Short Title, Commencement and Extent

Orders of the Day — House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 1 March 2001.

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Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks 4:45, 1 March 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 17, at end insert— '(1A) This Act shall come into force on the day after the general election for the Parliament after that in which it is passed, and shall apply only to persons elected to the House of Commons after that date.'. I hope that I have better luck with this one, Mr. Lord. The purpose of the amendment is very simple. It is to delay the implementation of the Bill until after the election. Let me immediately put on record that I have nothing against Mr. David Cairns or his ambition to serve as a Member of Parliament. In the fullness of time, I hope to welcome him to the House. If he finds a safer seat than the one for which he has been selected, we will all be ready to welcome him.

I made the point on Second Reading—and the amendment gives it effect—that introducing the Bill in order to support a candidate discriminates against those who might have put their names forward for selection by either party during the years in which candidates were selected, but did not do so because they knew how the law stood. We would be discriminating against all those people if we changed the law to benefit one individual.

On a more general point, I do not think that we should change the law governing elections either to suit a particular candidate or in the weeks running up to a general election, or to do so without widespread cross-party support. That is why in the old days, when these things were done properly, we had Speaker's Conferences where such matters could be discussed between the parties and then put on the statute book, so that at the beginning of the next Parliament everyone would be absolutely clear about where they stood.

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

I put it to my hon. Friend and to the House that his argument is certainly unsustainable and possibly disingenuous because it would have been perfectly open to other individuals, knowing the law as it stood, to put themselves forward as prospective parliamentary candidates, to be selected as such and then to seek by democratic pressure to change the law. The fact that none of them apparently did so is really not a good reason to fail to do the right thing now.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

We could not know whether other candidates wanted to take advantage of a change in the law. To his credit, from the outset the Minister has been honest about the fact that the Bill has been introduced simply to facilitate the candidature of one individual. I think that it is bad law to legislate simply to assist one person. Perhaps it should have been a personal Act—we do not get many of those.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

I am being challenged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I hope that he will not damage my case as much as he did on the previous amendment.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does my hon. Friend agree that, looking back over history, the law of the House has been changed in response to the situations of individual Members. Bradlaugh changed the law of the House for his own good, in a sense. With the election of Wilkes, the law was changed for one man. The law was changed for Rothschild to allow Jews into the House. It has to be the individual case that concentrates the mind and enables us to take such decisions. My hon. Friend really ought to allow this to be in the great historical tradition of freedom.

Several hon. Members:


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

The measure would come into effect the day after the general election, so deals only with Members being able to take up their seats. It would have no practical effect on an individual case. The law prevents people not from standing, but from taking up their seat. What is the point of the amendment?

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

It avoids the situation that the hon. Gentleman outlined on Second Reading

It being Five o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Orders [7 November and 6 February].

Amendment negatived.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Lord. Can you explain what just happened? A number of hon. Members shouted "Aye" when you put the Question on amendment No. 11, but we did not have a Division. This is for my guidance only; I would not dream of challenging you.

The Second Deputy Chairman:

The right hon. Lady is, in a polite way, challenging me. I believe that we followed the correct procedure.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 5:01, 1 March 2001

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

In commending the Bill to the House, I should say that I am grateful for the very constructive way in which it has been considered. I am also grateful for the strong support that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has given the Bill and for other Opposition Members' support for the principles behind it. I also express my gratitude to my hon. Friends, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She has been trying to bring the issue before the House for some time and to convince me that it is right to change the law, and I agree with her.

We have had a good discussion on some issues. The Bill was introduced because of the particular injustice that might have been done to an individual. However, there have been injustices in the past. Had we allowed this injustice to take place, it would have affected not just the person involved, but a constituency Labour party and a whole constituency. They would not have been given the choice, which they may, or may not, accept.

The debate has shown that there are still strong feelings on religious issues in this place, and it is right that we discuss them. The main Churches in this country have been consulted. They agree that the restrictions are no longer required—if they ever were—and that they can be removed. The Government share that view. It would be absurd if Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups, including most nonconformist denominations, were able to become Members of the House, but that serving and former ministers of religion of some faiths were not allowed to do so. That is a particular hardship for people who are religious but who, as in the case of Mr. David Cairns, no longer wish to practise as a priest. The existing law hits those people hard, for they are not free to exchange one way of being in service to the public for another. It cannot be right that a former priest is denied the right to sit as a Member of Parliament solely on the grounds of his former calling.

As I said on Second Reading, I do not consider that there is likely to be a long queue of clergy pressing to become Members of Parliament. That will be a matter for Churches and individuals to consider, but I believe that it is for the individuals and for their constituents to consider, not for the House of Commons to dictate to the Churches involved. The Catholic Church does not consider that practising Catholic priests ought to be Members of Parliament, but I think it right that the House sends a message that, if the Catholic Church were to change its mind, no law of the state would prohibit a Catholic priest from sitting as a Member.

This small, but none the less somewhat controversial Bill—at least with some right hon. and hon. Members—will remove what I regard as an archaic restriction that has been in force for 200 years. A potential injustice will be avoided thereby. The repeal of existing legislation is timely and I hope that the House will give the Bill its wholehearted support.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:06, 1 March 2001

I rise to speak in support of giving the Bill its Third Reading. Its principles were thoroughly and rigorously debated on Second Reading and it is right and proper that we should have had the opportunity today further to consider the issues involved and proposed amendments in Committee. A Report stage was possible, but in the end—although obviously a matter of nip and tuck—it did not come to that, and we now have the pleasure and responsibility of engaging in what I hope will be a serious and constructive debate on Third Reading.

Much earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) drew attention to his secular motivation, if I may so describe it. He emphasised that he was not a member of the Church of England, or of any other Church. I think that I do not misrepresent him in saying that he is not a religious person, and it might even be said that he is an irreligious person. Other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have either admitted or openly professed that they have a religious motivation, at least in part; therefore I think it right that I put my own cards on the table.

I practise no religion and I have no plans to do so. My late father, bless his cotton socks, was Jewish; my mother converted to Judaism, although I suspect that she would be first to concede that she did so out of convenience, not conviction. I was brought up in a Jewish household—I had a bar mitzvah and so on and so forth—and I have always strongly identified with the Jewish people. I have never apologised for or felt embarrassed about being Jewish—rather, I have been proud of it; and I have an especially strong identification with the state of Israel. However, I am not a religious person. I cannot get hung up about religious considerations.

None the less, I respect the fact that many people are motivated in their lives by a commitment to religion. I certainly recognise that religion can be a source—perhaps, for some people, the source—of civil obligation and personal morality, but I would argue that religion is by no means the only source of civil obligation or of personal morality. That is the vantage point—that of an irreligious person taking a secular interest in an important subject—from which I approach the Bill.

In supporting the proposition that the Bill be given its Third Reading, I emphasise that—as today's debates have made clear—I speak on my own account and in no sense on behalf of the Opposition. I repeat what has been said by others, including my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary: it is deplorable that the Government have not allowed Labour Members a free vote on the Bill. It should be a matter of conscience for them, but it is assuredly a matter of conscience for us. Liberal Democrats have contributed to the proceedings of the Bill, and I think that they, too, have a free vote. Unfortunately—[Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position to the effect that there is only one Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell).

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

Yes. The hon. Gentleman is provoked.

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

Perhaps not for the first time in the debate, I should remind the hon. Gentleman that size is not important.

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

I can rally to that proposition with enthusiasm and alacrity. I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have always and everywhere argued that size is not everything. I go so far as to say that height is not everything either.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important for the Liberal Democrat party to have at least one other Member present so that it may, as usual, vote on both sides of the case?

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

That is right. However, with the self-effacement, modesty and characteristic understatement that we all associate with my right hon. Friend, he has not made the case as strongly as he could have done. To suppose that Liberal Democrats tend to divide in only two directions on a piece of legislation is markedly generous to them. Ordinarily, we see a four-way split among Liberal Democrat Members—those in favour of a Bill, those against it, those who abstain and those who do not turn up or were not aware that the debate was taking place.

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

This is a great deal more fun than the proceedings in Committee. Those who want to examine objectively the evidence that is being put to the House would want also carefully to examine the Division list for the only Division on the Bill that we have had so far today. The facts will speak for themselves. I do not believe that the Division list will show a united Conservative party on the issues that were facing us.

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

Order. Before the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) responds, I shall bring him back to Third Reading.

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

I am grateful to be brought to heel, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your exhortation is absolute as far as I am concerned.

I emphasise that we did not regard the Bill as a party matter. There are genuine differences of opinion among Conservative Members. In endorsing the call for a Third Reading, I am speaking for myself and not for the Conservative Opposition.

