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I am not enthusiastic about having a great many churchmen or churchwomen in this place. Moreover, I even go so far as to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald that, simply in terms of practicalities, it is difficult to see how a practising minister of religion can also find time to be an assiduous and effective Member of Parliament. That leads me to the final and most compelling argument in support of the Bill: public opinion. Just before I dilate on that point, I shall give way.
Ms Ryan: I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a sterling ally in trying to see the Bill through, but he has been speaking for some 38 minutes. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have played a part in the Bill's proceedings would like to contribute to the debate. When will the hon. Gentleman allow them the opportunity to do so?
Mr. Bercow: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I shall very shortly bring my remarks to a conclusion. I think that I have a good excuse for not knowing that all that many people on the Government Benches want to speak. On Second Reading, the House was not exactly replete with Labour Members wishing to contribute. However, the hon. Member for Enfield, North has played an important part in the Bill's proceedings, and of course she should have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, if she is able to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I conclude with the point about democracy, which, ultimately, is the kernel of the argument for the passage of the Bill through this House today. There are those who say "once a priest, always a priest"; they believe that the priestly vocation is incompatible with secular public service and, in particular, with the performance of parliamentary duties. I was about to say that I do not think that that is true. However, I am not sure that I know whether I think that that is true. As I said at the outset, I am not religiously motivated in these matters. I would not presume to compete with the religious commitment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald or with the extent of her knowledge of religion. I do not know whether they are compatible, but whatever my right hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who are opposed to the Bill think about the compatibility or otherwise of a religious ministry with a parliamentary career, they should not seek to foist those
If a churchman stands for Parliament, makes it clear that he intends still to practise his ministry and to combine it with parliamentary service, the voters can decide. If the voters think that the two vocations are incompatible on ethical or practical grounds, they have a very simple recourse--not to vote for, and perhaps even to vote against, such a candidate. The matter should be determined by public opinion.
The existing statutes of 1801 and 1829 are archaic, antediluvian and indefensible. It is time that they went. The Bill might be a relatively modest measure. Perhaps a more far-reaching Bill could, and should, be introduced at a later stage. However, even those Members who are not convinced that what is being offered is the full cake and who suspect that it might be only half a cake will, I hope, if they are hungry for change, prefer to eat a slice than to be deprived of any nutritional sustenance at all.
This is essentially a good Bill. It deserves to be passed, and the fact that it was not introduced before does not mean that today we should not take the opportunity to wish it godspeed and give it a Third Reading. That is what I want to do; it is what I intend to do when the House is divided, as it will be, and I hope that I will be joined by a number of right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House.
Dr. Godman: I promise to be brief. I will certainly not take as long as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), although his was a powerful and eloquent speech. I think, if I heard him aright, that he said that when we have the opportunity to do the right thing, we should take it. I agree.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the Bill's objective is to remove antiquated restrictions. In the eyes of many of my constituents, the Bill is concerned with the task that the House has undertaken for many years of dismantling the wall of discrimination against Catholics and many others.
The shadow Home Secretary speaks with great fervour and conviction. I am one who left her Church many years ago--long before she entered it, although there is no connection between the two facts--and I suspect that she deeply regrets the lack of compatibility between her Church's canon law and the civil legislation of the United Kingdom. The Catholic Church, while upholding
Institutional discrimination is being dismantled in the United Kingdom. We can see that at its clearest in Northern Ireland. I know many Catholics there, and I am chairman of my party's Northern Ireland committee. I have spoken to many members of the nationalist community who say that they have seen dramatic change in recent years in what the House of Commons has done about the discrimination that they had suffered for generations. Moderate Unionists would say the same.
We are dealing with a form of discrimination. I may be charged with being a Leninist in this matter, but I believe that the ends justify the means. We should put aside the points about an individual candidate and continue to dismantle all forms of discrimination. If we want to live in a tolerant society that honours, protects and promotes the needs and concerns of its minorities, we must persist with legislation such as this so that all groups--recent incomers to the United Kingdom, or whoever--can say, "Yes, this is a tolerant society, and I am proud to live in such a nation."
Mr. Gummer: This is an important Bill, and I am pleased that we are to pass it, because it is clear from the debates that we have had so far that is the will of the House of Commons. The Bill is important because it rids the statute book of an attitude to a section of the community--an attitude that was steeped in prejudice and discrimination. We have to remember why the disqualification exists. At the time of Catholic emancipation, the House of Commons could not rid itself of the fear of Catholic priests. It could just about imagine that Catholics should not be locked up, but it could not quite bring itself to think that Catholic priests could be treated like other human beings. So, in order to satisfy the most revanchist views, it excluded Catholic priests from public life. That was the effect and the intention. To reverse that position by passing the Bill must be a valuable step. For that reason alone, we should support its Third Reading.
It is not rational to argue that it is improper to give the Bill a Third Reading simply because it applies to the case of a Labour candidate in Scotland. It has always been true that individual cases make law. That is how law is often made. If one presents to the House of Commons a possibility or a for instance, the House often says, "Well, it may not arise. We have lots of other things to do. Why should we apply ourselves to that?"
It is only when a Bradlaugh comes and says, "I cannot take the oath in good conscience," that the House of Commons has to decide what to do about people who cannot take the oath in good conscience. It is only when someone such as Wilkes says, "You may not like me, but I have been elected," that change is made. Three times he had to say that before the House of Commons was prepared to let him in. It is only when a Lord Stansgate says, "I do not want to be Lord Stansgate any longer. I insist that my electorate has elected me," that we change the law. It is only when an individual says, "I am the case that proves that the change is necessary," that we can no longer say that the problem is merely hypothetical, and the House does its proper job and gets rid of legislation that is no longer appropriate.