. It is wrong to advance the argument now.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks 4:30 pm, 1st March 2001

I take it from that intervention that my right hon. and learned Friend agrees with me. Under the Bill, we are putting the House in a position that, as he points out, was corrected in the case of hereditary peers. That is what the Government will do. It will be possible for bishops to become MPs, to move through to the House of Lords and then to come back to this place. That puts the House and the constituencies that would be involved in an absurd position—simply because of the drafting of the measure.

Those anomalies might arise if we allow bishops to become MPs. There are also two substantive arguments against bishops becoming Members of Parliament. First, they obviously already have their own place in the legislature; they have reserved seats and special arrangements in the otter place—the only group to do so. The House of Bishops is collectively represented. I do not wholly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who referred earlier to the fact that some bishops were in the other place while others were not. The House is collectively representative, so because of the rotation principle, all the bishops would have the opportunity to sit there in the fullness of time. It is not right that they should also have an entitlement to sit in this place.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I presume that my hon. Friend wants his amendment to receive a response from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Does he agree that that might he difficult as the hon. Gentleman is not at present in the Committee? Is it the intention of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is sitting on the Treasury Bench, to respond?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I shall have to leave that matter to Members on the Treasury Bench to sort out among themselves. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is present in order to answer my second substantive argument, which I was about to develop.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office

We shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an adequate reply to his important amendment.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that assurance, from which I assume that it does not matter which Minister responds.

My first substantive argument is that the bishops of the Church of England are collectively represented in the other place in any event; they thus do not need the additional facility of seats in the House of Commons.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is it the hon. Gentleman's view that those hereditary peers who were unsuccessful in the ballot for places in the Lords should also be disqualified on the grounds that they have representatives in the other place?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I was coming to that point; it relates to my second substantive argument, and offers a good illustration of the mess the Government have got themselves into. We cannot admit bishops to this place without also considering the effect on the composition of the other place—the problem to which the hon. Gentleman draws our attention.

The Wakeham commission includes recommendations on those senior diocesan bishops. The report recommends that their number should be reduced from 21 to 16 and that five seats should be made available for members of other denominations. It also recommends that the principle of rotation and seniority be ended and that, somehow, the new Appointments Commission should be able to select the membership of the bishops' Bench by the process of "ecumenical instrument"; to be organised by a group known as CTEChurches Together in England.

I am a little hazy on that point; I do not understand what is wrong with the principle of rotation and seniority. However, perhaps we should leave that aside.

The measure is a recipe for conflict. If there were bishops in this place and bishops in the other place, and if suffragan bishops and their senior bishops from the same diocese represented different parties in this place, that would seem muddled.

It may be that there is an agenda behind this sudden change. Perhaps the Government really want to drive bishops out of the House of Lords altogether. If we let the measure through, the Government could say, in a few years, that we need not have bishops in the House of Lords at all because they are entitled to stand for the House of Commons. Perhaps that secret agenda is at work in this measure.

If I were involved in the higher reaches of the Church, I should be extremely worried about that point—not only might the number of bishops be diminished, but there is a threat to their position altogether. Once we have bishops as MPs, someone is bound to ask why we should also have bishops with reserved places in the House of Lords. That is inconsistent.

The measure is muddled; there will be an important side effect that has nothing to do with David Cairns. That matter should have been considered much more carefully—perhaps by a Speaker's Conference, but certainly as part of the more general implementation of stage 2 reform of the House of Lords. I urge the Committee to accept the amendment.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I often agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), but the picture he paints is unlikely. The idea that, all over the country, hordes of bishops are rushing out to get themselves elected seems to be, ab initio, unlikely. The idea that both the diocesan bishop and his suffragan would be elected to this place for different parties at the same time seems so unlikely as not to be worthy of consideration. It is possible that a bishop might be elected to the House of Commons, but even that is extremely unlikely.

The point at issue is different from that under discussion in the previous amendment; this amendment deals only with the established Church. I disagree with my hon. Friend for the simple reason that, for the most part, the bishops to whom we are referring are not able to be Members of the House of Lords. A suffragan bishop may not sit in the House of Lords; an assistant bishop may not sit in the House of Lords. Associate bishops or bishops from abroad may not sit in the House of Lords. The only people to whom my hon. Friend's argument applies are those diocesan bishops who are not rotationally able to sit in the House of Lords at present.

I am not a betting man, but I am prepared to take a large bet that none of those bishops would stand for election to this place in any circumstances—for two good reasons. The first is the rotational system itself. The second is that one cannot conceive of a diocesan bishop who would think it possible both to hold that office and to be a party political Member of this place—because that is what it would mean. The situation would not arise.