There have been some good exchanges on Second Reading and in Committee, and I hope that there will be good exchanges on Third Reading. By way of illustration, I pay tribute to the many Members who have spoken in the debate, generally in a good-natured fashion and representing a variety of different viewpoints. There have not been significant differences of opinion among Labour Members, but those who have spoken in support of the Bill have done so with clarity, with commitment and, in a number of instances, with passion. That is respected. I say that to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has introduced a ten-minute Bill on this important subject. I refer also to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan).

I had originally intended to say that I was totally, utterly and unreconstructedly unrepresentative of my right hon. and hon. Friends. on this subject. I was not planning to say that apologetically, but by way of frankness and candour. As things have transpired and the debate has evolved, it has appeared to me that I am at least marginally less unrepresentative of my right hon. and hon. Friends than I originally supposed and anticipated.

I am delighted that I am in the company of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). As far as I can tell—it seemed pretty clear from his ferocious eloquence—I am effectively in the lobby of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

I thought originally that I would have to say that I was virtually in a minority of one—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is not with us today—but that is not the case. Several Opposition Members see a good and powerful case for the Bill. Nevertheless, there is no denying that there are Conservative Members who think that the Bill should not be given a Third Reading.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I hope that in this part of his analysis, my hon. Friend will make it clear that there are those who support the thrust and principle of the Bill, as I do, but are against its taking effect neatly in time for a general election, to bail out one Labour candidate, and that my hon. Friend will recognise the fact that I, and perhaps others, may have to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, even though we support its principles.

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

Not for the first time, and I imagine not for the last, the symbiotic relationship that exists between my right hon. Friend and me has re-asserted itself. His remarks anticipate what I had intended to say. I wanted to draw attention to the different motivations of Conservative Members for refusing to give the Bill a Third Reading.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge the body of opinion on the Conservative Benches that is wholly opposed to the principle of the Bill, but would have gone to some practical length to accommodate the problem in Greenock and Inverclyde.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had been planning to speak in complimentary terms about him—he is one of the great parliamentarians of our time. I mean that. I said it in his constituency, so there is no reason why I should not say it in the House. I do not resile from that tribute, but I am bound to say that my hon. Friend's views on the matter are antediluvian.

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

Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) might be described as a parliamentary troglodyte. He is living in the cave-man age. I richly enjoyed his historical exegesis and the development of his argument in opposition to the Bill, but I believe that he is profoundly mistaken. Listening to his speech, I was reinforced in my conviction that my hon. Friend was born in 1956 at the age of 140.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am sure that I was not the only Member who was unaware of the precise definition of the word "symbiotic" as my hon. Friend used it about our right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). If he explained it in detail, it would help us a good deal.

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

Order. That may or may not be true. It certainly would not help the deliberations on the Third Reading of the Bill. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Buckingham would return to those directly.

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

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would otherwise have been enormously keen to refer to the precise page in the Oxford English dictionary, but on the basis of your guidance, I shall not make the attempt. I am grateful for your restraining influence.

Of all those who oppose the Bill, the person who has done so with the greatest passion and intellectual consistency is my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary. It is important to emphasise that her view is perfectly legitimate. She is motivated by an intellectual conviction that the Bill is unjustified, and by her sense of the ethical, as well as the practical, incompatibility of serving priests continuing to serve as priests while being practising Members of the House of Commons.

I happen to believe that my right hon. Friend is mistaken in her conviction, but she adheres to that conviction tenaciously and powerfully, as she adheres to every other conviction that she holds or has held in the past. I do not criticise my right hon. Friend at all. We take different points of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West is in a broadly similar category. He is opposed to the Bill in principle. He thinks that it constitutes a form of parliamentary and possibly even religious vandalism, so he cannot bring himself to support it.

It is only fair to record that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has a different motivation entirely, as he helpfully reminded me. He made it clear in his contribution that he can see a case for the Bill. He thinks that it ought to be stated much more explicitly that the Bill is not just about the protection of one category of religious person, but that it extends much more widely—indeed, universally—to accommodate people of all faiths.

In that respect, he made what might be called the conservative politically correct case for an all-embracing, deregulatory measure.

There is nothing remotely surprising or unusual about that. In a sense, my right hon. Friend argued for the equivalent of what Dr. Erhard argued for in the immediate aftermath of the second world war regarding a bonfire of economic controls. In the light of his zealous commitment to deregulation, allowing the market to make decisions and leaving matters to the populace to judge for themselves, it was to be expected that he would not get hung up on a point of ecclesiastical doctrine or liturgy. Sure enough, he has done nothing of the sort, but he is motivated by one other factor: he believes that the Bill is cynically motivated, that it should not be introduced now and that it is unacceptable that, unless any last-minute developments occur, it will benefit only one individual, who has put himself forward as a prospective parliamentary candidate at the forthcoming election.

I want to deal briefly with those points, but before I develop my argument, I remind the House of what the Under-Secretary said at the commencement of Second Reading. He pointed out that two principal measures confirm in statute the discrimination to which there is now such widespread objection: the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. On Second Reading, there was some debate and dispute about whether one might be obliged to refer to as many as seven or eight items of legislation to say whether a minister of religion could be elected as a Member of Parliament and then take his seat. The hon. Gentleman said that he would not dilate on all those measures because he had been advised by Government lawyers that the two Acts did the trick on their own. However, there is widespread objection to that legislation and clear, strong and spontaneous support from the different Churches in this country for the relatively modest reform that the Government now wish to take through the House.

I think that the Government are justified in seeking to introduce the Bill, but a recurrent question in all the debates on it is why they did not do what they are now proposing some time earlier. The argument that they should have done so is not entirely without merit. Many references have been made to the Home Affairs Committee report produced in the 1997–98 Session, which, as the Under-Secretary reminded the House, called for the removal of these antiquated restrictions on the entitlement to sit in the House of Commons.

We can argue the toss about how many opportunities the Government have had in this Parliament to introduce in legislation that has since been enacted the change proposed in the Bill. On my reckoning—I feel sure that I will have the eager and earnest attention of the Under-Secretary as I make this point—there were at least three opportunities earlier in this Parliament to introduce the measure that they now commend to the House, even though they were not very much earlier. The first opportunity—I think that I have got the right chronological order, although I cannot be certain—was the Representation of the People Act 2000. The Government could have constructed or amended that measure in Committee or on Report to make the changes that they now commend.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

On a point of information, I asked the Chairman of Ways and Means whether I could table such an amendment to either the Representation of the People Act 2000 or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Both times, I was told that such a proposal was outside the scope of the legislation.

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

That is very interesting, though I am bound to tell the hon. Lady and the House that I in no sense retire hurt on the point. What she has said is not necessarily conclusive, not because there is a qualitative distinction or a distinction of status between her and a Front-Bench Member, but because the terms, purpose and architecture of a Bill are, in the first instance, matters of Government intention and Government inspiration. Therefore, although it may have been impossible for her to table an amendment of the kind reflected in this Bill, I am not at all persuaded that it would have been impossible for the Government so to have crafted the Representation of the People Act 2000 to admit of the change that they now commend. She may not be convinced, but that seems to me to be perfectly credible.

The hon. Lady referred also to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The same argument applies. Similarly, we undertook a lengthy, albeit hurried debate—the two are not incompatible—over a day and a half when we considered the Disqualifications Act 2000. It suited the Government to make a particular and narrow change, which was of interest to Members of the Dail, and they took that opportunity very much at the behest of Sinn Fein. The Minister would be hard pressed to prove that it was legislatively impossible to introduce a measure of the type that forms the basis of this Bill. Perhaps he is about to enlighten us.

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

Certain things are possible, but they may not be desirable, and there were two good reasons why such a measure may not have been desirable. First, accepting an amendment would have significantly widened the ambit of that legislation to include matters of this sort. A large number of other issues would have been introduced and there would have been potential to make further amendments to the measures, both of which were broad enough.

Secondly and much more importantly, we wanted fully to consult with the Churches, which took time to draw up their responses. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the previous cardinal regrettably died and a period elapsed before a new cardinal was appointed. We were concerned to ensure that the consultation was carried out properly and that we gave all the various Churches the time and opportunity to reach a view on the matter. They have done so, and we are grateful to them for that. Had we rushed into introducing an amendment to the legislation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, we would not have allowed the time for consultation that the matter required.

