Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Miss Widdecombe: It is wrong.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend, chuntering from a sedentary position, suggests to me that the Bill is wrong. I say to my distinguished boss, who will be Home Secretary in a matter of weeks, that she thinks that I am wrong, but I know that she is. That will have to do for tonight as that was a risky thing to say to the person who will soon be Home Secretary.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Although many may agree with my hon. Friend that it is wrong to discriminate between different faiths when considering whether people are eligible for election, does he agree that it seems a bit daft to go ahead with the Bill when we are doing nothing about the most appalling discrimination in the other place? The Home Affairs Committee report referred to the Church of England, which has a number of bishops sitting in the other place even though other Churches such as my own and the Church of Scotland have no entitlement whatever. Instead of introducing a Bill to sort out a problem for one

6 Feb 2001 : Column 861

candidate in one seat, would it not be wiser to consider discrimination between the faiths throughout the parliamentary system?

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend speaks a lot of good sense, but my response must be that two wrongs do not make a right. I share his enthusiasm for speedy Government action to reform the composition of the other place. For my part, I favour a fully elected second Chamber and wish to goodness that the Government would get on with that important project. However, the fact that they have chosen not to do so in no way justifies us failing to take the right decision on the merits of this case, although the overall position lacks consistency and has no rational basis. It ought to be changed.

I must tease right hon. and hon. Members about matters tactical for future reference. They had a good case, but they spoiled it in two material particulars, at least as far as I and, I suspect, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends are concerned. First, most Conservatives--certainly those of us here present--could not give a tinker's cuss as to the view of the European convention on human rights about the matter. The fact that we might be under pressure from the European convention or as a result of passing the iniquitous, ghastly, risible, detestable Human Rights Act 1998 matters not a jot as far as many of us are concerned.

Secondly, Labour Members should not ruin the argument by jabbering on about the merits of Father Bruce. I refer, of course, to the fortunately defeated Labour candidate in the Oxford, West and Abingdon constituency in 1992. If there were one good reason to keep the discrimination, it might conceivably be to keep out the discredited former leader of communists, neutralists and defeatists. Really, that cuts no ice with me. Even though I have no regard for Monsignor Kent, I could not bring myself to do other than support the Bill in a Division. I could not have brought myself to do other than that even when he was standing for Parliament and would have taken his seat in the House if elected.

I make my final observation by way of an appeal to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. As Conservatives, we oppose wholesale change and we believe in gradual reform. We favour evolutionary rather than revolutionary development, but we most certainly do not oppose change on principle. My view, which hails from that of Burke, the father of modern Conservatism and one of the most distinguished statesmen ever to serve in the House, is as follows:

A good case has been made. The content of the Bill is sound. We can no longer defend the current iniquity. That is why, if there is a Division, I for one shall vote for the Bill, though I know that many will be inclined to do the opposite.

7.34 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: With the leave of the House, I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for supporting a measure introduced by the Labour Government, which he will not do often. I wish

6 Feb 2001 : Column 862

that I could thank the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), but we shall wait and see how she votes.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham. In passing, I remind him that the support given by Conservative Front Benchers to the Human Rights Act 1998 is noted by us and will be commented on by us at every possible opportunity. May I deal with the free vote and the Whip? The Conservatives have a free vote because their Front Benchers are split. As usual, they are rowing among themselves, but they want to make a virtue out of a quarrel. Just because they cannot agree does not mean that everyone else has the same problem.

Labour Members are united: we oppose discrimination; we oppose the disqualification of priests; we support equality; we support the Bill. This is a Government Bill, it is whipped and the Whip will be applied, but Labour Members, even on a three-line Whip, are not obliged to vote against their consciences. If any consider the Bill to represent an issue of conscience, they can exercise their conscience. Furthermore, Opposition Members are under a one-line Whip. They are not only split, but have been told that they need not even bother to turn up for the vote. We heard all that verbiage and nonsense about matters of conscience, but this is not enough of a matter of conscience to make the Opposition ask their Members to turn up to vote. That is the shambles of today's Conservative party, but enough of party politics: let us deal with the more serious points raised by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald.

The right hon. Lady does not believe that priests should be both Members of the House and practising holy orders. I understand that view, but, with the greatest respect, that is not the issue. Whether priests should be MPs is a matter for the internal rules of their Church. The issue is whether the state should intervene to forbid priests of the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Scottish Church from being MPs when most other religions encounter no such state prohibition. The Government believe that the state should not exercise that prohibition, but should leave it to the people to decide who their representatives should be and to the Churches to decide their own internal rules.

