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Mr. Forth: What a shower.

Siobhain McDonagh: It has given you representation in Scotland.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Ms Ryan: My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) makes a valid point about the success achieved by the Conservatives in Scotland, where previously they had no representation.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I said that he had been a sterling ally in respect of the Bill. However, he made some entirely unjustifiable remarks about what he called the new Labour Government.

Mr. Forth: He has done something right.

Ms Ryan: As has just been indicated from a sedentary position, we still disagree on some things.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1132

It is interesting that every time the European convention on human rights is mentioned, there is a little storm of protest from some Opposition Members. At no time during the passage of the Bill, or indeed at any other time, have they said anything that justifies their opposition to the convention. We await an explanation that makes their view acceptable or even tolerable. I guess that it simply relates to the Eurosceptic views that they often express, so it is clearly a matter of ideology and perhaps of xenophobia.

I have been pleased to participate in our proceedings on the Bill. I have found the experience instructive and have heard some excellent speeches, from which I freely admit that I have learned a great deal. I am pleased that the Bill has such overwhelming support and I am proud to be a part of the House when it agrees to such measures, which ensure the equal rights of all our citizens.

6.43 pm

Mr. Fallon: The hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) spoke about removing discrimination and intolerance, but then slightly spoiled her speech by saying how intolerant she was of those who still had doubts about the European convention on human rights. I do not think that she can have it both ways.

I must tell the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that I am probably in danger of creating a sixth category--there is definitely a free vote for Conservative Members--because, as I have explained at length, I have reservations and I do not think that the Bill should be promoted in this way and at this time. I hope that that qualifies as a sixth category, which will make the hon. Gentleman even happier than he already seems to be.

As I have already said endless times, I have nothing against David Cairns. I am sure that he will become a Member of this House in the fullness of time and I look forward to welcoming him. I respect the part played by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) in facilitating such change. I hope that she equally respects the fact that those of us who are worried about the way the change is being made are not necessarily to be accused of favouring the kind of discrimination that she seeks to remove.

There are concerns about the procedure, and our debates have highlighted that. We could create the potential for a new House of Commons, which could be a House of bishops. That would be allowed under the law. It is perfectly possible that the Roman Catholic Church might change its own rules, so we could end up with a House of Catholic priests. It may be unlikely that such events will occur, but when one makes a small change to the constitution it is important to take into account the implications and consequences.

One of my main reservations throughout has been the lack of evidence, apart from the case of Mr. David Cairns, for making the change. The Home Affairs Committee made its recommendation, but it did not take evidence. It took a memorandum in favour from Professor Blackburn, but it did not question any witnesses or consider the implications and discuss them with other professors. Indeed, there was little further support for the change and it was not mentioned in the Labour party submission to the Committee. If the burning injustice that we have heard about really existed, we might have expected the Labour party to refer to it in evidence.

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The plain fact is that this case, which, I concede, is certainly a hard one, has not been canvassed particularly widely. It is not right to make what could be a significant change on the basis of so little evidence. I also happen to think that such changes should be made on the basis of extensive consideration and widespread consensus, possibly through a Speaker's Conference or a commission. A limited consultation took place and the Minister was kind enough suddenly to place the results in the Library today. However, the Committee was unable to read them to discover exactly what each Church has said. We have had only a couple of days to consider the matter and we have considered it in the wrong way.

Furthermore, it is a somewhat questionable principle to change electoral law on the basis of one particular case. I know that others disagree. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made the eloquent point from history that individual cases have helped to change law, but I am sceptical as to whether that should always be the case. I am also sceptical about making such a change just because of someone's election: the people have chosen, so we should facilitate his or her progress to the House simply because he or she is the candidate that they want--so runs the notion.

That principle could apply to a 20-year-old, for example. The Minister might one day tell the House, "This constituency has chosen someone who will be 21 in a few months. He will not be able to take his seat when he is elected, so there will be a court case and all the rest of it. We must change the law immediately to allow him to take his seat." The same could be argued on behalf of a Dutch citizen. A Dutch minister of some religion might be selected, stand and be elected. The Minister could make exactly the same argument that the law should be changed to accommodate a non-UK citizen simply because that person had been chosen by his constituency.

All I would say to the House is that such constitutional changes almost always turn out to have slightly more impact than we might have expected in respect of the example for which we have legislated. The Bill will help just one candidate, but it raises big questions about the future of the bishops in the other place and further questions about the way in which we should change electoral law. Such a change should not be rushed so late in the day, just before a general election, to help a particular candidate, however deserving he happens to be.

6.49 pm

Mr. Swayne: I did not speak on Second Reading, as I was serving on a Standing Committee so I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for affording me the opportunity to contribute. I know that the Minister wishes to respond, so I shall be as brief as possible.

I represent the fourth view to be expressed this evening. I follow the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan), who spoke eloquently, in holding the view that it is right and proper to take steps to alleviate the difficulty faced by David Cairns. My concern relates to what we have done to alleviate that difficulty. I entirely accept that David Cairns faced discrimination that was unjustifiable--unjustifiable because he was a Roman

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Catholic. At this point I can answer the question asked of me by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). He suggested in his speech that had I chosen a career as a clerk in holy orders and discovered half way through that career that it was not right for me, I would have been able thereafter to pursue any other career--

Mr. Fallon: It is a vocation.

Mr. Swayne: My hon. Friend is right, but other careers are careers, not vocations. My point is that, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I would have been able to pursue any career except one in the House of Commons.

In fact, that is not entirely true. In such circumstances I would have been able to come to the House, were I prepared to renounce holy orders. This is the problem in the case of Mr. Cairns: he is being discriminated against in the sense that he is not able, as a clergyman in the Church of England is able, simply to renounce his holy orders, thereby enabling himself to be elected to the House of Commons. It is entirely right that we have provided a remedy enabling his problem to be alleviated; however, our remedy will enable him to come here, but it will equally enable all who are currently practising clergymen in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England to do so as well.

As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, that is not a problem, because the Roman Catholic Church takes the view that its clergymen--its priests--should not sit in Parliament. The difficulty for me lies in the fact that clergymen of the established Church will, as a result of this measure, be able to come here and take a political stance. We have had the argument, and I think we must simply differ; but still, in my opinion, that is not compatible with the role of a priest.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal identified the historical reasons for excluding clergy of the Church of England, and intimated that those reasons were no longer valid. I accept that, but it strikes me that there are many good reasons--certainly one good reason--for maintaining the exclusion. I consider leadership, in the sense of the role of a priest in the Church of England, wholly incompatible with membership and political leadership in the House of Commons.

The Bill involves constitutional issues that we overlook at our peril. I believe that this should be an assembly for the laity: after all, the second estate has its representation elsewhere. In the past this place has had a more religious outlook, and that is not a happy history. I remind Members of the Parliament of Saints, and the Barebones Parliament; I remind them that we have allowed ourselves to be governed by prelates in the past, not least by Cardinal Wolsey. We have gone beyond that now, and we should remain beyond it.

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