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House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment)

3.33 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): I beg to move,

The Bill would bring about a small and modest reform of Britain's electoral law. It would both modernise our constitution and reduce, albeit slightly, the power of the state. As such, it has the support of members of the three main parties, and I hope that it will enjoy that of the whole House--especially as it has no financial implications.

Why is the Bill necessary? The leading constitutional expert Professor Robert Blackburn has described this part of electoral law as

For an answer to the simple and reasonable question, "Can a priest stand for Parliament?", we need to examine nine separate Acts, stretching back to the 16th century. Indeed, when the Select Committee on Home Affairs examined the matter 18 months ago, even very experienced and knowledgeable members were surprised at the extent of the inconsistencies in the law as it currently stands.

I shall highlight the arbitrary nature of the present position. I must warn those people who are not aware of the position that it gets incredibly complicated. Some religious officials are disqualified, but others are not. Some priests can relinquish their ministry to become a Member of Parliament, but others are unable to do so. Only certain Christian priests are disqualified, whereas ministers of all other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, are all eligible. All episcopally ordained priests of the Anglican Church are disqualified, but not in Wales. All Roman Catholic priests are disqualified. Non-conformist clergy are not disqualified. Indeed, several Protestant clerics have served and continue to serve with distinction in the House.

It has taken a long line of statutory anachronisms since the middle ages to achieve that absurd position. That is why the legislation for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly rightly swept aside all such disqualifications.

The Bill will not make it compulsory, or, for that matter, desirable, for priests to stand for Parliament. I am sure many hon. Members will have their own views about that. My view is that it would be difficult for a parish minister to be too publicly identified with any one party. However, it is none of my business if he or she then wishes to stand for election, and it is clearly no business of the state to decide which variety of Christian minister is eligible and which not. That decision is best left to the Churches themselves. It should be up to them whether their clergy can stand. As it happens, the Church of England may agree and the Roman Catholic Church may disagree. My Bill would afford the Churches the autonomy to come to their own decisions. It is not the business of the state to allow one clerical variety, but not another.

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If anyone is thinking to themselves, not unreasonably, "If those people want to be Members of Parliament, can they not just give up the ministry and stand?", the answer is that some can, but others cannot. Anglican clergy are able to resign their orders and stand for Parliament thanks to the clergy disqualification Act of 1870, but that does not apply to Roman Catholic clergy. Even if a Catholic priest leaves the priesthood and ceases to work or function as a priest, he still cannot stand for Parliament; British law currently does not recognise the status of ex-Catholic priests. So, although civil servants and Anglican clergy can resign their post and stand for Parliament, former Catholic priests are legally disqualified for life.

Had Bruce Kent been elected in 1992, he would not have been allowed to take up his seat, even though he had left the priesthood and married some years earlier, because the law at present allows him to stand for Parliament, but not to take up his seat should he win. If people are properly selected by their party and win a valid mandate from the voters, it is simply undemocratic that our ancient law can prevent those elected members from taking their place in the House.

It is clear that we cannot continue to draw religious distinctions in eligibility for election to Parliament. We could be found in breach of the European convention on human rights if we continue to do so. I am advised that the present position is in breach of the convention, which has three separate provisions dealing with freedom of religion, prohibition of religious discrimination and free elections.

If the Government do not tidy up blatantly discriminatory measures in ancient law, doing so could take up both time and money in the courts after the Human Rights Act 1998 is implemented. If my Bill fails, the issue may prove to be the basis of the first legal action seeking a declaration of incompatibility in United Kingdom courts, brought by individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer a sense of grievance because of those measures. I very much hope that it does not come to that.

As I said, this issue of electoral law was investigated by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. In its report entitled "Electoral Law and Administration", which was published in 1998, the Committee said:

The one exception was bishops in the other place.

The Select Committee recognised the clear need for reform, as the House did when we framed the legislation establishing the Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in Wales, where no such discrimination applies. It is time that we ourselves left behind the arbitrary disqualifications from membership of this place imposed by current law.

Fundamentally, the rationale behind those antique statutes passed away a very long time ago, and those statutes have no place in the parliamentary electoral law of our multicultural society, with its community of religious faiths, as we prepare to enter the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

16 Jun 1999 : Column 395

Bill ordered to be brought in by Siobhain McDonagh, Mr. Ben Bradshaw, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Paul Goggins, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mrs. Joan Humble, Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Martin Linton, Mr. Robert Maclennan, Mr. Gordon Marsden, Ms Bridget Prentice and Mr. Bob Russell.

House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment)

Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented a Bill to allow persons ordained and ministers of any religious denomination to be Members of the House of Commons: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed [Bill 120].

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Orders of the Day

Immigration and Asylum Bill

[2nd Allotted Day]

As amended in the Special Standing Committee, further considered, pursuant to Order [15 June].

New Clause 2

Removal of asylum claimants under standing arrangements with member States

(a) a place where a person's life and liberty is not threatened by reason of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion; and
(b) a place from which a person will not be sent to another country otherwise than in accordance with the Refugee Convention.
(2) Nothing in section 6 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 (protection of claimants from deportation etc.) prevents a person who has made a claim for asylum ("the claimant") from being removed from the United Kingdom to a member State if--
(a) the Secretary of State has certified that--
(i) the member State has accepted that, under standing arrangements, it is the responsible State in relation to the claimant's claim for asylum; and
(ii) in his opinion, the claimant is not a national or citizen of the member State to which he is to be sent;
(b) the certificate has not been set aside on an appeal under section 51; and
(c) the time for giving notice of such an appeal has expired and no appeal is pending.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2)(c), an appeal is not to be regarded as pending if the Secretary of State has issued a certificate under section 58(2)(a) in relation to the allegation on which it is founded.
(4) "Standing arrangements" means arrangements in force as between member States for determining which state is responsible for considering applications for asylum.'.--[Mr. Straw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [15 June], That the clause be read a Second time.

3.42 pm

Question again proposed.

Madam Speaker: I remind the House that with this we are discussing the following: Government new clause 3--Removal of asylum claimants in other circumstances.

Government amendments Nos. 56 and 58 to 60.

The Home Secretary has the Floor.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): Last night, just before midnight, I began to deal with the points made in the debate by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members. As I had been on my feet for only about 30 seconds, it may be convenient for the House if I were to start again.

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The hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), and some of my hon. Friends, had asked why it had not been possible to table new clause 2 earlier in the Bill's passage. As the House will be aware, sometimes, with the best will in the world, policy issues cannot be settled when a Bill is published, but have to be settled later.

I should make it clear that there should have been no surprise that the Government have proposed the policy in new clause 2. First, we flagged up the issue in the White Paper, which was published at the end of July 1998. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, on 22 March, when I gave my oral evidence to the Special Standing Committee, I referred specifically to the matter dealt with in the new clause.

I refer the House to the Official Report of that Special Standing Committee sitting, where I was asked about operation of the Dublin convention. I said:

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