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Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and, among other matters, has referred to the position of her husband. Does she accept that those hon. Members, such as myself, who are not adherents of any religion support the Bill? Indeed, I do so as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, because the existing position represents a form of discrimination that certainly cannot be justified. Does she also agree that if any criticism is to be made, it is that such a measure should have been introduced years ago?

Ms Osborne: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. If this Bill had been introduced 15 years ago, my husband would probably still be a practising minister in the Church of Scotland. However, he had to demit his status when he stood as a candidate.

Another great figure of the Scottish Labour movement was Campbell Stephen. He was elected as MP for Glasgow, Camlachie in 1922 and he was one of the famous Clydeside group of Independent Labour party Members. He, too, lost his seat in 1931 only to be re-elected in 1935. What is not so well known is that he, like Barr, started life as a minister of the United Free Church of Scotland. He gave up his charge in Ardrossan to fight unsuccessfully the Ayr Burghs seat in 1918 and he never resumed his ministry.

The point of my argument is to illustrate that there is no real difference between a politically active minister of the Church of Scotland and one of any number of other mainstream denominations in Scotland who are not caught up by this arbitrary legislation that debars membership of the House of Commons to ministers of the Church of Scotland.

I do not think that we should be too parochial when considering this matter. Internationally, clergy have played a significant role in the politics of their respective countries. I think in particular of the African continent and north and central America. Other aspects of the issue, particularly the case of former Roman Catholic priests, will be, and have been, taken up by hon. Members. I have concentrated on the Scottish Presbyterian dimension.

I would never wish to suggest that being an MP is the highest expression of political involvement. There are many ways of being involved in the political process and

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for many people being an MP would not be their chosen way. George Bernard Shaw might have been thinking of ambitious would-be MPs when he wrote:

The third tragedy might be to be barred from achieving what may not be one's heart's desire at all, but should be a democratic right--to become a Member of Parliament.

The Bill should not be about any particular person's smooth passage into the House. It is, like the separate case for the repeal of the Act of Succession, an issue of individual human rights--a matter of religious and civil liberties and an opportunity to add to the democratic credentials of the House.

6.2 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I cannot share the general support for the Bill for a number of reasons. My instinctive reason always in such a case is that, when nearly everyone agrees on something, it is probably wrong. That seems to be so in this case. The fact that the Bill was introduced with smug complacency and the fact that almost all those who have spoken seem to be of one religious persuasion tend to set my antennae quivering. I wonder what it is all about.

The Minister was originally coy, and then blustered when he was asked why we were getting the Bill now. The answer appeared straightforward once we got it. The Bill is the legitimisation of a Labour candidate, and I can think of no worse reason to change the law of the land. There may be many good reasons for the changes to be introduced by the Bill, but to legitimise a Labour candidate now is the worst possible reason that I can think of. We can dismiss that as a proper reason; it does not explain why we should support the Bill at this time.

The tragedy is that the local Labour party either selected the candidate in ignorance of the law--that would not say much for the party's support for its local organisations--or, worse, it selected him knowing that the law as it stands would prevent him, if elected by the voters of Greenock and Inverclyde, from taking his seat. Either way, that is not a good recommendation for the House to approve the Bill at this stage, however excellent the individual may be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed out, none of us has met this man, and, in one respect, we have absolutely no interest in whether he is elected. We would rather that a Conservative is elected in Greenock and Inverclyde, but--although I have been away from the Clyde for quite a long time--I suspect that the chances of a Conservative being elected there are as about as strong as the chances of a Labour candidate being elected in Bromley and Chislehurst.

Dr. Godman: May I point out again to the right hon. Gentleman that local Labour party members were unaware of the anomaly? He should not denigrate decent, ordinary activists in a particular party. How many Members of this Parliament--let alone ordinary activists in a local party--knew of the anomaly?

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman should not get too excited. I will denigrate whoever I like, whenever I like, and for whatever reason I like. I, not the hon. Gentleman, will decide whether the good Labour supporters of

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Greenock and Inverclyde are immune from that. However, my criticism is directed at the professional agent--if there is one--or the Labour party in Scotland, which should concentrate on such matters instead of the other nonsenses that it gets up to. That is where my criticism is levelled. I repeat my point that, because the Greenock and Inverclyde Labour party found itself in this position, that is no reason to change the law. That is my first argument against our supporting the Bill on this occasion.

