Catholics (Prevention of Discrimination)

Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 20th February 2007.

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Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 3:32 pm, 20th February 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove remaining legislative discrimination against Catholics;
to make provision for the independence and freedom of operation of Catholic institutions;
and for connected purposes.

In a civilised society there ought to be no reason to introduce this Bill. If we proposed a Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons that would make it illegal for the heir to the throne to marry a Muslim, a Methodist or a Mormon, that would be intolerable in a free society, yet the heir to the throne is still not allowed to marry a member of what is, on any Sunday, the largest worshipping community in this country. That is an insult to the Catholic community because it suggests that, somehow or other, being a Roman Catholic means being less of a citizen than someone belonging to any other religious denomination.

I admit that I feel ashamed that I did not introduce the Bill before, when I was an Anglican. Since becoming a Catholic, I have recognised what the attitude towards this denomination means. For that reason, I am trying to make up for the history. It is not just a question of who the heir to the throne may marry or who the Queen or King may be. It is pretty ridiculous that the king could be a Scientologist, which is manifestly intellectually difficult and religiously rubbish, but cannot be a Catholic, which is intellectually difficult and religiously correct. This is wholly unacceptable, and I do not think that anybody believes otherwise.

One discovers other things in the woodwork when one looks into the matter. For example, it used to be true that no Catholic diocese could have the same name as an Anglican diocese, even though those dioceses had, shall we say, been borrowed. In 1927 that measure was apparently removed, but it turns out that it was not removed. The Act says that naming a Catholic diocese the same as an Anglican diocese is no longer punishable—it is just illegal. That is a peculiarity, and it is also insulting. The Catholics called the diocese—now the archdiocese—of Southwark that name because there was not an Anglican diocese there, so when the Anglicans decided that they wanted a diocese in Southwark, it was perfectly all right for them to call it Southwark, despite the fact that there was a Catholic diocese, so the measure is not there to make matters easier for people. The Catholic diocese of Newcastle, although the cathedral is in Newcastle, has to be called Hexham and Newcastle, even though the centre of the diocese is in Newcastle. The Catholic archdiocese of Liverpool happens to precede the Anglican bishopric of Liverpool. It was perfectly all right for the Church of England to use the same name, but it was not all right the other way round. I do not think that it is terribly important, but it is insulting.

I also considered some of the orders of chivalry. I am rather more interested in these historic matters than some of my supporters, including Andrew Mackinlay, might be, but it is odd that no Catholic has ever been appointed to the order of the thistle since the middle of the 19th century when—I may have got this wrong—the Marquis of Bute, who later became a Catholic, happened to be appointed to that order. It is particularly odd when one realises that the order was created by King James II, who happened to be a Catholic. This is a peculiarity. There are all sorts of corners of our life that are as they are in discriminatory terms because this central matter remains.

I do not believe that there can be any hon. Member who does not find it odd that the Prime Minister was unable to explain why in 10 years of anti-discriminatory legislation he did not find time to add on the bottom of any one of those Bills "and Catholics". The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Bridget Prentice, who is kind enough to be here on the Front Bench, gave a peculiar answer to—in this case—my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock when she more or less suggested that there was not any real reason to bother about all this, and that really it was not important. It is important—as you, Mr. Speaker, in your persona, as against your public office, know perfectly well—because it says something about Catholics that was not true to start with and is not true today, and ought not to be part of our law. This is not a passing matter; it is very important.

We must go back beyond that and consider what discrimination is about. Discrimination is about saying, "I am better than you are because my views are right and your views are wrong." It is the opposite of toleration. In Elizabethan England— and before that in Henrician England—the King was divorced not just because he had the hots for Anne Boleyn, but, more importantly, so that he could say that he had a right to it and that it could have a moral justification. He invented that moral justification and he told people that they had to believe that if they were to be citizens.

I hope that some people have thought rather carefully about our present parallel, because we are beginning to be the kind of state that is doing that again. It is saying that one has to hold certain views if one is to be a proper citizen. I want to give one example because I happen to disagree with my Church on it, so it is a good example to use. I think that it is right to remove the discrimination against same-sex couples in relation to adoption, but I also think that we should be tolerant of people who do not agree with that.

Toleration is hard—it is not as easy as some politically correct people believe it to be—and it is very easy to tolerate people with whom one agrees. That is a wonderful kind of toleration. It is the kind—I do not think that I am leaving behind my socialist and Labour supporters when I say this—that we have often seen from perhaps the most illiberal Government that we have had as regards civil liberties. I have always voted to the left of this Government on civil liberties matters, which is very embarrassing for me and for my constituents, who do not quite understand it. I have to explain that this Government are not willing to understand the meaning of liberalism. Liberalism is about accepting the views of people whom one does not like and of people with whom one fundamentally disagrees. That is why I beg this House to recognise that we are going down the same route as Elizabeth and Henry VIII went down, which is to say: "The state knows about these things, and if you disagree about the things that we think matter, then I am afraid that you become a criminal." That is the reality of such discrimination.

The Bill brings together the two things that matter at this moment: a removal of historical discrimination, which defaces this nation today; and a statement that in future we will be the kind of country that allows people of any denomination to conduct their Churches, institutions, religious houses and what they do according to the faith of their fathers, and not to be told by other people that secular morality supervenes and that they must accept an alien orthodoxy. This is about what Henry started and what Elizabeth did, which was to say that orthodoxy was determined not by the faith of the citizen but by the decision of Parliament and the state. That way lies totalitarianism—a refusal to accept that toleration means realising that people feel passionately about important things and that in a free society they ought to be able to uphold those things. My Bill would get rid of historical discrimination and guard against the insidious future discrimination that arises from political correctness, which is itself a kind of fascism.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Gummer, Andrew Mackinlay, Jim Dobbin, Daniel Kawczynski, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Mark Hoban, Mr. John Hayes, Mr. Edward Leigh and Miss Ann Widdecombe.


Only a few centuries late. Better late than never...

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