We are really talking about the other bishops. Surely it would be odd to remove the inability of clergymen of the Church of England and priests of the Roman Catholic Church to stand for election to this place, while saying that clergymen who are bishops of a different sort—associate bishops, suffragan bishops and the like—should not be able to stand. It is not that I think that any of them would stand, but that there is no logic for excluding them. It would be logical for the Church of England to do so, but not for Parliament to take that step.

In this situation, we are much better guided by history. In the past, the word "bishop" referred only to diocesan bishops; the Church of England did not go in for suffragan and assistant bishops. We are treading new ground. Change has taken place in the Church of England since the legislation that we are dealing with became extant. There is thus no historical reason why we should not take this step.

I do not believe that the procedure will take place. Even if it were to do so, my hon. Friend's concern about bishops flying up and down the Corridor is unlikely to come about. After all, there is a perfect answer: the people who elected them would know of the possibility and would take it into account. It is not for us to say that that is not possible and proper. Even if they elected them and the occasion arose, it would be possible for the bishop to refuse the preferment.

The amendment makes a meal out of something that is not really worth a bite. We can perfectly properly leave the matter; it will not, in fact, make a ha'p'orth of difference. If I were to vote for the amendment and it were passed, that would not make a ha'p'orth of difference either. However, it happens to be a bit more logical to carry the argument through as the Bill now stands. I suggest that the House can do so without any fear at all that we shall be under the jurisdiction of a horde of bishops, whether vagantes or not. The fact is that they will not come; we will not have them here, so either agreeing to the amendment or not is, frankly, immaterial—but it is a matter of rationality, and I prefer to be on the side of reason.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

For the second time today, rather worryingly, I find myself in almost complete agreement with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Yes, I will; it may not happen again. I struggled to comprehend the argument adduced by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). If I understood him properly, he was saying that we should not pass the Bill in its current form because the bishops already have representatives in the House of Lords who can speak for them. However, as I tried to suggest in my intervention, it is also the case that hereditary peers who were unsuccessful in the election have exactly that kind of representation. Of course it is arguable that that applies to other people who sit there in some sort of representative mode. No special reason exists to use the representative role of those bishops who sit in the Lords to disqualify those who do not sit there.

The second argument was that by-elections could be caused. If a by-election were foreseeable, that would perhaps be a reason for not having certain categories of candidate. I wondered whether we should also introduce a rule to prevent people who have a series illness from standing for Parliament. Should we have health checks? To be honest, by-elections are much more often caused by death than by preferment, so they might best be avoided by having rigorous medical checks to weed out those who are not up to the next four or five years. In all conscience, I think that the by-election argument is not sustainable; it is only adduced as an argument to prop up the weakness of other arguments.

Another argument is that there is a see-saw case and people may appear in one House and then the other. We may like to think that the right direction for traffic is from this House to the other place, but in all conscience, why should not there be a route back from that House to this place? If a retirement age were introduced, or if other factors came into play, what on earth would be wrong with that?

The third argument seemed to be that there might be a conflict between bishops if they finished up in this House, but on different sides. As hon. Members will know from my previous contribution, I am not a member of the Church of England. I do not take detailed account of what goes on in the Synod, but I was under the impression that its members were on opposite sides already. The idea that we would somehow avoid conflict by keeping them out of the House seems misplaced.

The fourth argument was perhaps the most feeble of all. It was suggested that if the Bill were passed, it would be bad for bishops because it would sound the death knell of bishops in the other place if they were allowed to sit in this House. That is a self-serving argument. Allowing politicians from that place into this place certainly has not sounded their death knell, so there is no particular reason why allowing bishops into this place should sound their death knell either.

In fact, it would suit hon. Members best if we had the smallest possible constituency of people who were allowed to be elected to the House. Ideally, we would restrict entry to those who have already been elected, but we widen it a little. There is always a tendency for us to consider restrictions on those who can be elected not solely in terms of the benefit to democracy, but perhaps at the back of our minds, subconsciously, seeing benefit to ourselves.

I argue strongly that the amendment is wholly mistaken in its purpose and will not achieve what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks seeks. I hope that it will fall.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45 pm, 1st March 2001