My next point echoes a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). If we were to change the law now, that would give rise to legitimate grievance among many people who were aware of the law, respected the law and did not offer themselves as candidates. They would find that they had suddenly been put in a most unfortunate position. For whatever reason, Mr. Cairns is being presented as a candidate and he is having the law changed for him just before an election. However, all the other people who may well have wanted to become candidates and who chose not to because they believed that the law did not allow them to would have good cause to say, "Hold on a minute; this is completely and grotesquely unfair." Believe it or not, the law is being changed to benefit one individual when, for the reverse reason, it could disbenefit many other people.

Mr. Bercow: It is very rare for my right hon. Friend and me to be at loggerheads, but may I suggest that the thrust of his point runs counter to his general enthusiasm--an enthusiasm that I share--for risk-taking and entrepreneurship? Does he accept that it would have been entirely open to any other individual to put himself or herself forward as a prospective candidate in the knowledge that it was legal to stand but would be illegal to take his or her seat? That person could hope, plot and collaborate with others to campaign for a change in the law and take his or her chance. Why has my right hon. Friend not considered that perfectly estimable possibility?

Mr. Forth: Of course, it is a possibility. However, in this case it helps if that person is a member of the Labour party and not any other party--a fact that may, unusually, have escaped my hon. Friend's attention. He is right, but I gather that Mr. Cairns is quoted as saying, "Don't worry, chaps. We'll have the law changed, and that will put everything right." My point is that the timing is most unfortunate. Although my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) rightly emphasised that official Opposition Members would have a free vote, she pointed out that there have been several opportunities recently to change the law.

Miss Widdecombe: Four.

Mr. Forth: My right hon. Friend assures me that were four occasions when we could have legislated on this matter in proper time, allowing time for proper consideration and allowing other people to benefit from the change in electoral law. In almost every respect, the timing of the Bill's introduction is not only unfortunate, but unacceptable and unconscionable. The fact that the Government gave priority not to this measure, but to anti-hunting Bills and piffling Bills on vehicle crime says much about their sense of priorities. I shall return briefly to the issue of timing, because it is important.

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I am also uneasy about the Bill because I do not think that it should be dealt with in isolation. In his typically learned and well-researched way, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury provided the background to the matter and brought out strongly the fact that such a Bill cannot be considered as a tiny piece of a large mosaic. It should not be considered entirely in isolation, because it carries with it important constitutional implications, not least, as he suggested, for the position of the established Church.

As a result of our history, there is an unusually complex relationship between the state and the Churches, especially the established Church. Different Churches and religions have a different status. A Labour hon. Member prattled on, as Labour women do, about equality. She used the word frequently and the implication was that as the issue concerns equality, it must be right to change the law. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury explained, we do not live in an age of equality, certainly in this respect. Our different faiths, religions and Churches have an unequal status in society. Whether that is right or wrong is of huge importance. To single out an aspect of it--a by-product of our history--and deal with it in isolation without tackling other important issues is wrong, but that is symptomatic of the way in which the Government have gone about making piecemeal and unrelated changes in our constitution, which have been to our detriment.

We are also suffering from that approach to reform of the other place, which has a direct bearing on the Bill. Our constitutional and statutory arrangements contain a right for a number of Church of England bishops to sit in a House of Parliament and participate in the legislative process. That has a bearing on the eligibility of people to be elected to this place. How much sense does it make for bishops of any Church to have a place, as of right, in a Chamber of these Houses of Parliament, and does that have implications for the question of whether people should be eligible to serve in this place? Those two questions are connected, but we are deliberating on eligibility to this House while paying no regard to the composition of the other place. That makes no sense.

We are being invited to narrow our vision to one individual in one set of circumstances and to change the electoral law of the land, but we are expected to pay no regard to the context within which it was set, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. Having said that, the relative position of different religious faiths and Churches and their representatives should be borne in mind. It is a convention that leading figures of other faiths are given a seat in another place. That might be admirable for as long as that Chamber is not properly elected, which I should like it to be, but it raises the issue of the different status of different Churches. If there are 26 bishops from our established Church in our legislature, why should there be only one chief rabbi or one representative of any other faith or religion? Those are important matters and they relate to the subject of our debate.

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