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Nevertheless, David Cairns is standing for election. Why have the Government left the matter for so long? I do not expect that the Government in power acted a year later on the second Test Act of 1678. However, given that the Home Affairs Committee reported on the need for change more than two years ago, it seems that the Government are motivated to make a change by introducing the Bill now to enable David Cairns to stand for the constituency of Greenock and Inverclyde and, they hope, to be elected.
That is wrong and it is equally wrong, as I said earlier, that the Government have subjected the Bill to a three-line Whip. That breaks a sort of understanding in the House that, on matters of conscience--no matter what hon. Members have said, this is a matter of conscience--there should not be a three-line party Whip. I am rather pleased that members of my own Front Bench have demonstrated that principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has yet to make his speech, but he has said already, as I have, that he supports the general principle of the Bill. However, I know that our right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald is not keen on the Bill for good reasons of religion and conscience. I do not agree with her, but she is free to oppose the Bill because Conservative Members believe that matters of conscience should remain so and should not be a question of party political opportunism.
Is the Minister aware of any Labour Members who oppose the Bill on the ground of conscience? Will they be allowed to vote against i,t or will the full might of the Government Whip be thrown at them, which, in the shape of the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), would be a very frightening prospect indeed? [Interruption.]
Mr. Bercow: I am truly horrified by what has just been uttered by a Member from a sedentary position. Did my hon. Friend overhear the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)--who, unless I am mistaken, is a lifelong and inveterate opponent of the death penalty--advocating the death penalty for any Labour Member foolish or brave enough to vote against the Bill?
In conclusion, the Bill is overdue in the macro- chronology of events. It should have been introduced in the House two and a half years ago and should have been voted on according to conscience. I will support the Bill if it is put to the vote, but what would have been a renowned Bill, which would have been respected in the House, has been degraded by the Government, who have acted opportunistically, for party political ends, in their embittered fight against the Scottish National party in Scotland. For that reason alone, the Bill, as it appears before the House today, is to be deplored.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I rise in response to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who argued that this is a case of allegiance. While I rush to give him historical illustrations, what I mean by saying that this is a matter of allegiance is very different from what it would have meant in the 16th century when these debates were initiated. I do not believe that, in the modern world, the problem case is that of the Catholic priest. Paradoxically, it is that of the Anglican.
If we look at the list of disqualifications, we see that civil servants have been disqualified from membership of the House. I believe that even the present Government intend to continue that disqualification. That is sound: the argument runs that the prime loyalty of a civil servant is to the Department, the service in general and to a particular Minister who may be either in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. He may also be loyal and responsible to one Minister in the other place and another in the House of Commons. It is therefore thought inappropriate, if not impossible, for someone to stand for election, to continue that prime loyalty to an individual Minister through the civil service and, at the same time, to do the job of a Member of Parliament, exposing the pros and cons of Ministers and subjecting the Executive to the necessary scrutiny and examination. That decision is right.
One problem in the case of the Anglican priest is that we still have an established Anglican Church. Ultimately, the Anglican priest reports to, or is responsible to, a peer in the other place. There is some similarity or analogy between the argument about the prime loyalty and allegiance of the civil servant to the Minister and the argument that the prime loyalty and allegiance of the full-time, employed priest, through those to whom he reports, is to the bishop who is sitting in the other place.
There could be a complication, were the practising Anglican priest to secure election to the House. If his career as a priest also flourished and he was invited to become a Lord Spiritual--the ultimate honour in the Anglican Church--he would immediately have to vacate his seat in this House or be faced with a difficult and painful choice. The problem arises both for the individual and for the House as a result of the fact that the Church is still established.
I am in favour of the Church remaining established. Perhaps the Government intend to introduce legislation to disestablish the Church, in which case the Bill would be more consistent and would make more sense, but the
Mr. Stunell: I have been following the right hon. Gentleman's line of thought carefully. Does he think that we should pass legislation to forbid the sons of the remaining hereditary peers to stand for election to the House, on the ground that one day there might be a by-election?
The Bill deals with a far more important set of cases. I hope that when the Minister responds he will try to answer my dilemma. I broadly welcome freedom. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and other colleagues, I want to open up access to the House as widely as possible. I am a democrat. I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to come forward. I certainly do not wish to penalise anyone for having a faith other than my own.
There are elements of the Bill that I therefore find attractive, but I am worried by the general conundrum concerning the role of an established Church. It used to mean a great deal. The relationship between Church and state has been carefully thought through and worked out.
If the Minister wants to win over someone like me to his cause, I hope that he will explain how it is possible for us to continue--rightly, in my view--with a disqualification for a civil servant who reports to a Minister and could otherwise get into a conflict of interest, but not to have similar worries about an Anglican priest who reports to a Lord Spiritual and bears allegiance to the established Church of the country, which is still carefully interwoven with our partly written and venerable constitution. I hope that that point will be cleared up.
I hope, also, that the Minister will say more about the timing of the legislation. I was disturbed by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who believes strongly that the Bill is a rush job, with a particular candidate and a particular election in mind. Good law is not made out of hard cases. These matters need considering in the general and in the round, and the relevant legislation should be put through when it is not particularly contentious.
If it is the Government's plan to rush the legislation through before the election for electoral purposes, we can discover that if the Minister will give us an honest answer about the timing of the Bill's coming into force. I would be more swayed if he promised me that the legislation would not come into force in time for the likely general election in April or May this year. We would then know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield had, uncharacteristically, been too sceptical about the Government, and that they had no intention of legislating for hard cases in the run-up to an election.