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Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): Unlike some Members, I welcome the Bill as it will remove what are essentially discriminatory and outdated disqualifications from becoming a Member of Parliament. The Bill attempts to correct some of the inconsistencies in our complex electoral law. Although it will introduce only modest reform, it forms part of a wider debate that includes issues of fairness, choice and the changed relationship today between the Churches and the state.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)--[Hon. Members: "Where is she?"] I shall come to that point. When my hon. Friend introduced a ten-minute Bill to end the disqualification on the clergy taking a place in the House, she concluded by saying:

If this Bill is seen through successfully, the first election of the 21st century will not be marred by the continuation of those discriminatory statutes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done on this issue, but I am afraid that she cannot be with us today.

We cannot expect to promote a fair and more equal society--a tolerant, multi-faith and multicultural society--when we continue to draw distinctions on religious grounds with regard to eligibility to sit in the House. The Bill will remove the majority of those distinctions and, therefore, will be an addition to the democracy within our system. It is essentially about equal rights--the equal rights of our citizens to sit in the House. I see this as a matter not of conscience--I understand why some see it that way--but of equal rights.

It is clearly undemocratic that a potential candidate for election could, first, be selected by his or her party and, secondly and more important, receive a mandate from the electorate, but be unable to take up the seat because of restrictions embedded in complex electoral law.

The leading constitutional expert, Professor Robert Blackburn, has said that this aspect of the law is

The existing arrangement has become a barrier to the provision of equal rights and, as such, responsibility for removing it lies with the House.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Lady said that the candidate had been properly selected but, presumably, the local party organisation either knew or would have been advised that a legal obstacle would prevent that candidate, if elected, from taking his seat in the House. I presume that it went ahead with the selection on that basis. Was that not irresponsible of the local party and the individual himself?

Ms Ryan: The Labour party selects candidates on the basis of equal rights in the party. I am suggesting that candidates should be able to put themselves before the electorate on exactly the same basis.

Dr. Godman: I hope to elaborate on this point if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to make

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it clear that the local party in Greenock and Inverclyde did not behave irresponsibly. I can give my hon. Friend my word on that.

Ms Ryan: I accept that word.

We have a pressing responsibility. A case in which the electorate granted an electoral candidate the right to sit in the House, only for him to have that right denied, has already occurred in the MacManaway case and could have occurred again when Bruce Kent stood in 1992. We should not wait for such an unacceptable case to occur again before we decide to reform the law, although I accept the point that we have had other opportunities to do that.

One of the basic duties of the House is to serve our citizens--to protect their rights and to protect and enhance democracy. As soon as we know that a piece of legislation inhibits equal rights--in this case, there are numerous such pieces--we should act to change or remove it. We should not wait until an individual is placed in a position where he or she cannot take up a seat when elected, and we are forced to remove the disqualification in those circumstances.

Given the amount of time that the legislation has been in force--on the whole, unnecessarily so--it would be difficult to claim that we are taking a lead in the matter. We at least have the opportunity to jump before we are pushed, and this debate on removing the disqualification is taking place not a minute too soon.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Lady emphasises that the matter has been a festering sore for a long time. I hope she will accept that considered study of the historical background is entirely appropriate on whatever side of the argument one happens to sit. What assessment has she made of the report of the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification in the 1952-53 Session?

Ms Ryan: I have considered the history. It is because of that and my view of equal rights that I am pleased that the Government have introduced the Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Ryan: No, I should like to make progress.

Discovering the history of the disqualifications is not for the weak hearted. The intrepid researcher has to begin somewhat earlier than the 1950s, around the 1670s, and plough through numerous conflicting statutes, common law and Privy Council decisions, taking in the constitutional conflict of the MacManaway case, the possible conflict caused by Bruce Kent's decision to stand for election and the problems that may arise in the near future.

The conclusion of such research is that some clergy are able to stand for Parliament, but others are not; some clergy are able to resign their orders to stand, but others are not; certain Christian clergy are disqualified from sitting in the House by statutory provision, but ministers of other religious faiths are eligible; the imam and the rabbi--should their religious organisations agree--could take up a seat in the House, but a Roman Catholic minister would be disqualified from doing so.

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The matter has been further complicated by a later decision by the Privy Council, which meant that those clergy who are episcopally ordained are subject to disqualification, whereas nonconformists are not. Although the Clergy Disqualification Act 1870 contains a provision that enables clergy of the Church of England to renounce their position so that they are free to stand for election and take up their seat in the House after six months, there is no parallel procedure for the clergy of other religions.

However, I would not seek such a parallel procedure because it would only make some people less unequal than they are now. If a parallel procedure were introduced, all those people who are episcopally ordained--whether Roman Catholic or Church of England--could renounce their positions and take up a seat after six months, but they would still suffer inequality in relation to ministers who are not episcopally ordained and who could take up their seats with no requirement to renounce their position and wait six months.

We can conclude that the present framework is inconsistent and discriminatory, deriving from multiple sources over different periods of time. The reasons for the prohibitions have long since lapsed or become irrelevant and, as such, can no longer be justified. Roman Catholic priests are no longer thought of negatively by the state and Anglican clergy no longer represent the fourth estate to the realm. The context in which the decision to implement such restrictions was first taken is no longer relevant in modern society.

The lack of clarity in the law is made more incomprehensible by the fact that there is no relation between the active engagement of a minister and his eligibility for Parliament. An active nonconformist minister could stand in a constituency where his church is situated and where many of the electors are of the same belief, but a retired episcopally ordained priest who had changed his personal beliefs and had no adherence would be disqualified from taking up a seat. It is clear, then, that it would be too simplistic to say that those who wish to take up seats in the House should simply resign their orders.

That is especially pertinent for Roman Catholic ministers. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 states:

It is that definition of holy orders that causes conflict. It can be argued under ecclesiastical law that, once a Roman Catholic priest has been ordained, he will remain in holy orders whether or not he remains active. The law does not, therefore, recognise the status of ex-Catholic priests, so the current arrangements effectively conspire to prevent them from ever taking up their seats, if they are elected. Why should the state legally prevent some ministers from making a choice about their career, while other clergy are free to do so? A civil servant can resign and choose to enter politics, while the existing electoral law prevents some members of the clergy from doing the same.

It is of course reasonable to argue that there is a deal of tension between the role of a Member of Parliament and that of a practising minister of religion. Whether or not it is desirable for members of the clergy to stand for Parliament is a separate question for debate. However,

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such decisions are matters not for legislation but for the custom of individual faiths or ecclesiastical law. The Bill would officially make the eligibility of the clergy of all religions to sit in this House a matter for the Churches and other religious organisations involved.

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