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

I always stand to be corrected or persuaded, but I am afraid that the Minister has not succeeded. It was a nice try. He advanced a poor argument as forcefully as he felt able to do in the circumstances, but it was not remotely persuasive. He should not be unduly troubled by what I am saying, however, because the Home Affairs Committee report was published in the 1997–98 Session and the three Bills to which I have referred were considered in the 1999–2000 Session.

Ministers have an extraordinary attitude to time. When it suits them, they hurry matters through at a ferocious rate of knots, admitting of minimal time for debate or objection. However, when they want to doff their hat to leisurely consideration and full consultation so that all points of view may be aired over an extended period, that is the course that they invariably take. Whatever justification the Minister might advance, it is not credible to argue that the consultation needed to take two years.

My view—shared by a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends—is that the Government could have made the change earlier. However—this is where I suspect the Minister and I agree—the fact that we could have done the right thing earlier, but did not do so, does not obviate the need to do the right thing now, when we have a further opportunity. That is, if I may say so, the lacuna in the arguments of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. They say "They could have done it before and did not bother to do so; why should we indulge them now?" I do not consider that to be a credible and sustainable position.

If we are fair—it irks me to be fair to this ghastly, crass, burdensome, irritating, smug and patronising new Labour Government—we must accept the reality that all Administrations have legislative priorities, and judgments to make about them. They are able to introduce some Bills in a Session, but not others. It is not possible for them to introduce every measure that is desirable, and that they would like to introduce, in a given Session. The fact that a Select Committee report has called for a measure does not mean that that measure will immediately be presented, and it is the height of absurdity to suppose otherwise.

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

My right hon. Friend is clearly becoming upset, so I shall give way to him.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I simply wanted to remind my hon. Friend that the Government found legislative time for—indeed, gave legislative priority to—Bills as important as the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, which concerned people selling hamburgers, and the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, which sought to make illegal the living of a limited but important number of people.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing this Bill, not previous Bills dealing with entirely different matters.

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

You are absolutely right, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am exceptionally grateful to you for your reminder, and for the guidance that it contained. My point, however—in support of giving this Bill a Third Reading—was that the fact that the right thing had not been done in the past did not prevent us from doing the right thing now. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested that there was an alternative point of view. There is an alternative point of view; it just has the demerit of being mistaken.

I believe that when we have an opportunity to do the right thing, we should do it. The Government have introduced a number of foolish measures that they should not have introduced, and for which it would have been much better not to find time, but that is a reflection of the legislative priorities of the Administration by whom we are currently and, I hope, only temporarily belaboured. I still say that if we can pass this Bill now, we should do so.

Let me now deal with another argument advanced by my right hon. and hon. Friends who oppose Third Reading. It is a slightly different argument, or at least a variant on the theme of "They could have done it before but they did not, so they should not be allowed to do it now". My right hon. and hon. Friends argue that this ghastly, risible—gosh, I had better not be too rude—Government were motivated by consideration of the interests of just one individual, and that it is not right for a measure of this kind to be taken through Parliament simply to facilitate the ambition of that one individual.

It is as though the argument for the Bill were in some way sullied by the fact that there is, at least in the immediate term, only one possible beneficiary. I am sorry to have to say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and to my right hon. and hon. Friends who agree with him, that I do not think that that is right either, ethically or in terms of historical precedent.

In regard to ethics my feeling is that if the argument for reform is compelling, the fact that only one person will benefit is not a good reason for not passing legislation. I was not persuaded by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that it was all frightfully unfair on people who could otherwise have been perspective parliamentary candidates at an earlier stage in the Parliament but declined to do so, because they knew that under existing law they could not take their seats.

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

I shall in a moment.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks and to the House, it would have been perfectly open, at an earlier stage, for other individuals who aspired to sit in the House of Commons to get themselves selected as prospective parliamentary candidates and then to seek to change the law so that they could take their seats if they were elected. The fact that they chose not to do so is a matter for them. However, I do not think that that should prevent us from doing the right thing for the individual concerned in the present case. Before I develop the argument further, I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke).

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is speaking with his customary eloquence. On this occasion, he is also speaking with much more logic than he may have used in some previous debates. I think that he is making an excellent point. I am puzzled by the argument that setting right an injustice on the basis of an individual case is not the right approach. Many precedents fly in the face of that argument. The hon. Gentleman will recall the case of the then Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn and the consequent legislation—which, remarkably, led to the election of one Alec Douglas-Home as leader of the Conservative party and as Prime Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that, if a turbulent priest should come to lead the Conservative party, the day may come when Conservative Members even bless this day?

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The only down-side of my giving way to him is that he has thoroughly stolen my thunder—I was going to make precisely that point. Implicit in the arguments of some of the Bill's critics is that we are behaving in an unprecedented manner. That is not true. History is littered with examples of measures taken by the House because of the pressure and immediacy of a given case. There is nothing remotely ignoble about that. It does not discredit the argument for a measure; nor is it an argument in favour of postponing or delaying that measure.

One could say, "There is an ethical argument and an intellectual case for the Bill. We will not do anything about it now because there is no particularly pressing case that requires its passage and there are other matters in the Government timetable. However, we will in due course consider when we can accommodate it within our legislative programme. When a particular case comes along that gives it an added piquancy, the Government of the day will introduce it." That seems to be perfectly reasonable.

The historical recollection of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston is, as far as I am aware, absolutely correct. The legislation that he mentioned is the Peerage Act 1963. It did indeed facilitate the re-entry into this place of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). It is also true that when Lord Home of The Hirsel became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister in—if memory serves me correctly—October 1963, he had to come into the House of Commons and was a beneficiary of that legislation.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, those are not the only historical precedents that can be adduced in support of the Government's proposals. There are other cases. Although it may not be entirely convenient to refer to them, it is justified to do so. For example, in arguing the case for the Bill's passage, I have in mind the Defamation Act 1996. The previous Government passed that legislation without, I think, opposition, and possibly with assistance from the then Labour Opposition, on the grounds—I am trying very much to relate the matter directly to Third Reading of this Bill—that the then hon. Member for Tatton would thereby be able to use extracts from parliamentary debates in pursuing his legal actions. It seemed extraordinary that, by an historical anomaly, he had been unable to do that. Passage of the 1996 Act enabled Mr. Neil Hamilton to use parliamentary proceedings and the parliamentary record to make his case. So there is also that example.

There is also a more recent example. Admittedly, it does not concern the passage of a piece of legislation, but it does concern a judgment made by the House of Commons. There is a particular appropriateness about the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are debating the Third Reading of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill. I ask him to confine his remarks to that.

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

Of course. I am arguing that one reason why this Bill should be given a Third Reading—I know that this is what you were jogging me along to reach, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that it will enable a prospective parliamentary candidate fully to exercise his democratic rights. The Bill is principally for that purpose.

The only other measure that I had in mind was one of the Government's, which was intended to protect the rights of Members of Parliament. That was taken with the support of Government Front Benchers to enable the legal costs of a Member of Parliament sued by one or more of his constituents to be defrayed. That decision was taken in order to assist in the particular case of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid?Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), but it could of course apply much more widely. I do not remember Members objecting—not in large numbers or vocally—that we would not be justified in passing such a measure simply because it helped only one person. It could help more.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The measures to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention were mainly cost-free, in that enacting them achieved the aim intended but with no unforeseen consequence. We are being asked to enact a Bill to provide relief for someone who is no longer a clergyman. The problem is that the consequence will be that any number of clergymen will be able to populate these Benches.

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

My hon. Friend is engaging in a certain amount of crystal-ball gazing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal suggested, it is very unlikely that any significant numbers of religious individuals—men or women of the cloth—would seek to enter this House. However, we have a duty—in this respect, my hon. Friend has a point—to anticipate that outcome. It could happen. Several people who are priests or former priests could stand for Parliament. That is obviously anathema to my hon. Friend; it is not anathema to me.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman express an opinion on whether the House would be better or worse if it were stuffed full of priests or stuffed full of lawyers?

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

That challenge is pretty unfair because, as the hon. Gentleman might know—if he does not, he is about to discover—I regularly make the point that I am not a lawyer and that I say that as a matter of pride. There are many lawyers in this place, and that gravely incommodes me. I am very unhappy about it; I find them irritating individuals. If one gathers together three lawyers, one invariably encounters no fewer than five opinions. I do not know that we are especially well served by a large complement of lawyers, but I share some of the anxieties of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal about members of the Church of England and, indeed, of a number of Churches in this country. It is not always readily apparent that they are as preoccupied with preaching the religious message that it is their duty to preach as with the pursuit of secular matters that should properly be considered and considered by them outwith their remit.