The right hon. Lady also said that she did not believe that a priest should sit in this place. Although David Cairns remains a priest under canon law, he no longer practises as a priest and no longer celebrates mass. That does not mean that he is not a practising Catholic, which he remains. The law, because of the way in which canon law operates, forbids him from becoming a Member of Parliament. I believe that that is wrong. Obviously, the right hon. Lady is entitled to her own view. However, if she believes that no clergyman--even a man not practising his holy orders--should be allowed to sit in the Chamber, does she therefore favour extending the ban to cover all ordained ministers, such as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)?

Miss Widdecombe: Theology is not much discussed these days, but the Minister will know that there is a massive difference between priest and minister--and I said "priest".

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Lady did indeed say "priest", but if she takes the principled view that those

6 Feb 2001 : Column 863

who are ordained should not be Members of the House, surely she cannot seek to use the law of the state to exclude only Catholics and members of the established Church.

The right hon. Lady also asked why we have not used the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to make the changes. There are a number of reasons, and the obvious one is that the short titles did not allow it, although we could have dealt with that. At that time, we were awaiting responses from the Churches to inquiries about their views and, following the publication of the Home Affairs Committee report and the selection of David Cairns as a candidate, we wanted to ensure that we knew those views before legislating.

Let me add that at that stage we were not sure whether the legislation was needed. We were exploring the possibility of non-legislative means and considering whether there was a way in which, within the law, David Cairns could become a Member of Parliament. Following a full investigation, the level of doubt was high enough to make us feel that we should present this Bill.

Miss Widdecombe: I thank the Minister for his elucidation, but two issues are being considered. The first is the case of David Cairns, an ex-Roman Catholic priest; the second is the question of serving clergy.

It was always clear that the second issue would have to be addressed through the law, and that there would never be any question of a non-legislative option. I think that the Minister is trying to make the best of a very bad job. He knew about the position for a long time, but did not do anything about it until faced with an immediate case. We have already dealt with the disqualifications legislation; the word "disqualifications" should have made it possible to encompass this provision in that Bill.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Lady is not making an entirely unfair point. It is because we are now faced with the case of a particular individual who wishes to stand for Parliament, and who would be excluded under existing legislation, that allowing the current law to stand has become an immediate question of unfairness. I have always been clear about the fact that the David Cairns case is the reason for urgency. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, the existing law is wrong, and it would be unjust to allow that law to prevent someone's election because of that person's former membership of the priesthood.

The right hon. Lady said that the process was all too rushed. I think that after 200 years we are entitled to argue that when a case such as the one we are discussing arises, getting rid of prejudice--far from being too rushed--is long overdue.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) asked why we had waited so long. To some extent, I have already dealt with that. Parliamentary time is always at a premium, and many members of the hon. Gentleman's party constantly demand the presentation of this or that Bill. Members of Parliament are here to be legislators, after all, but the injustice of David Cairns's position is manifest, which is why we had to present our Bill now. That is not opportunist; we are dealing with the practical circumstances of an individual, and a case of injustice would have had to be dealt with had we not presented the

6 Feb 2001 : Column 864

Bill. The hon. Gentleman may not care about injustice. He may well feel that those who seek to deal with a particular injustice are mere opportunists. I say that this is a matter of principle--and I am glad to note that the hon. Gentleman will support it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) said that we were discussing an issue of equality. It is indeed the case that the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are subject to restrictions that are not placed on other religions. It is time to end that inequality.

In what I considered to be the best speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) said that this was an issue of principle, regardless of whether David Cairns was involved. She was entirely right. We should all heed her description of the problems that arose in her constituency and the way in which she and her husband were personally affected--it lent a particular conviction to her passionate contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) set out his case with characteristic clarity and, again, passion. He asked whether a priest could renounce the priesthood. Catholic priests can be defrocked; indeed, a Catholic priest who had committed child abuse in my constituency was defrocked yesterday. I am very pleased about that, as I cannot think of a better case for defrocking, but David Cairns--whose case has brought this issue to the fore--is not a defrocked priest, but a priest who no longer celebrates mass and acts as a priest. He cannot cease to be a priest without enormous difficulty, which is why we should ensure that he is not prevented from becoming a Member of Parliament.

Next Section

IndexHome Page