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Mr. Gummer: I often agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), but the picture he paints is unlikely. The idea that, all over the country, hordes of bishops are rushing out to get themselves elected seems to be, ab initio, unlikely. The idea that both the diocesan bishop and his suffragan would be elected to this place for different parties at the same time seems so unlikely as not to be worthy of consideration. It is possible that a bishop might be elected to the House of Commons, but even that is extremely unlikely.

The point at issue is different from that under discussion in the previous amendment; this amendment deals only with the established Church. I disagree with my hon. Friend for the simple reason that, for the most part, the bishops to whom we are referring are not able to be Members of the House of Lords. A suffragan bishop may not sit in the House of Lords; an assistant bishop may not sit in the House of Lords. Associate bishops or bishops from abroad may not sit in the House of Lords. The only people to whom my hon. Friend's argument applies are those diocesan bishops who are not rotationally able to sit in the House of Lords at present.

I am not a betting man, but I am prepared to take a large bet that none of those bishops would stand for election to this place in any circumstances--for two good reasons. The first is the rotational system itself. The second is that one cannot conceive of a diocesan bishop who would think it possible both to hold that office and to be a party political Member of this place--because that is what it would mean. The situation would not arise.

We are really talking about the other bishops. Surely it would be odd to remove the inability of clergymen of the Church of England and priests of the Roman Catholic Church to stand for election to this place, while saying that clergymen who are bishops of a different sort--associate bishops, suffragan bishops and the like--should not be able to stand. It is not that I think that any of them would stand, but that there is no logic for excluding them. It would be logical for the Church of England to do so, but not for Parliament to take that step.

In this situation, we are much better guided by history. In the past, the word "bishop" referred only to diocesan bishops; the Church of England did not go in for suffragan and assistant bishops. We are treading new ground. Change has taken place in the Church of England since the legislation that we are dealing with became extant. There is thus no historical reason why we should not take this step.

I do not believe that the procedure will take place. Even if it were to do so, my hon. Friend's concern about bishops flying up and down the Corridor is unlikely to come about. After all, there is a perfect answer: the people who elected them would know of the possibility and would take it into account. It is not for us to say that that is not possible and proper. Even if they elected them and the occasion arose, it would be possible for the bishop to refuse the preferment.

The amendment makes a meal out of something that is not really worth a bite. We can perfectly properly leave the matter; it will not, in fact, make a ha'p'orth of

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difference. If I were to vote for the amendment and it were passed, that would not make a ha'p'orth of difference either. However, it happens to be a bit more logical to carry the argument through as the Bill now stands. I suggest that the House can do so without any fear at all that we shall be under the jurisdiction of a horde of bishops, whether vagantes or not. The fact is that they will not come; we will not have them here, so either agreeing to the amendment or not is, frankly, immaterial--but it is a matter of rationality, and I prefer to be on the side of reason.

Mr. Stunell: For the second time today, rather worryingly, I find myself in almost complete agreement with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

Mr. Bercow: Savour it.

Mr. Stunell: Yes, I will; it may not happen again. I struggled to comprehend the argument adduced by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon). If I understood him properly, he was saying that we should not pass the Bill in its current form because the bishops already have representatives in the House of Lords who can speak for them. However, as I tried to suggest in my intervention, it is also the case that hereditary peers who were unsuccessful in the election have exactly that kind of representation. Of course it is arguable that that applies to other people who sit there in some sort of representative mode. No special reason exists to use the representative role of those bishops who sit in the Lords to disqualify those who do not sit there.

The second argument was that by-elections could be caused. If a by-election were foreseeable, that would perhaps be a reason for not having certain categories of candidate. I wondered whether we should also introduce a rule to prevent people who have a series illness from standing for Parliament. Should we have health checks? To be honest, by-elections are much more often caused by death than by preferment, so they might best be avoided by having rigorous medical checks to weed out those who are not up to the next four or five years. In all conscience, I think that the by-election argument is not sustainable; it is only adduced as an argument to prop up the weakness of other arguments.

Another argument is that there is a see-saw case and people may appear in one House and then the other. We may like to think that the right direction for traffic is from this House to the other place, but in all conscience, why should not there be a route back from that House to this place? If a retirement age were introduced, or if other factors came into play, what on earth would be wrong with that?

The third argument seemed to be that there might be a conflict between bishops if they finished up in this House, but on different sides. As hon. Members will know from my previous contribution, I am not a member of the Church of England. I do not take detailed account of what goes on in the Synod, but I was under the impression that its members were on opposite sides already. The idea that we would somehow avoid conflict by keeping them out of the House seems misplaced.