I am not enthusiastic about having a great many churchmen or churchwomen in this place. Moreover, I even go so far as to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald that, simply in terms of practicalities, it is difficult to see how a practising minister of religion can also find time to be an assiduous and effective Member of Parliament. That leads me to the final and most compelling argument in support of the Bill: public opinion. Just before I dilate on that point, I shall give way.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a sterling ally in trying to see the Bill through, but he has been speaking for some 38 minutes. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have played a part in the Bill's proceedings would like to contribute to the debate. When will the hon. Gentleman allow them the opportunity to do so?

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

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I shall very shortly bring my remarks to a conclusion. I think that I have a good excuse for not knowing that all that many people on the Government Benches want to speak. On Second Reading, the House was not exactly replete with Labour Members wishing to contribute. However, the hon. Member for Enfield, North has played an important part in the Bill's proceedings, and of course she should have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, if she is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I conclude with the point about democracy, which, ultimately, is the kernel of the argument for the passage of the Bill through this House today. There are those who say "once a priest, always a priest"; they believe that the priestly vocation is incompatible with secular public service and, in particular, with the performance of parliamentary duties. I was about to say that I do not think that that is true. However, I am not sure that I know whether I think that that is true. As I said at the outset, I am not religiously motivated in these matters. I would not presume to compete with the religious commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald or with the extent of her knowledge of religion. I do not know whether they are compatible, but whatever my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill think about the compatibility or otherwise of a religious ministry with a parliamentary career, they should not seek to foist those views on the country as a whole via the passage of a statute. That is the point. It is a matter of what the public want.

If a churchman stands for Parliament, makes it clear that he intends still to practise his ministry and to combine it with parliamentary service, the voters can decide. If the voters think that the two vocations are incompatible on ethical or practical grounds, they have a very simple recourse—not to vote for, and perhaps even to vote against, such a candidate. The matter should be determined by public opinion.

The existing statutes of 1801 and 1829 are archaic, antediluvian and indefensible. It is time that they went. The Bill might be a relatively modest measure. Perhaps a more far-reaching Bill could, and should, be introduced at a later stage. However, even those Members who are not convinced that what is being offered is the full cake and who suspect that it might be only half a cake will, I hope, if they are hungry for change, prefer to eat a slice than to be deprived of any nutritional sustenance at all.

This is essentially a good Bill. It deserves to be passed, and the fact that it was not introduced before does not mean that today we should not take the opportunity to wish it godspeed and give it a Third Reading. That is what I want to do; it is what I intend to do when the House is divided, as it will be, and I hope that I will be joined by a number of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman Labour, Greenock and Inverclyde 5:48, 1 March 2001

I promise to be brief. I will certainly not take as long as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), although his was a powerful and eloquent speech. I think, if I heard him aright, that he said that when we have the opportunity to do the right thing, we should take it. I agree.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the Bill's objective is to remove antiquated restrictions. In the eyes of many of my constituents, the Bill is concerned with the task that the House has undertaken for many years of dismantling the wall of discrimination against Catholics and many others.

Let me give an example. We have come a long way since a Conservative Member of Parliament, one Howard Vincent, representing Sheffield, Central, said in 1904: While over 260,000 people emigrated from the United Kingdom last year, their places were taken by no less than 82,000 of the scum of Europe. He was referring, in that dreadful speech, mainly to Jews. However, my Scottish colleagues could tell the House of the discrimination suffered by many Catholics who emigrated to Scotland from Ireland, including my wife's grandparents. In the early 1920s, her grandfather was one of many Catholics in Govan who had to stand watch over the building of a church which, once the contract workers left, was progressively demolished by people deeply hostile to Catholics in that area.

The shadow Home Secretary speaks with great fervour and conviction. I am one who left her Church many years ago—long before she entered it, although there is no connection between the two facts—and I suspect that she deeply regrets the lack of compatibility between her Church's canon law and the civil legislation of the United Kingdom. The Catholic Church, while upholding canon law, nevertheless wants an end to institutionalised discrimination against its members. Last year Ms Gay Catto of the Home Office constitutional and community policy directorate received a letter from the Right Rev. Monsignor Arthur Roche, saying: it would appear that there is no reason for the Catholic Church to oppose such a change in legislation, although it is necessary to point out that priests exercising their ministry and in good standing with the Church would come under the prohibition of Canon 285#3. It is also noted that this would remove what might seem to be discriminatory legislation from the Statute Book. Cardinal Thomas Winning said something similar in his letter to an official at the Home Office as part of the consultation process.

I shall not mention local matters, as this is not a pre-election speech. My seat, however, is one of the safest in Scotland, and is a lot safer than it was when I took it on a few years ago.

Institutional discrimination is being dismantled in the United Kingdom. We can see that at its clearest in Northern Ireland. I know many Catholics there, and I am chairman of my party's Northern Ireland committee. I have spoken to many members of the nationalist community who say that they have seen dramatic change in recent years in what the House of Commons has done about the discrimination that they had suffered for generations. Moderate Unionists would say the same.

We are dealing with a form of discrimination. I may be charged with being a Leninist in this matter, but I believe that the ends justify the means. We should put aside the points about an individual candidate and continue to dismantle all forms of discrimination. If we want to live in a tolerant society that honours, protects and promotes the needs and concerns of its minorities, we must persist with legislation such as this so that all groups—recent incomers to the United Kingdom, or whoever—can say, "Yes, this is a tolerant society, and I am proud to live in such a nation."

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 5:55, 1 March 2001

This is an important Bill, and I am pleased that we are to pass it, because it is clear from the debates that we have had so far that is the will of the House of Commons. The Bill is important because it rids the statute book of an attitude to a section of the community—an attitude that was steeped in prejudice and discrimination. We have to remember why the disqualification exists. At the time of Catholic emancipation, the House of Commons could not rid itself of the fear of Catholic priests. It could just about imagine that Catholics should not be locked up, but it could not quite bring itself to think that Catholic priests could be treated like other human beings. So, in order to satisfy the most revanchist views, it excluded Catholic priests from public life. That was the effect and the intention. To reverse that position by passing the Bill must be a valuable step. For that reason alone, we should support its Third Reading.

It is not rational to argue that it is improper to give the Bill a Third Reading simply because it applies to the case of a Labour candidate in Scotland. It has always been true that individual cases make law. That is how law is often made. If one presents to the House of Commons a possibility or a for instance, the House often says, "Well, it may not arise. We have lots of other things to do. Why should we apply ourselves to that?"

It is only when a Bradlaugh comes and says, "I cannot take the oath in good conscience," that the House of Commons has to decide what to do about people who cannot take the oath in good conscience. It is only when someone such as Wilkes says, "You may not like me, but I have been elected," that change is made. Three times he had to say that before the House of Commons was prepared to let him in. It is only when a Lord Stansgate says, "I do not want to be Lord Stansgate any longer. I insist that my electorate has elected me," that we change the law. It is only when an individual says, "I am the case that proves that the change is necessary," that we can no longer say that the problem is merely hypothetical, and the House does its proper job and gets rid of legislation that is no longer appropriate.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

My right hon. Friend has made again the point that he made earlier today, and very eloquent it is. However, in each of the three cases that he has put before the House, the process took some considerable time. The arguments made on behalf of the individual were rightly tested either in the courts or through successive attempts to change the law. We are being asked to consider making a one-off change very quickly just before a general election.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

My hon. Friend's case would be weightier if during the debate anyone had made an argument that even began to stand in real opposition to the central purpose of the Bill. [Interruption.] I will come to my hon. Friend's arguments in a moment. Even my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) began his argument by saying that he was in favour of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is not against the Bill; he simply raises questions about the speed of the measure, and says that we do not have enough time to think about it.

We have had enough time to think about the measure—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

We have had nearly 200 years to wonder whether the proposal is sensible.

I am a Conservative; I am a believer that what has been is not necessarily bad, and that that which has stood the test of time may well be taken into account. I certainly believe that what is new is not always good, but 200 years—or at least that part of the last 200 years during which I have been able to think—have given me enough time to realise that there is no basis for such arguments.

This Third Reading reminds us of the central issue: Parliament cannot properly enter into discussions about the validity of holy orders. I am very committed to the importance of the validity of orders—indeed, like at least one other Member of the House, I have proved my commitment; it is the reason why I ceased to be an Anglican and became a Catholic. I did so because of the nature of authority and its effect on the orders of the Church, so I think that I have a right to speak on that issue.

