Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Miss Widdecombe: It was seven years ago.

Mr. Howarth: Seven years is not a long time in my right hon. Friend's political career, past or future.

When the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification considered the matter in 1951, it reported that no evidence was

The same applies today. I have not received from my constituents any letters urging me to change the law. I have not even received letters from members of the clergy in my constituency, or anywhere else in the country, urging me as a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to bring about a change in the law. The Bill appears to have sprung out of the ether.

Mr. Forth: Has my hon. Friend received any letters from Labour candidates asking for the law to be changed?

Mr. Howarth: I confess that I have been sent no letters by Labour candidates, although I have received a letter from a Member of Parliament--the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). The letter begins with the words "Dear colleague" and is signed by the hon. Lady herself, who I do not think is present. It states:

In the attached notes, she sets out the Church's view and explains why she believes a change in the law to be necessary. However, she does not refer to an important fact of which I have since been advised: her research assistant is intended to be the Bill's immediate beneficiary.

I find it astonishing that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden did not come clean with me and other hon. Members. Why did she not explain that she had a clear interest, because her research assistant was a candidate in Greenock and Inverclyde and was to be the first and principal beneficiary of an extensive and wide-ranging proposal to change the law governing the composition of the House of Commons? It appears that the Bill is not a matter of conscience for the Labour party or even of implementing a recommendation made two years ago by the Home Affairs Committee. Instead, it appears that it has been produced hurriedly--indeed, I suspect that it was formulated at the last minute--in order to benefit a chosen Labour party candidate.

I ask the Under-Secretary to imagine what would have happened if the Tories had done the same thing. Mr. Campbell would have been weaving his way around all the Fleet street editors saying, "What a disgrace. The Tories want to use Parliament to change the ancient laws of this land simply to benefit one of their own."

6 Feb 2001 : Column 855

Mr. Redwood: Is my hon. Friend saying that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) paid a research assistant, out of House of Commons research allowances, to produce a brief recommending a measure that would advance his future career, but not revealing that that was the case?

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend asks an important question that I cannot answer. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is not in the House and I am relying on a briefing, so I may be entirely wrong. However, she may have paid her research assistant to produce the briefing and then have failed to tell hon. Members what was going on. It is no good the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shaking his head. That is the perception that the Government are promoting.

I am not against the Government saying that they have a problem. They could have told us that they had a good candidate and wanted to clear the way for him to stand for Parliament and take his seat if he was elected. They could have said that the matter focused attention on the fact that, as Professor Blackburn pointed out, the law was somewhat archaic in this respect. Furthermore, they could have told us that they wanted to seize the opportunity provided by an individual case to tidy up the law. If the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department had said that in the first place today, I would have understood. However, they did not do that. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden cited the report of the Home Affairs Committee and sought to dress up the issue as a matter of principle.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Is it not a convention of the House that hon. Members should inform other Members if they intend to launch a personal attack on them? The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) began the onslaught. I cannot explain why my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) is not present; there may be serious reasons for her absence. However, if she is to be attacked, it would have been courteous to inform her in advance. The attack is obviously premeditated.

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry if the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) perceives my comments as an attack on the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. Does the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden expect me to remain silent on a matter about which she has written to me, not only as another Member of Parliament but specifically as a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which produced a report that she cited to support her contention? She has claimed the Bill as hers. I cannot account for her absence today; I understand that there may be good reasons for it. However, her absence should not prevent me from taking the opportunity to point out my anxieties about the submissions that she made to me. She chose to stay away; I did not choose to exclude her from the debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not absolutely sure of the facts, but it is possible that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has a very good personal reason for not being present today.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for that guidance. I made the point to the hon. Member for Don Valley that there

6 Feb 2001 : Column 856

may be good reasons for the absence of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden. I was not criticising her for her absence. However, she took the trouble to write to me, but she did not declare that she had a specific interest in the measure. I believe that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) is good enough to acknowledge that by nodding his head.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It would be a good idea to consider the content of the Bill.

Mr. Howarth: I am more than happy to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was trying to respond to a challenge from the hon. Member for Don Valley.

Mr. Redwood: I should like to respond to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). My comments were not premeditated. I listened to the debate and a question occurred to me. I should be delighted if the matter could be cleared up. I was not attacking the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, but I should like to know the precise relationship that we are considering and how the research reached my hon. Friend.

Mr. Howarth: Like my right hon. Friend, I generally support the idea that the law should be tidied up. I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee, but I was not present to vote on the conclusions of the whole report on electoral law reform. I made it clear during our discussions, when Professor Blackburn appeared before us, that currently ordained and serving clergy of the Church of England were debarred from membership of the House for the good reason, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham explained, that they are represented in the other place by the Bench of 26 bishops.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham explained why it would be difficult for a clergyman who had been ordained in the Church of England to serve in the House while answerable to his--or nowadays her--bishop, who might sit in the other place. The Anglican clergy are all over the place on some important issues, and their presence in this place would be a disaster for the Church of England, of which I am a staunch member. It would not be beneficial for the Church of England to have many practising clergy here.

If a clergyman resigns from the Church of England and ceases to run a parish, or resigns from the Catholic Church, as Mr. Cairns has done, it is logical that such people should be able to stand for Parliament. I have no problem with that. I also have no problem with the current arrangement whereby some of the nonconformist Churches permit their ordained members to serve in the House. That seems to work, and I have no desire to turn the clock back and exclude them. However, as long as we have an established Church with 26 bishops in the other place, allowing currently practising clergy from the Church of England to serve in this place would cause difficulties and overturn the longstanding relations between the House and the Church.

Mr. Key: I have been to the Library and confirmed that David Cairns is employed in the House out of the public purse. Does my hon. Friend share my distress at the Government's refusal to come clean about Labour Members being on a three-line Whip and at our discovery that the man who stands to benefit directly and financially

6 Feb 2001 : Column 857

from the Bill works for a Labour Member of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster? The Government did not tell us that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page