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Mr. Fabricant: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with considerable interest. He presents a powerful case. However, surely those who are ministers of strange cults can be elected to this place anyway. Is not that correct? I look to the Minister for clarification, but he is engaged in a private conversation so I am not getting any help. The Bill specifically aids members of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Forth: That is not what the Bill says.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) makes a valuable point, with Lichfield's two lovely towers, but he is wrong this time. It is possible that the earlier argument is rather superficial and we should be careful about following it.

Mr. Forth: Does the hon. Gentleman share my worry about the Bill? It loosely uses the words "minister" and "a religious denomination" without giving any definition. That could open the door to the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). The measure could be widely or loosely interpreted and might lead us in directions that we cannot yet anticipate.

Rev. Martin Smyth: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point and it should be borne in mind. It might be argued that the arguments made earlier were about preventing the election of people who hold offices of profit under the Crown. However, Presbyterian ministers were in that position at one time. There was the regium donum--the gift of the Crown--but many years ago, my forebears commuted their money and invested it in central church funds. As a result, we are under no obligation to the Crown.

Dr. Godman: Can the hon. Gentleman remind us whether he raised similar objections in respect of membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly during the passage of the Northern Ireland Act 1998?

Rev. Martin Smyth: I do not believe that that objection was raised. There was a powerful lot of things in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and we did not always have enough time to explore them and expose some of the weaknesses that are still being worked out in Northern Ireland, not least of which is the failure of having an unaccountable Executive--we do not know where we are with them.

5.50 pm

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): I declare a personal interest, which will become clear shortly. I very much welcome the Select Committee on Home Affairs 1997-98 report, "Electoral Law and Administration", which recommended the change that we are discussing. However, I agree with those hon. Members who have said that it has taken some time to institute a change which is

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long overdue. For reasons that will also become clear, it is a matter of great regret to me that the change did not occur under the previous Government.

In 1951, a Select Committee report on clergy disqualification recommended no change on the basis of practicality. Various hon. Members have argued today that there is no groundswell of clergy desperate to stand for election to the House. That may well be the case, but this is an issue of principle which should be addressed, and it does not matter whether David Cairns or two other people want to stand for election.

I fully accept that under the current legislation--which dates back centuries, as hon. Members have said--non-Church of England and former episcopalian ordained priests and Catholic priests suffer a double discrimination in that they have no practical remedy, as no provision exists to alter their status if they want to stand for election to, and be eligible to sit in, the House. However, I wish to highlight the issue from a different perspective: for most ministers of religion, especially those who have been ordained and served for a considerable time, it is not an insignificant decision to demit their status.

The Labour candidate in Ayr at the 1992 election was a victim of the discrimination the Bill will end. He had spent six years at university, training to be a Church of Scotland minister. He then spent 15 years working in some of the poorest areas in Paisley and Ayr. Alongside his parish work he was involved in politics, so it was a natural progression that members of the local party asked him to stand as the Labour candidate in Ayr in 1992. However, as a Church of Scotland minister, he was barred from taking a seat in the House. The Church put no impediment in his way, but the law of the land did.

To stand for Parliament, he had to demit his status as a Church of Scotland minister--the equivalent of a doctor having his or her name removed from the general medical register, or a lawyer having his or her qualified practising certificate revoked. Can hon. Members imagine the outcry if people had to abandon their right to practise law if they wanted to become a Member of Parliament?

Mr. Forth: A good idea.

Ms Osborne: Indeed, but there would be an outcry in the highest places if that were ever suggested and there would no longer be any learned Members.

When I said that I declared an interest in the matter, I should have added that the Labour candidate in Ayr in 1992 was my husband--in fact, he still is. If he ever wanted his ministerial status back, he would have to petition the general assembly of the Church of Scotland at its annual gathering. When I was elected in 1997-- a worthy successor to my husband as candidate in Ayr-- I was aware that there had been a time, not so long ago, when I, too, would have been barred from sitting in the House--not because I was a minister, but for the specific reason that I was a woman, and no remedy would have been open to me to circumvent that ruling.

In 1992, my husband stood for Ayr--a highly marginal seat at the time, although it is obviously no longer one--with no guarantee of winning. Indeed, as most hon. Members will know, he was defeated by 85 votes out of 55,000--a small margin by anyone's standards, except perhaps in Florida. Yet the law requires such people to sign away years of study, hard-won qualifications and a

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lifetime of work and service, perhaps 18 months or two years before an election, to stand for a seat that they may well not win.

It was ultimately my husband's decision to make that stand, but a democratic deficit is involved. As I have said, the Church itself placed no impediment in his way. Indeed, the Church of Scotland has a long and honourable record of encouraging not only its members and adherents but its clergy to be involved in the political process. I disagree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) about the clergy's involvement in political activities, as does the Church of Scotland.

The moderator's annual visit to the House is a well-established and happy occasion. Only last week, the press reported that this year's moderator is ready to join an anti-nuclear protest outside Faslane and has declared himself undaunted by the possibility of arrest as a result. The Church of Scotland's church and nation committee speaks out on all issues affecting the life of the Scottish people and is listened to by the Government at Westminster and Edinburgh.

Parallel bodies of the Church exist at local presbytery level to speak out on community and social issues. Countless ordinary members have viewed it as a natural extension of their Christian faith to be involved in politics for the good of humanity and society. That involvement can range from going along to the local tenants group, or campaigning for the cancellation of world debt in the poorest nations, to becoming a local councillor, or even a Member of Parliament. Why should one part of the political process be barred to a particular group of Christians--the clergy--and then only to the clergy of certain denominations?

Many clergy have held elected political office. I think of those who have been councillors. One giant figure of the Scottish Labour movement comes to mind--the Rev. Geoff Shaw. Geoff was the founder of the Gorbals group and went on to lead Strathclyde regional council, serving a population half the size of Scotland's. If he had not died so tragically young, who knows where his politics might have taken him?

Reference has been made to other clergy who have been Members of Parliament. I know from my own experience that people often refer with some puzzlement to the position of the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). They are still bemused when I try to explain that they are not clergy of an established Church, debarred under current legislation. Indeed, going back in the history of the House, Scottish Presbyterian ministers--albeit of denominations other than the established Church of Scotland--have made a significant contribution.

A great figure of the Scottish Labour movement was the Rev. James Barr--a pacifist and socialist. He was elected to the House in 1924 as the Independent Labour party Member for Motherwell. He was a forceful opponent of Ramsay MacDonald's National Government and lost his seat opposing it in 1931. He was returned as Member for Coatbridge in 1935. Along with great early socialists, such as Keir Hardie, he campaigned tirelessly for home rule for Scotland, a minimum wage and temperance. I am sure that he would have given this Government a pass mark of two out of three.

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One of James Barr's claims to fame was that he made one of the longest ever maiden speeches--88 minutes and stretching to 18 columns in Hansard. I considered reading out his speech verbatim to hon. Members, but I thought better of it; I am sure that that would be the last thing they would want to hear. However, I know from personal experience that clergymen often like the sound of their own voices, can make excellent contributions to debate, and tend to be accomplished public speakers.

Suffice it to say that James Barr was attacking the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925 in his maiden speech. He vehemently opposed any link between Church and state and thought it wholly the responsibility of the Church to support and maintain itself on a voluntary basis. When the union took place in 1929, he felt so strongly about this that he stayed with the rump of the United Free Church. If he had not, he would have found himself debarred from membership of the House of Commons.

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