The validity of orders is a matter of faith; it is not a matter of secular jurisdiction. The idea that that matter of faith should inform the discussion as to which persons should be allowed to stand for and sit in Parliament seems odd. It would be much better for us to recognise, first, that the matter is one of enormous importance—more so than almost all the things that we discuss in this largely secular assembly. Secondly, however, the fact that it is important does not mean that it is relevant to the discussion about who should stand for Parliament. Its importance is eternal, but its relevance is minimal to that issue. That is why we should give the Bill its Third Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) expostulated when I suggested that no reasonable case had been made against the Bill. I do not want to do him a disservice. I should certainly not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who sits on the Front Bench and who referred in uncharacteristically uncomplimentary terms to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West. I do not call my hon. Friend antediluvian, although I think that many of his views are not up to date. For example, his views on Europe are very, very out of date. However, that is proper for him; he can carry on as he is and let the world go by. That is up to him. He can be a Member of the House and make those points.

Let us imagine, however, that at some distant point my hon. Friend is ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England—not in Wales, but just over the border in the diocese of Hereford. After serving for a year or two, he decides that he has mistaken his vocation. At that point, he could become anything from a brain surgeon—if qualified—to a lorry driver or a taxi driver. He could represent the Rotarians at an international conference. There is no vocation that he could not follow—except that of Member of Parliament. The argument for that is difficult to uphold. Why could he do anything but be a Member of the House of Commons, even though he might have managed to persuade a large number of people to choose him as their candidate and to vote for him? That is manifestly barmy, and I cannot understand the logic of it, which is why I do not believe that a strong case has been put for retaining the current law.

A better case relates to clergymen of the Church of England on historic grounds. Once upon a time, Church of England clergymen owed their living to the state. The issue was tied up with ensuring that the House of Commons was not stuffed with placemen. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that that original prohibition was not discriminatory; it was a proper reflection of the need to keep the House independent. So in deciding whether to agree to Third Reading, we must ask ourselves whether that situation now obtains. The answer is no; it is no longer true that a member of the clergy of the Church of England has so close a relationship to the state, through payment, that he would be unable to act independently in the House.

The office of profit—in so far as a clergyman's salary today can be referred to in those terms—is no longer under the Crown in the direct sense that it once was. Perhaps, in an indirect sense, the livings in the hands of the Crown as patron are of that kind, but they are disgorged, shared or whatever in a wholly different way than they were in the past. It would be extremely difficult to show that a Church of England clergyman was a placeman in that sense, and thus should be denied entry to the House. The argument relating to Church of England clergymen is stronger; none the less it can no longer be upheld.

It is also true that it is more proper for the House to deal with Church of England clergymen than with those of any other Church, for that is the established Church, and its establishment means that we in the House can properly deal with such matters. I do not suggest that that that is universally accepted, but given the constitution of the House, we can properly deal with the Church of England in a way that is different from our dealings with any other denomination. In our role as guardians of the wider public interest as affected by the established Church, we must ask ourselves whether it is proper for us to exclude its ministers from standing for election and sitting in Parliament. The answer is that no basis for such an exclusion exists.

The Bill's Third Reading cannot be held up on the grounds that we think that the wider interests of Her Majesty's subjects might be affected if clergymen were allowed to stand for election and to sit in the House. I can think of no way in which that would happen. Although you have not had the luck to be present throughout the preceding debates, Madam Deputy Speaker, I can say that I heard no argument to suggest, in that narrow sense, that in our role of defending the general public from the activities of the established Church, we should make an exception for its ministers. That brings me to the rights of others.

We have laughed about the curious anomalies that might be introduced if we were to make a distinction between the episcopally ordained and the non-episcopally ordained. I take the nature of episcopal ordination very seriously. Indeed, at the heart of my disagreement with the Church of England was my belief that it had forfeited its ability to talk about its episcopal ordination as it once could. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, I think that an important matter. I speak from an entirely religious point of view, but the suggestion that being able to dispense the sacrament validly should exclude someone from becoming a Member of the House of Commons seems very odd, especially as that exclusion does not apply to Baptist ministers, or to those who do not believe in the priesthood or in the sacraments in the same sense as Catholics do.

We are a curiously heterogenous House, but our ability to prognosticate on the detailed matters of theology and canon law has not hitherto struck me as being very obvious. I have listened carefully to the debates and I have heard people use words that suggest that their familiarity with the precise details of Thomist philosophy is at least distant. Therefore, if I were looking for a body to prognosticate on the nature of valid ordination, it would not be the House of Commons. I would go somewhere else, and that somewhere else would be the Church concerned.

The Holy Catholic Church has made its decision and it says that its priests cannot stand for Parliament. That is perfectly right and I agree with it. However, it is right that it, and not the House, should say that. It is right that I should support the decision in my capacity as a faithful Catholic, but not in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. That is the proper distinction for me to draw.

I shall say something that will upset a number of my colleagues, but I wish to say it none the less. We would be placed in a very difficult position vis-à-vis the European human rights legislation if we were not to give the Bill a Third Reading. [Interruption.] Before my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham says anything, I remind him why the European convention on human rights was introduced. It was established by many countries, including the United Kingdom, to defend many minorities in the rest of Europe, particularly those behind the iron curtain and those who needed protection from persecution. Many of them were Jewish do not like the way in which some people take lightly a convention that was entered into in all good faith by this country to ensure that people were protected.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I shall return to my right hon. Friend in a moment.

I wish to make another point that is pertinent to the Bill. We British are inclined to believe that the only people who discriminate are people abroad, and that we are always perfect. In fact, we have a long history of pretty bad discrimination. I do not wish to associate myself with a whole range of things that we, like so many others, have done in all sorts of places. We happen to have done some pretty good things as well. The rule of law has been much enhanced by the fact that Britain took it to many parts of the world. There is no doubt about that, and I am not for a moment underestimating the huge contribution that we have made.

However, this Bill is in some part an acknowledgement that we have discriminated in many areas. Northern Ireland provides an example that we live to regret. Let us not easily believe that this is an unimportant issue. We should place ourselves in the proper ambit of the standards to which we should all adhere. In a sense, being willing to adhere to those standards through the Bill will allow us to have the right to say to other people, "You, too, should adhere to those standards."

We should abhor discrimination. The fact that the issue is properly covered by the European convention on human rights, which is referred to in the Bill, is a matter that we should be pleased about. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham might support that view when I remind him that it has nothing to do with that institution with which he is not altogether happy—the European Union.

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

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he is not as alone among his right hon. and hon. Friends as their comments about the European convention might have suggested. When the Human Rights Bill was considered on Third Reading, the Conservative Front Bench spokesman wished the Bill well and there was certainly no Division. In fact, the Bill received broad support from all parties.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I agree with the Minister. I wish to conclude my speech. but I have an awful feeling that I promised to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and I would not want to miss what he has to say.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I simply wanted to suggest that in exactly the same way as the Bill seeks to put right something that happened a long time ago, the European convention was a creature of circumstances 50 years ago, and the world has moved on. The fact that its provenance was European is irrelevant for these purposes, but we now live in a different world, and constantly to be told that we have to give obeisance to a 50-year-old convention that was created in very different circumstances is about as relevant as this Bill is to the Act that it seeks to repeal.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

If we are behaving properly as regards these matters, we need not worry about the European convention. If we are not, it is pretty disgraceful. So I do not consider that to be a sensible argument. In large measure it is otiose, and bringing it into our law was not a high priority for me because I do not think it matters very much, and because certain peculiarities of the common law make it quite difficult to deal with. However, it is a pity to object to the European convention on human rights in a rather offhand way when we are debating the removal of discrimination, which is the proper thing to do and something of which I approve.

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

Of course I am aware that the European convention on human rights is not related to the European Union, but can I put it to my right hon. Friend that many Conservative Members—I suspect a very large number—opposed the Human Rights Bill on Second Reading, and that many Conservatives are motivated by belief in the Burkean doctrine of rights. which is not a doctrine of natural rights, rather than by the highfalutin declarations of abstract principle that tend to be reflected in the European convention?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I shall not be led away from the Bill that we are discussing, which reflects a view of human rights that seems perfectly compatible with Conservative beliefs. I say that as someone who has a difficulty with the word "rights" in any case. I happen to believe that we do not have rights, but obligations. I do not believe that created human beings can have rights, but that we owe our creation to the Almighty and therefore owe obligations to him and to our fellow creatures. Our rights inhere in other people's obligations rather than in anything that is selfishly held to ourselves. That happens to be my view. I think that Thomas Paine did a great deal of damage, and that we would have done much better to follow a much older tradition in terms of rights and obligations.

I am not sure that that gets us anywhere when we come to discuss the European convention on human rights. I am pleased that the House will be passing a small Bill with a small effect; but it is a proper effect and it removes yet again another piece of discrimination against the Catholic Church.