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The fourth argument was perhaps the most feeble of all. It was suggested that if the Bill were passed, it would be bad for bishops because it would sound the death knell of bishops in the other place if they were allowed to sit in this House. That is a self-serving argument. Allowing politicians from that place into this place certainly has not sounded their death knell, so there is no particular reason why allowing bishops into this place should sound their death knell either.

In fact, it would suit hon. Members best if we had the smallest possible constituency of people who were allowed to be elected to the House. Ideally, we would restrict entry to those who have already been elected, but we widen it a little. There is always a tendency for us to consider restrictions on those who can be elected not solely in terms of the benefit to democracy, but perhaps at the back of our minds, subconsciously, seeing benefit to ourselves.

I argue strongly that the amendment is wholly mistaken in its purpose and will not achieve what the hon. Member for Sevenoaks seeks. I hope that it will fall.

4.45 pm

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is perfectly capable of defending and promoting the amendment, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously suggesting that my hon. Friend seeks to restrict the opportunities for people to stand for election to the House of Commons because he is personally fearful of priestly competition.

Mr. Stunell: I am properly drawn up by the hon. Gentleman--there is a tendency slightly to overstate one's case. I do not envisage that bishops will be clamouring to stand at the forthcoming election for the constituency of Sevenoaks. I may have missed something, but so far as I know, the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have an eye on Sevenoaks, or on Buckingham. I am happy to confirm that no such suggestion was intended. I hope that the House will very quickly dispose of this unnecessary amendment, which would have poor outcomes were it to be passed.

Mr. Hogg: I should like to make a quick contribution to what I hope is the rapid disposal and dispatch of the amendment. I do not agree with it. I have already argued in general terms why I am in favour of freedom. All that I said in the debate on the first group of amendments applies to this group. I believe in choice and freedom; they are traditional Conservative values, and I shall do nothing to depart from them. I approach this group of amendments from that general position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has adduced four arguments. They are all misplaced. He first talked about a conflict of loyalty between the bishops and their suffragans, or between the bishops and their Churches. That may be so; there may be a conflict of loyalties. Many Members have various conflicts of loyalties, and it is ultimately a matter for the person who puts himself or herself forward for election to resolve. It is a matter for the associations to address and, ultimately, it is for the electorates to decide. It is not for us to be prescriptive. Yes, there may be conflicts of loyalty, but they are no greater and no less than the conflicts of loyalty that already face many Members.

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The second point was the suggestion that by-elections may be caused by the death or retirement of a Lord Spiritual and his replacement in another place by an elected bishop. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) expressed his views on that point, and I agree with him.

In any event, what is the problem? As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks--I do not think that he quite followed the point--we have been here many times before. In the past, the eldest sons of peers have triggered by-elections on the death of their fathers. That happened in the case of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and in the case of my right hon. and noble Friend, my father, when he succeeded my grandfather and had to vacate his seat at Oxford. Constituency associations selected the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and my father to stand for Parliament and the electorate voted them in at a general election. It is therefore an issue for the associations and the electorate and not something about which we should be prescriptive.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made a perfectly sound point when he said that, if we were to extend the provision so that the possibility of causing a by-election would lead to someone's disqualification, we would almost, by definition, have to exclude the elderly and the very elderly. I shall not say into which category my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) falls, but I am entitled to say that the House would have been the poorer without his presence. I am very glad that his association and the electorate returned him over many years, and he has now served for 51 years in the House. That same point applied to Sir Winston Churchill. We must not make the possibility of a by-election become a barrier to someone's being adopted or selected as a candidate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks said that the proposal might push forward the secret agenda that the Lords Spiritual should no longer sit in the other place. I wish to make a couple of observations about that. If it were left to me, I would not have Lords Spiritual in the other place. I would have an entirely elected second Chamber, and I suspect that we are moving towards one that has a very large elected element. I would be surprised if the Lords Spiritual ultimately retain their seats. As I am pressing for a second Chamber that is either largely or wholly elected, I would support their disappearance. There is nothing personal about it; I believe in a powerful second Chamber and that means an elected one.

I make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no secret agenda; it is public and overt. I want an elected Second Chamber. If this provision makes a small contribution to that, it is another reason for opposing my hon. Friend's amendment. I hope that we shall have no more of this nonsense.

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