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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The Minister rightly says that no one should be disqualified from holding an office in the state, serving this Parliament or otherwise, simply because of his or her religion. Do the Government consider that that applies to the position of head of state?
Mr. O'Brien: There are always exceptions to every rule, and there are always exceptions relating to those who can stand for Parliament. The hon. Gentleman was not present earlier--I know where he was: no doubt he was working very hard on the Hunting Bill--but if he had been, he would have heard the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) list all the people who, for various reasons, were prevented from standing for Parliament. I certainly accept that in many instances there were justifiable reasons for restricting their candidature, but this is not such a case.
We listened carefully to the hon. Member for Belfast, South. He has the benefit of being ordained, and as an ordained person he illustrated the value of not shutting the doors, as he put it, on members of other religions who are also ordained.
I turn now to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which I always do with particular pleasure. He said that the Labour party in Greenock and Inverclyde had selected someone in breach of the law. As I have said, the law was unclear at the time, and the party cannot therefore be challenged on that basis.
The right hon. Gentleman seemed to question the loyalty of Catholics to this country. Catholics will be deeply offended by his comments. He says he does not care about that, and it is certainly his right to make such comments, but I think he will find that many conclude that some of the old prejudices are still rampant on the Conservative Back Benches. I suspect that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will have to watch her back.
Mr. Winnick: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but his questioning--it could only be described as such--of Catholic loyalty to this country, and having a wider loyalty, was surely unacceptable and, indeed, downright disgraceful.
Mr. O'Brien: I agree. The right hon. Gentleman always seeks to be provocative, and on this occasion he was indeed provocative. There is no justification for questioning the loyalty of Catholics to this country: many sacrifice their lives fighting for it and seeking to protect it. I am sure that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will feel that his comments were unjustified.
The right hon. Gentleman said that Catholic priests would not come here because the Church would not allow them to do so; but former priests will, I think. The Church of England is content for its clergy to be here if they choose to be so, but it is indeed the case that the Catholic Church does not allow practising priests to become MPs.
In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) asked why a priest who no longer acted as such should be banned from Parliament, while a rabbi, mullah or Methodist minister could be an MP. That, I think, sums up the Government's basic case.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked another question, which I forgot to mention earlier: he asked whether there would be enough time to deal with the Bill before the election. I can only say, "I hope so; I do not know; wait and see." He also asked for the commencement date of the legislation. It will come into force by Royal Assent, and an amendment will be tabled for that purpose at the Committee stage. He asked about the definition of "minister". It is in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978. I do not think that we have had any problems with that definition, and we are relying on it.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked whether a Church of England minister could be subject to instructions from a bishop. I thought the analogy with a civil servant's allegiance to a Government Minister was particularly spurious, but there is no evidence to suggest that a Church of England minister who became an MP would be suborned by a bishop, whether he belonged to the Church of England or the Church of Scotland.
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman does me less than justice. I was very clear about the different established position of the Anglican Church and its very special relationship with both Houses of Parliament. He has also not done justice to the question that I asked. Will he explain to the House what difference it will make to the role of the established Church if junior members of the priesthood of the established Church can be Members of Parliament, in the lower House, when the spiritual peers are in the upper House?
Mr. O'Brien: I can see no particular change that that would create in relation to the established Church. A bishop would not seek to suborn a Member of this place. That is just not going to happen, and it is an entirely spurious point. The right hon. Gentleman can accept that or not, but it is certainly my view.
Mr. Stuart Bell: May I echo the position that the Minister has just confirmed? It is totally impossible for the Church to suborn its bishops in the Lords and have them vote in a particular way. The idea that they could suborn a Member of Parliament is ridiculous.
Whatever justification there may or may not have been in the past, there can now be no reason to keep measures on the statute book that prevent ordained clergy, though they be few in number, from being elected to serve in this place. The Government are firmly of the view that Catholic priests should have similar status to Church of England clergy and that both should be able to present themselves to the electorate unless they have a voice in another place.
The Bill is a small but significant measure that will remove unfair and anachronistic legislation that prevents both serving and former ministers of religion from taking seats as Members of Parliament if they are elected. It deserves the support of all hon. Members and I commend it to the House.
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Committee of the whole House.
2. Proceedings in the Committee of the whole House shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Eight o'clock on the day on which those proceedings are commenced or, if that day is Thursday, at Five o'clock on that day.
3. Any proceedings on consideration, and proceedings on Third Reading, shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at Ten o'clock on that day or, if that day is Thursday, at Seven o'clock on that day.
4. Sessional Order B (Programming Committees) made by the House on 7th November 2000 shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House or on consideration and Third Reading.
5. Paragraphs (6) and (7) of Sessional Order A (varying and supplementing programme motions) made by the House on 7th November 2000 shall not apply to proceedings on any motion to vary or supplement this order for the purpose of allocating time to proceedings on consideration of any Lords amendments, or on any further messages from the Lords, and the question on any such motion shall be put forthwith.--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]
Mr. Bercow: I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), chose to move the motion formally because it is a matter of the greatest importance. We have just had a debate about the merits or demerits of the Bill itself, and now we proceed to the issue of its consideration and the time allotted thereto.
I am not remotely embarrassed by the fact that there were differences of opinion among Opposition Members about the Bill's merits, and I tell the Minister--who, in fairness, in a slightly light-hearted and good-natured fashion teased us about those "divisions"--that it is not surprising that there should be such differences. We are talking about an issue of conscience rather than one of party politics. Just because the new robots who permeate the Labour Benches all subscribe to the same view--because that is what they are told they have to do upon pain of the most dire consequences being visited upon them--it does not follow that Conservative Members operate on a similar basis. I am not at all embarrassed by the fact that there are genuine differences of opinion among Opposition Members about a matter that should not be party political.
The question that we have now to consider is whether the Government's proposed allocation of time for the Bill is adequate. The first point is that--on this occasion, as on so many previous occasions when we have debated a timetable motion--it is peculiarly difficult, if not impossible, to state with confidence whether the time will be adequate. One of the principal reasons why, at this stage, we can have no idea whether the proposed time will be adequate is that we do not know how or to what extent right hon. and hon. Members will seek to amend the Bill. Without knowing how many amendments there will be, how complicated their content will be, or how strongly held opinions on both sides of the House might be, it is absurd to speculate on whether there will be sufficient time to consider the issues.