On Third Reading we have to confine ourselves to what is in the Bill, but let me say to the Minister that this Bill reminds me of one of those new office buildings in which the largest part of the space is made up of an atrium, otherwise known as an empty hole. I feel that we ought to have had a better Bill. It ought to have got rid of all those things that suggest that being a Catholic makes one a second-class citizen. I do not understand why that opportunity was not taken, and I wish it had been. I shall vote for the Bill, but my vote is cast on the basis that the Government know that the next Conservative Government will do what this Government should have done.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 6:20, 1 March 2001

Almost four years after getting elected, I still cannot attempt to be as eloquent as other hon. Members have been on this issue and I have not learned the ways of the House enough to want to repeat what other people have said. For my part, supporting the Bill is about saying that we should not discriminate against people of any religion or no religion. A Methodist minister, an imam, a Catholic priest and a Greek Orthodox Church priest should have an equal right to stand for Parliament, to be selected, to get elected—if the voters so wish—and to take up a seat in the House. As a Back Bencher, it has been an amazing voyage to see a tiny issue, which affects few people, create such interest and concern and generate understanding in hon. Members. That process has strengthened the House. It has shown that we do not only debate huge issues that involve millions of people, because this matter involves the rights of the individual.

I thank Professor Robert Blackburn of King's college for his help. He was mentioned several times on Second Reading. Without him, I would have had no knowledge that such discrimination existed. I believe that he has also been a great help to the Home Office and my hon. Friend the Minister in particular, whom 1 also want to thank. My small insight into how much it takes to get a Bill this far makes me even more amazed at the amount of work that Ministers and shadow Ministers do. The forces of conservatism are strong and it is very difficult to achieve change. The proposal that we are debating today is right because it is wrong to discriminate. The proposal is right not because a Labour candidate will be discriminated against if the law is not changed, but because it is right in itself.

My interest began because a constituent would not have been allowed to take up his seat were he elected. However, it has become a wider issue because people of my faith and others are discriminated against, which is wrong in the 21st century. We should change the law as quickly as possible. I am sorry that that did not happen two years or 18 months ago, but it was not for the want of trying. Many issues affect the Government, and I am glad that this small issue has reached the top of their list. The change will benefit not only David Cairns but everyone else who wants to stand for election and is disbarred because he previously decided to become a member of the clergy of an episcopally ordained faith.

We should pass the Bill because it is right. It is to the benefit of the House that we care about such matters.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:23, 1 March 2001

I thank my hon. Friends who were gracious enough to allow me to speak on their behalf in the debate. It has been a fascinating occasion.

I am pleased that the Bill will become law. We should be ashamed that residual acts of religious discrimination are still on the statute book. The fact that one case prompted the change is not a good reason to back away from ending discrimination. Much has been said about discrimination against Catholics, and I certainly oppose legislation that has that effect. I am a Baptist and legislation that applied to Catholics applied to Baptists with equal force. From the different end of the religious spectrum, I feel as strongly as others about the need to withdraw such acts of discrimination. When the Bill is passed, all ministers of religion, whatever their religion, their faith and then standing in their Churches, will be eligible—if their electors grant them success in an election—to represent people in the House of Commons. That is right.

There is no reason to discriminate against people simply because their Church or their employer has a different set of rules. Those engaged in some types of employment are prevented from engaging in political activity—indeed, I spent some years working in that type of employment. I accepted the restrictions of my employment, but I was not prevented by law from doing that which I eventually did, which is change my employment and take up political activity.

We appear to have misunderstood one of the consequences of the existing law: that the law as it stands, unreformed, tends to keep out of the House of Commons those who accept the values of society which we all profess to espouse profoundly, and let in those who do not necessarily share those values. On the pragmatic and rational grounds of trying to get into the House of Commons more people who espouse the values that we all say we share, we should be prepared to pass the Bill.

Widely diverse views have been expressed in our debates—I call the phenomenon the Buckingham consensus. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made a powerful speech—considerably longer than my own will be—in which he drew attention to the existence of many different views. He attributed four different views to members of my own party, but, on reflection, he might repent of that, especially as he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed five different views during the debate.

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

True, so let us examine that diversity. If I understood his remarks correctly, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is in favour of the principle but against the specifics of giving relief in the individual case, whereas the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is in favour of finding a way of allowing the gentleman in Scotland to stand, but opposed to the principle. The hon. Member for Buckingham is in favour both of the principle and of the mechanism and therefore supports the Bill, whereas the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) opposes the Bill lock, stock and barrel.

Finally, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is not merely in favour of the Bill, but wants to go further and eliminate all discrimination against religious groups. I make that five categories of opinion within the Conservative party, whose members have a free vote tonight. Perhaps the Buckingham consensus will hold—we shall see. However, I can assure the hon. Member for Buckingham that, in a free vote, we Liberal Democrats will all be in the same Lobby as him.

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

As is so often the case, I am surrounded by a heavenly host of my colleagues.

Having spoken about the Conservatives, I turn to the Government. I think that they would admit—privately, in the Tea Room, after the vote is over—to a little embarrassment about the way in which the Bill has been introduced. Whatever the Minister says—he has tried to frame it in the best possible light—the truth is that the issue was clearly on the agenda three years ago and there were plenty of opportunities for progress to be made far more briskly than it has. Indeed, if we look for historical precedents, we see that it was on the agenda far more than three years ago.

Instead, the Government jerked into action only when they realised that it was in their best interests to do so. That is not the right foundation for reform. I made that point on Second Reading and I repeat it again today. It is the test of a reformer that he reforms when it is not wholly in his own interest, not that he reforms only when it is solely in his own interest. When I see what opportunities there have been to introduce alternative legislation to fill the slot, it is clear that the Bill is opportunistic in its timing, if nothing else.

One argument against the Bill is that we should not proceed on the basis of particular cases. I do not believe that that is the right approach, and several Members have sought to refute it. I shall briefly add some further refutations.

The legislation that caused all the problems was The House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801. It was put on the statute book following the election of the Rev. Horne Tooke to Old Sarum. I like the name Horne Tooke and I feel the need to wind it into my speech.

The House was scandalised by the election of the Rev. Horne Tooke. He was such a radical voice that the House wanted to find a way of excluding him from this place. Legislation was brought forward, which we are now seeking to repeal. It was designed specifically to exclude someone who was regarded as a dangerous radical from this place. The precedent for the 1801 Act coming into force is hardly one from which we can derive pride. We certainly should not be worried about considering a particular case and repealing the Act

Another hard case was that of the Rev. MacManaway in 1950. On that occasion, the Home Secretary of the day ran away from the issue. The resulting legal judgment probably left us in an even deeper mess than hitherto.

Much has been said about priests who will be too busy to do two jobs. I do not know about that. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that he is a practising barrister. I remember having a discussion with him shortly after the last general election, when he was no longer occupying a Cabinet seat. He made it clear that he regarded it as an important part of his role as a Member to pursue a wider career and to bring extra experience into the House. No doubt he would say to his colleagues in the legal profession that his membership of this place gave him added insights when it came to working with the law.

I do not support or defend the right hon. and learned Gentleman's pursuit of a second career. I do not pursue one. However, it is difficult to see how the commitment, experience, skill and brain power that is needed to be brought to bear by a priest in holy orders, when coupled with membership of this place, would put the individual in a less favourable position than a QC or other barrister who pursues a legal career at full blast outside the House.

The argument that someone cannot do two jobs does not bear examination, particularly when it comes from the Conservative party, which historically has seen employment outside the House as bringing value to the House rather than taking value away from it.

The case in point involves not a practising priest, but someone who has taken holy orders and, because his Church's discipline does not allow for the relinquishment of those orders, is deemed still to be a priest. If he had been an Anglican—a member of the Church of England in England and an ordained member of it—he would have been able to relinquish holy orders. As a retired clergyman, he could have taken up his preferred career in politics.

Many arguments have been advanced about the special role that priests fulfil, about the necessity of their committing time to it and about conflicts with Church discipline, but when we unpick them we find that they are entirely irrelevant to the central question that faces the House, which is whether we want to maintain discrimination against a religious minority, preventing members of it from entering the House if they so choose and the electorate so chooses, or whether we want to sweep that discrimination away. The answer for me and for many of my colleagues is that it should have been swept away a long time ago, and we should act now.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 6:34, 1 March 2001

The House can be proud of itself today if, as we may be entitled to expect, we give the Bill a Third Reading. Ensuring equal rights for all our citizens is an important part of the work of Parliament, which our citizens would expect us to do.

