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Mr. Howarth: You have already ruled on the matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but perhaps you will permit me to say that, sad to say, my hon. Friend makes an important and valid point. What would the Minister think if the Government were Tory and had put Conservative Members on a three-line Whip? The Opposition would have gone berserk. I do not oppose the Government's attempt to change the law, because some legislation is anachronistic and needs reforming. However, that is not the reason that the Government advanced.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I do not want my position to be traduced in the way some hon. Members have traduced it. I introduced David Cairns to the debate. I mentioned him first and pointed out that he was a Labour candidate. I also said that I believed that, whatever political party a candidate represents, it is right that legislation should not prevent electors from voting for that person. I believe that the hon. Gentleman shares that view.

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that hon. Members are grateful to the Minister for making that absolutely clear. I am also acutely aware that a former hon. Friend sought to change the law. I do not oppose the principle of the Bill, but it is unfortunate that the reason for it was not made clear at the outset. I accept that the Minister mentioned it in his opening speech, but we should have advance knowledge of the reasons for measures. We know why the Criminal Justice and Police Bill and the Hunting Bill were introduced. However, I had to get a briefing from the Library to learn the reason for the Bill that we are discussing. I subsequently received the letter from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden that said that she had introduced a ten-minute Bill in 1999. I picked up a briefing this morning on which I read Mr. David Cairns name. I therefore discovered the true purpose of the Bill only this morning.

Mr. Fabricant: I was present for the opening speeches. The Minister was less than open, unusually for him, when I asked him whether there was a three-line Whip. He did not volunteer the information that David Cairns is a paid employee who works in the House.

Mr. Howarth: I understand my hon. Friend's point.

I shall not support the Bill in the Lobby. I do not believe that we should stick to the status quo, but I oppose the proposal that all clergy, whatever their denomination, whether currently practising or not, should be allowed to stand for the House of Commons. I believe that Church of England clergy should be excepted because they are answerable to their bishops who sit in another place.

7.20 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): This has been a good and instructive debate, to which 14 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. This is a grim, and arguably gruesome, occasion for me because it is one of the relatively rare--and, I hope, decreasingly common--

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occasions on which I find myself substantially in agreement with Labour Members, to whose defeat I have dedicated the past four years. I also find myself somewhat out of sympathy with a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which is a deeply uncomfortable experience.

Rarely do I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I feel somewhat unclean at the prospect of siding with him in a Division. However, Conservative Members have a free vote and, in the event of a Division, I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not all go into the same Lobby. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made it clear that she had substantial reasons for conscientious objection to the Bill, which would cause her to vote against it. For my part, I have studied the Bill and the sequence of events that form the centuries-long background to its introduction, and I am sympathetic to it.

The presentation of the Bill has, however, been badly handled, shabbily introduced and inappropriately conducted in typical new Labour fashion--in other words, in a disingenuous, untoward, hasty and arrogant fashion that is contemptuous of the rights of the House of Commons. Nevertheless, one has to make a judgment about the content of the Bill, and I agree with its provisions.

There have been good, well-considered and carefully thought through contributions from both sides of the House. In circumstances such as these, we should try to disagree with one another while respecting one another's motivations. I listened with interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who argued the classic position in support of the Bill that keeping the disqualification on the statute book was undemocratic, a violation of rights and an historical anachronism, and that the time had now come to dispense with it. A similar argument was developed in witty and entertaining fashion by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and, with his customary gravitas, by the parliamentary representative of the Church Commissioners, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell).

We are accustomed to the historical exegesis of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), which I always find entertaining and from which I always learn things of which I was previously ignorant. His speech today represented no exception to the general rule.

I understand and respect the motivation of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and I accept without question his assurance that his constituency Labour party selected Mr. Cairns in ignorance, perhaps, of his background, but, certainly, of the fact that unless the law were changed, he could not take his seat in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made a perfectly legitimate point about the level of intelligence, or information, in that constituency Labour party. That is a fair point to make, but I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde that his constituency party did not know that this problem would arise. It is now for the House to decide how we want to tackle the issue.

Dr. Godman: I think that I used the term "justifiable" in my arguments about my constituency activists. May I

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point out to the hon. Gentleman that a large number of my constituents are Catholics, and that the Catholic Church in Scotland supports the Bill?

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and I shall go on to say something about support for the Bill in a moment. May I also clarify an observation that I made a moment ago, which was possibly infelicitous? When I referred to the intelligence level of people in the constituency Labour party, I was not suggesting that they were dim-witted. I used the word "intelligence" in the sense of the possession of information.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) explained clearly the background to her strong support for the Bill, and that is respected. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst gave a characteristic tour de force, and he was joined in that enterprise by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).

It is not surprising to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is a supporter of the Bill, as he frequently supports the reform of institutions that he judges to have become antiquated and indefensible. He gave us another example today of his relatively modern outlook on politics. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) is no longer in the Chamber. He, too, made a sincere contribution, and that is respected.

The position on disqualification is obviously anomalous. Whatever view we take, we all recognise that. The disqualification applies to some people and not to others. It applies to members of the clergy in the Church of England and Ireland--but not Wales--to ministers in the Church of Scotland, to Roman Catholic priests, significantly, and to priests ordained by a bishop, all of whom are disqualified from sitting in this House.

There are no similar disqualifications for ministers of other religions. Nonconformist ministers are unaffected by the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. We are, therefore, specifically concerned with the practical effect of the 19th century legislation, which is to constrain non-Church of England, former episcopally ordained priests, including Roman Catholic priests.

I shall not dilate on the MacManaway case. However, an awareness of that case and the follow-up to it are essential to an understanding of the issue. The individual concerned, the reverend, had been ordained a priest in 1925 by the Bishop of Armagh, but subsequently relinquished all his rights as a priest in the Church of Ireland. The question arose as to whether his election in 1950 in Belfast, West should be allowed to stand.

The Minister, who is undoubtedly well versed in the intricacies of the matter, will be aware that a Select Committee considered whether Mr. MacManaway's election was void. In a report in 1950, it concluded that immediate legislative action was necessary to clarify the law. Regrettably, the Home Secretary at the time referred the issue to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council at the request of this House, and that Committee concluded that the use of the words

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I challenged the hon. Member for Enfield, North earlier on the subject of the rather pusillanimous response of the Select Committee on Clergy Disqualification as long ago as 1952-53. I emphasise that point, to which I know all my right hon. and hon. Friends are keenly attending, because the Select Committee recognised that the situation was anomalous. It then pondered whether to recommend reform, but timidly retreated from the fray. It stated in memorable and, frankly, damning words:

In a nutshell, that meant that the Select Committee at the time saw that there was a problem, worried that it was a hornet's nest and did not want to stir it up. I politely suggest that, 48 or 49 years on from its inconclusive and hedging report, there is now a good case for acting and for not allowing the problem to fester any longer.

Two key developments have brought us to where we are now. The first is the Select Committee on Home Affairs report of 1997-98 on electoral law administration. Giving evidence in that report, Professor Robert Blackburn, whose contribution was mentioned earlier, said that answering the question "Can a priest stand for Parliament?" involved consulting no fewer than nine separate Acts dating back to the 16th century. Significantly, the professor also said:

Many, and perhaps most, right hon. and hon. Members agree with that verdict. If we agree with that verdict, if we believe that there is a case for change and if we consider there to be no reason for the discrimination to persist, I do not believe that objections to the procedure--there will be a free vote, however--and to the Government's rather grubby handling of the matter should allow us to neglect the big issue, which is whether the Bill is right or wrong.

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