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Orders of the Day

House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way for the last time on this occasion--[Interruption.] I shall give way later after making some progress.

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

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman may hold that view; others may beg to differ. Without digressing into a history

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lesson, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there was anti-Catholic legislation, which was repealed. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 was enacted to allow Daniel O'Connell to take his seat. He had been elected to represent County Clare, but was unable to take his seat because he was a Catholic.

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

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

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

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall make some progress and then give way to my hon. Friend.

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

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

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): That is what it is all about.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman is right. [Interruption.] The Bill will remove old, prejudiced provisions from the statute book--[Interruption.]

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

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill will remove provisions that prevent a person who has been elected from taking a seat in the House of Commons. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to retain legislation that prevents someone who is

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no longer a practising Catholic priest from being a parliamentary candidate and taking his seat, he must argue his case.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene on that point?

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

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

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

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

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Mr. Speaker, I have said that I shall not give way at this point.

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

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

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

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

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

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In September 1998, the Home Affairs Committee on electoral law and administration recommended, at paragraph 127, volume 1, that

The Government broadly share that view, and I shall come to the second part of the recommendation about bishops in more detail in a moment.

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

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the Minister give way?

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