The question of timing has been raised, but the issue was never likely to come before the House unless there was an individual case driving it. That may be a shame, but it is realistic to acknowledge it. Because of that, the issue was always likely to arise a little late in the day. If there is a particular case driving it, that must involve someone who has been selected, and we select candidates not long before a general election.

The timing of the Bill was therefore inevitable. It is not opportunistic simply because the candidate in question is a Labour candidate. I say that for two reasons. First, in his opening remarks on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Minister was entirely open about the case that triggered the Bill. There is no hidden agenda. Secondly, I believe, although I accept that some Opposition Members may not agree, that a Labour Government would have taken the same action in the case of a Conservative candidate. I believe that because of our commitment to equal rights, human rights and social justice. I do not accept that the timing of the Bill presents a difficulty.

If there has been a difficulty, it has been for only one person—Mr. Cairns. I am pleased that we have removed that difficulty, as he is entitled to the same rights as anyone else in this land. He is entitled to look to his Government and Parliament to ensure that he has those rights. We can be proud that we have taken the necessary action.

In some ways, it is amusing for me, as a woman Member of Parliament, to argue for equal rights for men. Clearly, the Bill may affect women as well, now that there are ordained women priests in the Church of England; it will mainly affect ex-priests, as they do not have the right to renounce, wait for six months, and so on. It is a pleasure to argue for the equal rights of men. Many male colleagues in this place argue for the equal rights of women, so it is a pleasure to repay them. I feel certain that any man who benefits from the legislation to enter the House will want to continue the tradition of arguing for the equal rights of all, whatever their gender or former profession.

It is right that there should no longer be grounds for distinguishing between clergy of different religions. That is not the business of the House. Equally, there are no grounds for legislation that applies detrimentally or punitively to all clergy, so it is right that the Bill should become law. The matters with which we are dealing are matters for the Churches and for the electorate.

The question whether there is to be a free vote is a red herring. I cannot be sure, but I guess that it is raised by the Opposition who, as has been said, have four, five or more positions on the matter, so there is a problem of discipline. The reason that there is not a free vote for Labour Members, as I understand it, is that this is not an issue of conscience. It is a constitutional issue, so I do not see why there should be a free vote.

I understand that some Opposition Members view the Bill as a matter of conscience, but I do not think that they are correct or that they have a free vote because of that view. They have one because they cannot guarantee that they will be united in the Lobby. As far as I know, no Labour Member has been up in arms about a free vote. None of my hon. Friends have told me since Second Reading that the Bill is a matter of conscience and that they are being forced through the Lobby on Labour business with which they do not agree.

I think that the Opposition's point about a free vote, which has been made a number of times, holds no water and makes no sense. I reiterate that it is entirely correct for the Bill not to be decided by such a vote as it is Government business and deals with a constitutional issue. Indeed, I am pleased that it will not be decided in that manner, although if it had been, the outcome of Third Reading would have been the same as those of Second Reading and Report.

It is right that we are now in line with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

It has given you representation in Scotland.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) makes a valid point about the success achieved by the Conservatives in Scotland, where previously they had no representation.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I said that he had been a sterling ally in respect of the Bill. However, he made some entirely unjustifiable remarks about what he called the new Labour Government.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

As has just been indicated from a sedentary position, we still disagree on some things.

It is interesting that every time the European convention on human rights is mentioned, there is a little storm of protest from some Opposition Members. At no time during the passage of the Bill, or indeed at any other time, have they said anything that justifies their opposition to the convention. We await an explanation that makes their view acceptable or even tolerable. I guess that it simply relates to the Eurosceptic views that they often express, so it is clearly a matter of ideology and perhaps of xenophobia.

I have been pleased to participate in our proceedings on the Bill. I have found the experience instructive and have heard some excellent speeches, from which I freely admit that I have learned a great deal. I am pleased that the Bill has such overwhelming support and I am proud to be a part of the House when it agrees to such measures, which ensure the equal rights of all our citizens.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks 6:43, 1 March 2001

The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) spoke about removing discrimination and intolerance, but then slightly spoiled her speech by saying how intolerant she was of those who still had doubts about the European convention on human rights. I do not think that she can have it both ways.

I must tell the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that I am probably in danger of creating a sixth category—there is definitely a free vote for Conservative Members—because, as 1 have explained at length, I have reservations and I do not think that the Bill should be promoted in this way and at this time. I hope that that qualifies as a sixth category, which will make the hon. Gentleman even happier than he already seems to be.

As I have already said endless times, I have nothing against David Cairns. I am sure that he will become a Member of this House in the fullness of time and I look forward to welcoming him. I respect the part played by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) in facilitating such change. I hope that she equally respects the fact that those of us who are worried about the way the change is being made are not necessarily to be accused of favouring the kind of discrimination that she seeks to remove.

There are concerns about the procedure, and our debates have highlighted that. We could create the potential for a new House of Commons, which could be a House of bishops. Chat would be allowed under the law. It is perfectly possible that the Roman Catholic Church might change its own rules, so we could end up with a House of Catholic priests. It may be unlikely that such events will occur, but when one makes a small change to the constitution it is important to take into account the implications and consequences.

One of my main reservations throughout has been the lack of evidence, apart from the case of Mr. David Cairns, for making the change. The Home Affairs Committee made its recommendation, but it did not take evidence. It took a memorandum in favour from Professor Blackburn, but it did not question any witnesses or consider the implications and discuss them with other professors. Indeed, there was little further support for the change and it was not mentioned in the Labour party submission to the Committee. If the burning injustice that we have heard about really existed, we might have expected the Labour party to refer to it in evidence.

The plain fact is that this case, which, I concede, is certainly a hard one, has not been canvassed particularly widely. It is not right to make what could be a significant change on the basis of so little evidence. I also happen to think that such changes should be made on the basis of extensive consideration and widespread consensus, possibly through a Speaker's Conference or a commission. A limited consultation took place and the Minister was kind enough suddenly to place the results in the Library today. However, the Committee was unable to read them to discover exactly what each Church has said. We have had only a couple of days to consider the matter and we have considered it in the wrong way.

Furthermore, it is a somewhat questionable principle to change electoral law on the basis of one particular case. I know that others disagree. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made the eloquent point from history that individual cases have helped to change law, but I am sceptical as to whether that should always be the case. I am also sceptical about making such a change just because of someone's election: the people have chosen, so we should facilitate his or her progress to the House simply because he or she is the candidate that they want—so runs the notion.

That principle could apply to a 20-year-old, for example. The Minister might one day tell the House, "This constituency has chosen someone who will be 21 in a few months. He will not be able to take his seat when he is elected, so there will be a court case and all the rest of it. We must change the law immediately to allow him to take his seat." The same could be argued on behalf of a Dutch citizen. A Dutch minister of some religion might be selected, stand and be elected. The Minister could make exactly the same argument that the law should be changed to accommodate a non-UK citizen simply because that person had been chosen by his constituency.

All I would say to the House is that such constitutional changes almost always turn out to have slightly more impact than we might have expected in respect of the example for which we have legislated. The Bill will help just one candidate, but it raises big questions about the future of the bishops in the other place and further questions about the way in which we should change electoral law. Such a change should not be rushed so late in the day, just before a general election, to help a particular candidate, however deserving he happens to be.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 6:49, 1 March 2001

I did not speak on Second Reading, as I was serving on a Standing Committee so I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for affording me the opportunity to contribute. I know that the Minister wishes to respond, so I shall be as brief as possible.

I represent the fourth view to be expressed this evening. I follow the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who spoke eloquently, in holding the view that it is right and proper to take steps to alleviate the difficulty faced by David Cairns. My concern relates to what we have done to alleviate that difficulty. I entirely accept that David Cairns faced discrimination that was unjustifiable—unjustifiable because he was a Roman Catholic. At this point I can answer the question asked of me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He suggested in his speech that had I chosen a career as a clerk in holy orders and discovered half way through that career that it was not right for me, I would have been able thereafter to pursue any other career—

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend is right, but other careers are careers, not vocations. My point is that, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I would have been able to pursue any career except one in the House of Commons.

In fact, that is not entirely true. In such circumstances I would have been able to come to the House, were I prepared to renounce holy orders. This is the problem in the case of Mr. Cairns: he is being discriminated against in the sense that he is not able, as a clergyman in the Church of England is able, simply to renounce his holy orders, thereby enabling himself to be elected to the House of Commons. It is entirely right that we have provided a remedy enabling his problem to be alleviated; however, our remedy will enable him to come here, but it will equally enable all who are currently practising clergymen in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England to do so as well.

