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Fixed-term Parliaments

Tony Wright, supported by Mr. Giles Radice, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Frank Field, Helen Jackson, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Ms Harriet Harman and Mr. Mark Oaten, presented a Bill to provide for fixed-term Parliaments: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 6 April, and to be printed [Bill 54].

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Point of Order

1.23 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the terms of the Order of the House made on 6 February this year ensure that if the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill, which we are about to consider, is amended during its Committee stage, consideration on Report must begin no later than 5 o'clock this afternoon. On behalf of my hon. Friends, I am therefore interested to establish what guidance you can offer as to the admissibility or otherwise of manuscript amendments, especially in view of the regrettable experience of 17 July last year, when the House considered the Football Disorder Bill in similar circumstances. After the Committee stage, we proceeded to Report and there was no proper opportunity for hon. Members to table amendments. Obviously, we would want to avoid a repetition of those events, which were acknowledged to be a farce by not only my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) but the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Speaker: If manuscript amendments are submitted, I shall obviously consider them, as I always do.



(1) the matter of the Budget Statement and its implications for Wales, being a matter relating exclusively to Wales, be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee for its consideration;
(2) the Welsh Grand Committee shall meet at the County Hall, Cwmbran, on Monday 12th March at half past Ten o'clock to take questions under Standing Order No. 103 (Welsh Grand Committee (questions for oral answer)), and to consider the matter of the Budget Statement and its implications for Wales under Standing Order No. 107 (Welsh Grand Committee (matters relating exclusively to Wales)), proceedings being interrupted at Four o'clock.-- [Mr. Pearson.]

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Orders of the Day

House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill

Considered in Committee, pursuant to Order [6 February].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

1.25 pm

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): On a point of order, Sir Alan. I am sorry for interrupting, but may I raise with you the availability of the responses to the consultation document, which underlie the Bill? As Committee proceedings get under way, it would be helpful if we had the fullest information, as a Standing Committee would have. The explanatory notes, which you may have before you, refer to the consultation process that the Government undertook before producing the Bill. On Second Reading, the Minister in charge prayed in aid the results of the consultation with the various Churches concerned. However, when I asked the Library whether the Churches' replies had been deposited there, I was told that this was not a public consultation exercise.

I have not telephoned the Minister's office--I gather that that is rather dangerous and one might lose one's job over it--but this point matters. Allowing priests to stand for Parliament is a significant change to the constitution and one would expect such a change to involve a consultation. A consultation has been conducted, but one would also expect the Minister to make the results available. On Second Reading, he said:

However, perhaps that does not convey the complexity of the Churches' response on some issues and the Committee will therefore be forced to rely on his interpretation of those responses, rather than have the documents to hand.

Would it be in order to suspend proceedings for a few minutes so that the material could be made available? In Standing Committee, it is normal for such a request to be made and, indeed, for a Minister's office to supply the necessary documents.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to air his point in full, but I have to tell him that it is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter for debate. I have no doubt that he will have the opportunity to press the point further in the course of later debates.

Clause 1

Removal of disqualification of clergy

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 1, line 5, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (1A),".

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 13, in page 1, line 6, after "ordained", insert--

'to the office of priest or deacon'.

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No. 12, in page 1, line 7, after "minister", insert "(or the recognised equivalent)".

No. 15, in page 1, line 7, at end insert--

'(1A) A person is disqualified from being or being elected as a member of the House of Commons if--
(a) he has been ordained to the office of priest or deacon in accordance with any form of episcopal ordination, and
(b) he is practising as a priest or deacon.'.

Miss Widdecombe: I should say at the outset that there will be free votes for Conservative Members on all the issues being debated in Committee and on Report, though the Government obviously intend not to allow that stage of consideration, as well as on Third Reading.

I have moved the amendment to try to distinguish between serving and ex-priests. The Minister will be aware that I said on Second Reading that I was unhappy with the prospect of practising priests, as opposed to ministers in non-conformist Churches, being able to sit in the House. Bishops of the Church of England, who are, of course, practising, are allowed to sit in the other place. However, they do not have 70,000 constituents to look after, nor do they have long and complicated Committee interests. Their attendance tends to be confined to debates on issues that have a direct impact on matters on which the Church has, or is expected to have, a view.

An ordained priest who had not given up his orders would serve as a Member of Parliament both as a priest consecrated to the full-time service of almighty God and one engaged in the service of Caesar in this place. That is, in my view, an amazing combination even to contemplate, but we are now putting the possibility of such a combination into law. The proposal needs to be tested on its merits, and should be viewed entirely separately from the issue of ex-priests.

1.30 pm

We all know why the Bill is being introduced: it is to enable a particular prospective Labour party candidate to take his seat if he is successful. It is not about great issues of principle. As I said on Second Reading, the Bill could have been presented on at least four earlier occasions--I subsequently discovered a fifth--had the Government been seriously moved by its merits. The fact is, however, that it was not presented on those occasions, because it was of no interest to the Government until it affected a Scottish Labour candidate, who suddenly realised that if he won he would not be able to sit in the House. He, of course, is an ex-priest.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I may be able to deal with some of the right hon. Lady's other points later if I catch your eye, Sir Alan, but I now have a question about the narrow point relating to episcopally ordained and practising priests. Does the right hon. Lady extend that to a priest ordained in the Liberal Catholic Church or any of the old Catholic Churches? She should bear in mind, for instance, that our late and distinguished friend Dr. Eric Taylor, Assistant Clerk of the House, was ordained as a priest in the Liberal Catholic Church. Would

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she have excluded him or his colleagues for seeking election, given that such people are by definition part-time pastors as well as episcopally ordained priests?

Miss Widdecombe: I am going to stick to--

Mr. Mackinlay: The right hon. Lady does not know the answer.

Miss Widdecombe: I do, but I am going to stick to the definitions on which we have worked throughout. I fully acknowledge that they are arguable: I doubt whether anyone here would suggest that there is a logical coherence in the definition of what constitutes a priest and, for that matter, the definition of what constitutes an ex-Roman Catholic priest. No one is likely to claim that those definitions are perfect.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The right hon. Lady described David Cairns as an ex-priest. I understand that he is currently a priest, although he no longer conducts the Mass: he no longer does the work of a priest, and I gather that he has no intention of returning to the priesthood. Under the rules of the Catholic Church, however, once a priest, always a priest. That presents one of the difficulties and in many ways illustrates the point that the right hon. Lady appears to be making.

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