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5.6 pm

Mr. Bercow: I rise to speak in support of giving the Bill its Third Reading. Its principles were thoroughly and rigorously debated on Second Reading and it is right and proper that we should have had the opportunity today further to consider the issues involved and proposed amendments in Committee. A Report stage was possible, but in the end--although obviously a matter of nip and tuck--it did not come to that, and we now have the pleasure and responsibility of engaging in what I hope will be a serious and constructive debate on Third Reading.

Much earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) drew attention to his secular motivation, if I may so describe it. He emphasised that he was not a member of the Church of England, or of any other Church. I think that I do not misrepresent him in saying that he is not a religious person, and it might even be said that he is an irreligious person. Other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have either admitted or openly professed that they have a religious motivation, at least in part; therefore, I think it right that I put my own cards on the table.

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I practise no religion and I have no plans to do so. My late father, bless his cotton socks, was Jewish; my mother converted to Judaism, although I suspect that she would be first to concede that she did so out of convenience, not conviction. I was brought up in a Jewish household--I had a bar mitzvah and so on and so forth--and I have always strongly identified with the Jewish people. I have never apologised for or felt embarrassed about being Jewish--rather, I have been proud of it; and I have an especially strong identification with the state of Israel. However, I am not a religious person. I cannot get hung up about religious considerations.

None the less, I respect the fact that many people are motivated in their lives by a commitment to religion. I certainly recognise that religion can be a source--perhaps, for some people, the source--of civil obligation and personal morality, but I would argue that religion is by no means the only source of civil obligation or of personal morality. That is the vantage point--that of an irreligious person taking a secular interest in an important subject--from which I approach the Bill.

In supporting the proposition that the Bill be given its Third Reading, I emphasise that--as today's debates have made clear--I speak on my own account and in no sense on behalf of the Opposition. I repeat what has been said by others, including my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary: it is deplorable that the Government have not allowed Labour Members a free vote on the Bill. It should be a matter of conscience for them, but it is assuredly a matter of conscience for us. Liberal Democrats have contributed to the proceedings of the Bill, and I think that they, too, have a free vote. Unfortunately--[Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position to the effect that there is only one Liberal Democrat Member in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell).

Mr. Forth: It is a very free vote.

Mr. Bercow: Indeed.

Mr. Stunell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: Yes. The hon. Gentleman is provoked.

Mr. Stunell: Perhaps not for the first time in the debate, I should remind the hon. Gentleman that size is not important.

Mr. Bercow: I can rally to that proposition with enthusiasm and alacrity. I should be grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have always and everywhere argued that size is not everything. I go so far as to say that height is not everything either.

Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important for the Liberal Democrat party to have at least one other Member present so that it may, as usual, vote on both sides of the case?

Mr. Bercow: That is right. However, with the self- effacement, modesty and characteristic understatement that we all associate with my right hon. Friend, he has not made the case as strongly as he could have done. To suppose that Liberal Democrats tend to divide in only two

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directions on a piece of legislation is markedly generous to them. Ordinarily, we see a four-way split among Liberal Democrat Members--those in favour of a Bill, those against it, those who abstain and those who do not turn up or were not aware that the debate was taking place.

Mr. Stunell: This is a great deal more fun than the proceedings in Committee. Those who want to examine objectively the evidence that is being put to the House would want also carefully to examine the Division list for the only Division on the Bill that we have had so far today. The facts will speak for themselves. I do not believe that the Division list will show a united Conservative party on the issues that were facing us.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Before the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) responds, I shall bring him back to Third Reading.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to be brought to heel, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your exhortation is absolute as far as I am concerned.

I emphasise that we did not regard the Bill as a party matter. There are genuine differences of opinion among Conservative Members. In endorsing the call for a Third Reading, I am speaking for myself and not for the Conservative Opposition.

There have been some good exchanges on Second Reading and in Committee, and I hope that there will be good exchanges on Third Reading. By way of illustration, I pay tribute to the many Members who have spoken in the debate, generally in a good-natured fashion and representing a variety of different viewpoints. There have not been significant differences of opinion among Labour Members, but those who have spoken in support of the Bill have done so with clarity, with commitment and, in a number of instances, with passion. That is respected. I say that to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who has introduced a ten-minute Bill on this important subject. I refer also to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan).

I had originally intended to say that I was totally, utterly and unreconstructedly unrepresentative of my right hon. and hon. Friends. on this subject. I was not planning to say that apologetically, but by way of frankness and candour. As things have transpired and the debate has evolved, it has appeared to me that I am at least marginally less unrepresentative of my right hon. and hon. Friends than I originally supposed and anticipated.

I am delighted that I am in the company of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). As far as I can tell--it seemed pretty clear from his ferocious eloquence--I am effectively in the lobby of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

I thought originally that I would have to say that I was virtually in a minority of one--my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is not with us today--but that is not the case. Several Opposition Members see

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a good and powerful case for the Bill. Nevertheless, there is no denying that there are Conservative Members who think that the Bill should not be given a Third Reading.

Mr. Forth: I hope that in this part of his analysis, my hon. Friend will make it clear that there are those who support the thrust and principle of the Bill, as I do, but are against its taking effect neatly in time for a general election, to bail out one Labour candidate, and that my hon. Friend will recognise the fact that I, and perhaps others, may have to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, even though we support its principles.

Mr. Bercow: Not for the first time, and I imagine not for the last, the symbiotic relationship that exists between my right hon. Friend and me has re-asserted itself. His remarks anticipate what I had intended to say. I wanted to draw attention to the different motivations of Conservative Members for refusing to give the Bill a Third Reading.

Mr. Swayne: I hope that my hon. Friend will acknowledge the body of opinion on the Conservative Benches that is wholly opposed to the principle of the Bill, but would have gone to some practical length to accommodate the problem in Greenock and Inverclyde.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had been planning to speak in complimentary terms about him--he is one of the great parliamentarians of our time. I mean that. I said it in his constituency, so there is no reason why I should not say it in the House. I do not resile from that tribute, but I am bound to say that my hon. Friend's views on the matter are antediluvian.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Pre-historic.

Mr. Bercow: Indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) might be described as a parliamentary troglodyte. He is living in the cave-man age. I richly enjoyed his historical exegesis and the development of his argument in opposition to the Bill, but I believe that he is profoundly mistaken. Listening to his speech, I was reinforced in my conviction that my hon. Friend was born in 1956 at the age of 140.

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