As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, that is not a problem, because the Roman Catholic Church takes the view that its clergymen—its priests—should not sit in Parliament. The difficulty for me lies in the fact that clergymen of the established Church will, as a result of this measure, be able to come here and take a political stance. We have had the argument, and I think we must simply differ; but still, in my opinion, that is not compatible with the role of a priest.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal identified the historical reasons for excluding clergy of the Church of England, and intimated that those reasons were no longer valid. I accept that, but it strikes me that there are many good reasons—certainly one good reason—for maintaining the exclusion. I consider leadership, in the sense of the role of a priest in the Church of England, wholly incompatible with membership and political leadership in the House of Commons.

The Bill involves constitutional issues that we overlook at our peril. I believe that this should be an assembly for the laity: after all, the second estate has its representation elsewhere. In the past this place has had a more religious outlook, and that is not a happy history. I remind Members of the Parliament of Saints, and the Barebones Parliament; I remind them that we have allowed ourselves to be governed by prelates in the past, not least by Cardinal Wolsey. We have gone beyond that now, and we should remain beyond it.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I would if it were in order, but time is pressing and the Minister wishes to reply.

I would have accepted a measure that simply made things easier for Mr. Cairns in Greenock and Inverclyde, but what we have is a wider constitutional measure with which I profoundly disagree.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 6:54, 1 March 2001

What we have learned during the debate on this Bill, small though it may seem and mild though it may appear, is that it contains a number of substantial issues. There is, for example, the issue of history and tradition, which was covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) in his usual elegant and knowledgeable way. We need only glance at schedule 2 to see that the repeals go back as far as 1801—as has been mentioned a number of times—and involve six Acts. There is therefore no doubt at all that what is being dealt with in this seemingly small Bill is a substantial part of our history and tradition. From that point of view, it has an importance that perhaps goes beyond its apparent scope.

The matter at the heart of the Bill is whether it is right and proper for the law of this land to seek to determine which members—outside those who have offices of profit under the Crown, as has been mentioned in the debate—of which faith or Church should or should not be able to come to this place. As I have said, I am happy to be in the camp that says that there should be no such restrictions. I have made that very clear and I have no problem with it at all. On that basis, I would be happy for the Bill to proceed. I also think that we all understand why, although it seems paradoxical, the Bill has to provide that Lords Spiritual should continue to be disqualified from membership of this place—obviously because of their position in another place.

Despite the arguments that have been made most eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), my difficulty with the Bill remains its provenance. It has been said a number of times and in a number of different ways that surely the mere fact that the Bill would happen to help one individual should not stand in the way of the principle. I do not see it that way at all. If that were the case, the Bill should have been introduced earlier and handled in a different manner, and we should not be under the time pressure in which we now find ourselves. I also regret that the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and me could not be dealt with fully and properly.

The Bill, if passed, would take effect on Royal Assent and thereby enable an individual whom the law would previously have debarred to be elected to this place. I believe that that in itself is sufficient reason for the House not to support the Bill in the circumstances in which we are being offered it. That is why, although I favour the principles of the Bill, I shall oppose it if, as I hope, we divide on it. I think that it is the right Bill, but at the wrong time.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 6:57, 1 March 2001

I ask the House to support the Bill. The Government believe that it is a very important Bill which does have constitutional implications. That is why, in Committee, it was debated on the Floor of the House. It raises issues about the proper role of the state and about the role of the state in relation to the Church.

The Government's view is that we should not tell the Catholic Church or other Churches—I appreciate that there are specific arguments about the established Church—how to run their internal affairs. That should be a matter for them. Today, we are deciding what should be the law of this land. In my view, the law of this land is discriminatory. It provides that a person such as David Cairns—who was a priest, practised as a priest and remains a priest, although he is no longer practising as such—should not be able to stand for Parliament. The Bill will ensure that he can.

There has been much discussion about priests being defrocked and laicised and other such issues. The fact is that David Cairns does not wish to be defrocked. That is really not a course of action that is open to him. Additionally, the Pope takes a particular view on laicisation, which makes it very unlikely that David Cairns could be laicised. At least in religious terms, therefore, he remains a priest although he does not practice as one. In such circumstances, it is wrong that he should be prevented from standing for Parliament.

As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has said so eloquently, David Cairn's case is in many ways within a tradition in which the House can have some pride. When faced with the Bradlaugh case, after a while—perhaps it needed convincing—the House changed the law. In the early 1960s, when faced with the circumstances of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), the House again took the decision to change things.

This Bill is right and I commend it to the House. It is a small Bill and a good Bill. I hope that the House will support it.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House dividerd: Ayes 196, Noes 15.

Division No. 140][6.59 pm
Ainger, NickCaplin, Ivor
Atkins, CharlotteCasale, Roger
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Caton, Martin
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Austin, JohnChaytor, David
Bailey AdrianClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Banks, TonyClarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Barnes Harry,Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Barron, KevinClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Beard, NigelCoffey Ms Ann
Beard, NigelCohen, Harry
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretColeman Iain
Beith, Rt Hon A JColman, Tony
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Cooper, Yvette
Benton, JoeCorbyn, Jeremy
Bercow, JohnCotter, Brian
Bermingham, GeraldCox, Tom
Best, HaroldCrausby, David
Betts, CliveCryer, John (Hornchurch)
Blears, Ms HazelDalyell, Tam
Blunt, CrispinDavey Valerie (Bristol W)
Boswell TimDavies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Bradshaw, Ben
Brinton, Mrs HelenDenham, Rt Hon John
Dismore, Andrew
Browne, DesmondDobbin, Jim
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Buck, Ms KarenDowd, Jim
Burden, RichardDrown, Ms Julia
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Ennis, Jeff
Field, Rt Hon Frank
Cann, JamieFisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, JimMilburn, Rt Hon Alan
Gapes, MikeMoffatt, Laura
George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Gerrard, NeilMorgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Gibson, Dr IanMorley, Elliot
Godman, Dr Norman AMullin, Chris
Godsiff, RogerNaysmith, Dr Doug
Goggins, PaulO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Golding, Mrs LlinO'Hara, Eddie
Gordon, Mrs EileenO'Neill, Martin
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)Öpik, Lembit
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Ottaway, Richard
Gummer, Rt Hon JohnPage, Richard
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)Palmer, Dr Nick
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Pearson, Ian
Healey, JohnPendry, Rt Hon Tom
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Perham Ms Linda
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)Pollard, Kerry
Hendrick, MarkPond, Chris
Hepburn, StephenPound, Stephen
Heppell, JohnPrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Hewitt, Ms PatriciaPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Hill, KeithQuin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Hood, JimmyRammell, Bill
Hope, PhilRaynsford Nick
Hopkins, KelvinRobertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Hughes, Simon (Southward N)Roche, Mrs Barbara
Hutton, JohnRuddock, Joan
Iddon, Dr BrianRyan, Ms Joan
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)Sarwar, Mohammad
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Sedgemore, Brian
Shipley, Ms Debra
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)Skinner, Dennis
Joyce, EricSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Keeble, Ms SallySmith, John (Glamorgan)
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Soley, Clive
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)Southworth, Ms Helen
Kemp, FraserSpellar, John
Khabra, Piara SStarkey, Dr Phyllis
Kidney, DavidStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Stunell, Andrew
Ladyman, Dr StephenTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Laxton, BobTemple-Morris, Peter
Leigh, EdwardThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Lepper, DavidTimms, Stephen
Levitt, TomTipping, Paddy
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Trickett, Jon
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Linton, MartinTynan, Bill
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Vis, Dr Rudi
Lock, DavidWalley, Ms Joan
Love, AndrewWard, Ms Claire
McAvoy, ThomasWareing, Robert N
McDonagh, SiobhainWhite, Brian
McDonnell, JohnWhitehead, Dr Alan
McGuire, Mrs AnneWigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
McIsaac, ShonaWinnick, David
Mackinlay, AndrewWoodward, Shaun
Mactaggart, FionaWoolas, Phil
McWalter, TonyWorthington, Tony
Mallaber, JudyWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Mandelson, Rt Hon PeterWright, Tony (Cannock)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Tellers for the Ayes:
Meale, AlanMr. Tony McNulty and
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Mr. Graham Allen.
Amess, DavidJenkin, Bernard
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Chope, ChristopherPaterson, Owen
Fallon, MichaelRobinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Gale, RogerSwayne, Desmond
Syms, RobertTellers for the Noes:
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)Mr. Eric Forth and
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)Mr. Gerald Howarth.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.