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

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Will it be a sensible intervention?

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

Mr. O'Brien: I should have known.

I should like to deal with the Home Affairs Committee's recommendations on bishops. There are about 40 Church of England bishops who could qualify to sit in the other place as Lords Spiritual. At any one time, only 26 are summoned to be Lords Spiritual.

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The Government's view is that it is those bishops who should be disqualified from House of Commons membership, as they already have a "voice" in Parliament.

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

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

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

Mr. Forth: No.

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

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

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

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

I commend the Bill to the House.

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4.15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Widdecombe: That is so, and we must take that opinion into account when considering these matters. I do not believe that being a Member of Parliament is compatible with the priestly vocation. Like the priesthood, it involves a huge commitment, both in this Chamber and

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outside. I do not believe that a Member of Parliament could represent constituents adequately while continuing to serve as a full-time priest, or that a priest could administer to his flock adequately while undertaking duties as a full-time Member of Parliament.

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

As I read it, the Bill will allow those bishops to sit in this House. I note that the Select Committee on Home Affairs stated in paragraph 127 of its fourth report of 1997-98 that

If I have read the Bill correctly, the Minister is not following that recommendation, but is allowing all Church of England bishops who are not currently eligible for membership of the House of Lords to be eligible for membership of this place. The Select Committee had reason, rather than prejudice, when it recommended that all serving bishops in the Church of England should be disqualified.

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

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

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

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