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Mr. Forth rose--

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend is clearly becoming upset, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Forth: I simply wanted to remind my hon. Friend that the Government found legislative time for--indeed, gave legislative priority to--Bills as important as the Royal Parks (Trading) Bill, which concerned people selling hamburgers, and the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, which sought to make illegal the living of a limited but important number of people.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing this Bill, not previous Bills dealing with entirely different matters.

Mr. Bercow: You are absolutely right, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am exceptionally grateful to you for your reminder, and for the guidance that it contained. My point, however--in support of giving this Bill a Third Reading--was that the fact that the right thing had not been done in the past did not prevent us from doing the right thing now. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested that there was an alternative point of view. There is an alternative point of view; it just has the demerit of being mistaken.

I believe that when we have an opportunity to do the right thing, we should do it. The Government have introduced a number of foolish measures that they should not have introduced, and for which it would have been much better not to find time, but that is a reflection of the legislative priorities of the Administration by whom we are currently and, I hope, only temporarily belaboured. I still say that if we can pass this Bill now, we should do so.

Let me now deal with another argument advanced by my right hon. and hon. Friends who oppose Third Reading. It is a slightly different argument, or at least a variant on the theme of "They could have done it before but they did not, so they should not be allowed to do it now". My right hon. and hon. Friends argue that this ghastly, risible--gosh, I had better not be too rude--Government were motivated by consideration of the interests of just one individual, and that it is not right for a measure of this kind to be taken through Parliament simply to facilitate the ambition of that one individual.

It is as though the argument for the Bill were in some way sullied by the fact that there is, at least in the immediate term, only one possible beneficiary. I am sorry to have to say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and to my right hon. and hon. Friends who agree with him, that I do not think that that is right either, ethically or in terms of historical precedent.

In regard to ethics, my feeling is that if the argument for reform is compelling, the fact that only one person will benefit is not a good reason for not passing legislation. I was not persuaded by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who said that it was all frightfully unfair on people who could otherwise have been perspective parliamentary candidates at an earlier stage in the Parliament but declined to do so, because they knew that under existing law they could not take their seats.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bercow: I shall in a moment.

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As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks and to the House, it would have been perfectly open, at an earlier stage, for other individuals who aspired to sit in the House of Commons to get themselves selected as prospective parliamentary candidates and then to seek to change the law so that they could take their seats if they were elected. The fact that they chose not to do so is a matter for them. However, I do not think that that should prevent us from doing the right thing for the individual concerned in the present case. Before I develop the argument further, I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke).

Mr. Clarke: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is speaking with his customary eloquence. On this occasion, he is also speaking with much more logic than he may have used in some previous debates. I think that he is making an excellent point. I am puzzled by the argument that setting right an injustice on the basis of an individual case is not the right approach. Many precedents fly in the face of that argument. The hon. Gentleman will recall the case of the then Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn and the consequent legislation--which, remarkably, led to the election of one Alec Douglas-Home as leader of the Conservative party and as Prime Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that, if a turbulent priest should come to lead the Conservative party, the day may come when Conservative Members even bless this day?

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The only down-side of my giving way to him is that he has thoroughly stolen my thunder--I was going to make precisely that point. Implicit in the arguments of some of the Bill's critics is that we are behaving in an unprecedented manner. That is not true. History is littered with examples of measures taken by the House because of the pressure and immediacy of a given case. There is nothing remotely ignoble about that. It does not discredit the argument for a measure; nor is it an argument in favour of postponing or delaying that measure.

One could say, "There is an ethical argument and an intellectual case for the Bill. We will not do anything about it now because there is no particularly pressing case that requires its passage and there are other matters in the Government timetable. However, we will in due course consider when we can accommodate it within our legislative programme. When a particular case comes along that gives it an added piquancy, the Government of the day will introduce it." That seems to be perfectly reasonable.

The historical recollection of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston is, as far as I am aware, absolutely correct. The legislation that he mentioned is the Peerage Act 1963. It did indeed facilitate the re-entry into this place of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). It is also true that when Lord Home of The Hirsel became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister in--if memory serves me correctly--October 1963, he had to come into the House of Commons and was a beneficiary of that legislation.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, those are not the only historical precedents that can be adduced in support of the Government's proposals. There are other cases. Although it may not be entirely convenient to refer to them, it is justified to do so. For example, in arguing the case for the Bill's passage, I have in mind the

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Defamation Act 1996. The previous Government passed that legislation without, I think, opposition, and possibly with assistance from the then Labour Opposition, on the grounds--I am trying very much to relate the matter directly to Third Reading of this Bill--that the then hon. Member for Tatton would thereby be able to use extracts from parliamentary debates in pursuing his legal actions. It seemed extraordinary that, by an historical anomaly, he had been unable to do that. Passage of the 1996 Act enabled Mr. Neil Hamilton to use parliamentary proceedings and the parliamentary record to make his case. So there is also that example.

There is also a more recent example. Admittedly, it does not concern the passage of a piece of legislation, but it does concern a judgment made by the House of Commons. There is a particular appropriateness about the presence of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are debating the Third Reading of the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Bill. I ask him to confine his remarks to that.

Mr. Bercow: Of course. I am arguing that one reason why this Bill should be given a Third Reading--I know that this is what you were jogging me along to reach, Madam Deputy Speaker--is that it will enable a prospective parliamentary candidate fully to exercise his democratic rights. The Bill is principally for that purpose.

The only other measure that I had in mind was one of the Government's, which was intended to protect the rights of Members of Parliament. That was taken with the support of Government Front Benchers to enable the legal costs of a Member of Parliament sued by one or more of his constituents to be defrayed. That decision was taken in order to assist in the particular case of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), but it could of course apply much more widely. I do not remember Members objecting--not in large numbers or vocally--that we would not be justified in passing such a measure simply because it helped only one person. It could help more.

Mr. Swayne: The measures to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention were mainly cost-free, in that enacting them achieved the aim intended but with no unforeseen consequence. We are being asked to enact a Bill to provide relief for someone who is no longer a clergyman. The problem is that the consequence will be that any number of clergymen will be able to populate these Benches.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is engaging in a certain amount of crystal-ball gazing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal suggested, it is very unlikely that any significant numbers of religious individuals--men or women of the cloth--would seek to enter this House. However, we have a duty--in this respect, my hon. Friend has a point--to anticipate that outcome. It could happen. Several people who are priests or former priests could stand for Parliament. That is obviously anathema to my hon. Friend; it is not anathema to me.

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