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Mr. Mike O'Brien: We have had a good debate on the amendment. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made clear, elections to Parliament have been an issue on many occasions in the past. The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to two examples, one of which was obviously close to him because it concerned his father. From time to time, people have been sent from this House
There are 42 Church of England diocesan bishops, of whom 40 could qualify to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. At any one time, only 26 are summoned to be Lords Spiritual and those bishops will be disqualified from House of Commons membership because they already have a voice in the Lords.
The proposal is broadly in line with the Home Affairs Committee recommendation, but it goes slightly wider. Although we consider it extremely unlikely that bishops--whether or not they are Lords Spiritual--would wish to become MPs while performing the duties of a bishop, it seems right in principle to relate the disqualification to those who actually have a voice in the other place. We therefore consider it right to remove all statutory restrictions, thereby enabling anyone--save for those bishops who are Lords Spiritual--who so wishes to become a Member of Parliament if elected.
Mr. Fallon: I shall not pretend that the amendment has widespread support across the Chamber and I shall certainly reflect on what has been said. However, the Home Affairs Committee supported it, saying that all serving bishops should be excluded. The Minister described that as going slightly wide of what he intended, but the Home Affairs Committee agreed with me that no serving bishops should be in the House. It is important to put that on record, but in view of the fact that the amendment did not attract quite as much support as I had originally anticipated, I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.
'(1A) This Act shall come into force on the day after the general election for the Parliament after that in which it is passed, and shall apply only to persons elected to the House of Commons after that date.'.
I hope that I have better luck with this one, Mr. Lord. The purpose of the amendment is very simple. It is to delay the implementation of the Bill until after the election. Let me immediately put on record that I have nothing against Mr. David Cairns or his ambition to serve as a Member of Parliament. In the fullness of time, I hope to welcome him to the House. If he finds a safer seat than the one for which he has been selected, we will all be ready to welcome him.
I made the point on Second Reading--and the amendment gives it effect--that introducing the Bill in order to support a candidate discriminates against those who might have put their names forward for selection by either party during the years in which candidates were selected, but did not do so because they knew how the law stood. We would be discriminating against all those people if we changed the law to benefit one individual.
On a more general point, I do not think that we should change the law governing elections either to suit a particular candidate or in the weeks running up to a general election, or to do so without widespread cross-party support. That is why in the old days, when these things were done properly, we had Speaker's Conferences where such matters could be discussed between the parties and then put on the statute book, so that at the beginning of the next Parliament everyone would be absolutely clear about where they stood.
Mr. Bercow: I put it to my hon. Friend and to the House that his argument is certainly unsustainable and possibly disingenuous because it would have been perfectly open to other individuals, knowing the law as it stood, to put themselves forward as prospective parliamentary candidates, to be selected as such and then to seek by democratic pressure to change the law. The fact that none of them apparently did so is really not a good reason to fail to do the right thing now.
Mr. Fallon: We could not know whether other candidates wanted to take advantage of a change in the law. To his credit, from the outset the Minister has been honest about the fact that the Bill has been introduced simply to facilitate the candidature of one individual. I think that it is bad law to legislate simply to assist one person. Perhaps it should have been a personal Act--we do not get many of those.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: The measure would come into effect the day after the general election, so deals only with Members being able to take up their seats. It would have no practical effect on an individual case. The law prevents people not from standing, but from taking up their seat. What is the point of the amendment?
Miss Widdecombe: On a point of order, Mr. Lord. Can you explain what just happened? A number of hon. Members shouted "Aye" when you put the Question on amendment No. 11, but we did not have a Division. This is for my guidance only; I would not dream of challenging you.
In commending the Bill to the House, I should say that I am grateful for the very constructive way in which it has been considered. I am also grateful for the strong support that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has given the Bill and for other Opposition Members' support for the principles behind it. I also express my gratitude to my hon. Friends, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She has been trying to bring the issue before the House for some time and to convince me that it is right to change the law, and I agree with her.
We have had a good discussion on some issues. The Bill was introduced because of the particular injustice that might have been done to an individual. However, there have been injustices in the past. Had we allowed this injustice to take place, it would have affected not just the
The debate has shown that there are still strong feelings on religious issues in this place, and it is right that we discuss them. The main Churches in this country have been consulted. They agree that the restrictions are no longer required--if they ever were--and that they can be removed. The Government share that view. It would be absurd if Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups, including most nonconformist denominations, were able to become Members of the House, but that serving and former ministers of religion of some faiths were not allowed to do so. That is a particular hardship for people who are religious but who, as in the case of Mr. David Cairns, no longer wish to practise as a priest. The existing law hits those people hard, for they are not free to exchange one way of being in service to the public for another. It cannot be right that a former priest is denied the right to sit as a Member of Parliament solely on the grounds of his former calling.
As I said on Second Reading, I do not consider that there is likely to be a long queue of clergy pressing to become Members of Parliament. That will be a matter for Churches and individuals to consider, but I believe that it is for the individuals and for their constituents to consider, not for the House of Commons to dictate to the Churches involved. The Catholic Church does not consider that practising Catholic priests ought to be Members of Parliament, but I think it right that the House sends a message that, if the Catholic Church were to change its mind, no law of the state would prohibit a Catholic priest from sitting as a Member.
This small, but none the less somewhat controversial Bill--at least with some right hon. and hon. Members--will remove what I regard as an archaic restriction that has been in force for 200 years. A potential injustice will be avoided thereby. The repeal of existing legislation is timely and I hope that the House will give the Bill its wholehearted support.