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is perfectly capable of defending and promoting the amendment, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously suggesting that my hon. Friend seeks to restrict the opportunities for people to stand for election to the House of Commons because he is personally fearful of priestly competition.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am properly drawn up by the hon. Gentleman—there is a tendency slightly to overstate one's case. I do not envisage that bishops will be clamouring to stand at the forthcoming election for the constituency of Sevenoaks. I may have missed something, but so far as I know, the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have an eye on Sevenoaks, or on Buckingham. I am happy to confirm that no such suggestion was intended. I hope that the House will very quickly dispose of this unnecessary amendment, which NA would have poor outcomes were it to be passed.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I should like to make a quick contribution to what I hope is the rapid disposal and dispatch of the amendment. I do not agree with it. I have already argued in general terms why I am in favour of freedom. All that I said in the debate on the first group of amendments applies to this group. I believe in choice and freedom; they are traditional Conservative values, and I shall do nothing to depart from them. I approach this group of amendments from that general position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has adduced four arguments. They are all misplaced. He first talked about a conflict of loyalty between the bishops and their suffragans, or between the bishops and their Churches. That may be so; there may be a conflict of loyalties. Many Members have various conflicts of loyalties, and it is ultimately a matter for the person who puts himself or herself forward for election to resolve. It is a matter for the associations to address and, ultimately, it is for the electorates to decide. It is not for us to be prescriptive. Yes, there may be conflicts of loyalty, but they are no greater and no less than the conflicts of loyalty that already face many Members.

The second point was the suggestion that by-elections may be caused by the death or retirement of a Lord Spiritual and his replacement in another place by an elected bishop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) expressed his views on that point, and I agree with him.

In any event, what is the problem? As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks—I do not think that he quite followed the point—we have been here many times before. In the past, the eldest sons of peers have triggered by-elections on the death of their fathers. That happened in the case of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and in the case of my right hon. and noble Friend, my father, when he succeeded my grandfather and had to vacate his seat at Oxford. Constituency associations selected the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and my father to stand for Parliament and the electorate voted them in at a general election. It is therefore an issue for the associations and the electorate and not something about which we should be prescriptive.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made a perfectly sound point when he said that, if we were to extend the provision so that the possibility of causing a by-election would lead to someone's disqualification, we would almost, by definition, have to exclude the elderly and the very elderly. I shall not say into which category my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) falls, but I am entitled to say that the House would have been the poorer without his presence. I am very glad that his association and the electorate returned him over many years, and he has now served for 51 years in the House. That same point applied to Sir Winston Churchill. We must not make the possibility of a by-election become a barrier to someone's being adopted or selected as a candidate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said that the proposal might push forward the secret agenda that the Lords Spiritual should no longer sit in the other place. I wish to make a couple of observations about that. If it were left to me, I would not have Lords Spiritual in the other place. I would have an entirely elected second Chamber, and I suspect that we are moving towards one that has a very large elected element. I would be surprised if the Lords Spiritual ultimately retain their seats. As I am pressing for a second Chamber that is either largely or wholly elected, I would support their disappearance. There is nothing personal about it; I believe in a powerful second Chamber and that means an elected one.

I make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no secret agenda; it is public and overt. I want an elected Second Chamber. If this provision makes a small contribution to that, it is another reason for opposing my hon. Friend's amendment. I hope that we shall have no more of this nonsense.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

We have had a good debate on the amendment. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made clear, elections to Parliament have been an issue on many occasions in the past. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to two examples, one of which was obviously close to him because it concerned his father. From time to time, people have been sent from this House to the other place and a by-election has been necessary. We do not take the view that particular restrictions should apply to anyone who might be sent to another place.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made exactly the right point. He said that the amendment makes a meal out of something that is barely worth a bite. I agree with him entirely.

Amendment No. 4 is contrary to the view taken by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in its report, "Electoral Law and Administration". At paragraph 127 of volume 1, it recommended 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 secret agenda that the hon. Member for Sevenoaks fears appears to be the secret agenda of the Conservative party rather than that of the Government. I do not know whether the support of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for the Bill is part of a secret agenda, but the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham got it right. There is no secret agenda: it is overt.

There are 42 Church of England diocesan bishops, of whom 40 could qualify to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. At any one time, only 26 are summoned to be Lords Spiritual and those bishops will be disqualified from House of Commons membership because they already have a voice in the Lords.

The proposal is broadly in line with the Home Affairs Committee recommendation, but it goes slightly wider. Although we consider it extremely unlikely that bishops—whether or not they are Lords Spiritual—would wish to become MPs while performing the duties of a bishop, it seems right in principle to relate the disqualification to those who actually have a voice in the other place. We therefore consider it right to remove all statutory restrictions, thereby enabling anyone—save for those bishops who are Lords Spiritual—who so wishes to become a Member of Parliament if elected.

I do not think that a queue of bishops wish to stand for Parliament, so the fears of the hon. Member for Sevenoaks are unfounded. I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I shall not pretend that the amendment has widespread support across the Chamber and I shall certainly reflect on what has been said. However, the Home Affairs Committee supported it, saying that all serving bishops should be excluded. The Minister described that as going slightly wide of what he intended, but the Home Affairs Committee agreed with me that no serving bishops should be in the House. It is important to put that on record, but in view of the fact that the amendment did not attract quite as much support as I had originally anticipated, I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.