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Needless to say, the Government do not envisage a queue of members of the clergy pressing to become Members of Parliament. In the case of serving ministers or priests, that should be a matter between the Churches and the individuals concerned. As I said earlier, it is for the individual to decide whether to stand and for the electorate to determine whether he or she should sit in this House.
The Government believe that there should be no bar in public law to prevent members of the clergy from becoming MPs. However, it will be for Churches and their clergy to consider whether a member of the clergy can carry out his or her pastoral responsibilities effectively and properly while also sitting as an MP. I understand, for example, that the Pope does not accept serving priests being active in public office or in party politics, so we are unlikely to see serving priests, who carry out the mass, standing as MPs.
Why not introduce legislation simply to put Catholic priests on a similar footing to Church of England clergy and allow them to divest themselves of their clerical responsibilities? There are two answers to that question. First, I would expect Parliament to consider carefully whether it has the right to legislate on matters of doctrine or discipline in the Catholic Church, even if indirectly.
My understanding is that the Catholic Church considers that once a priest has been ordained, he remains a priest all his life, even if he no longer practises as one. Section 9 of the 1829 Act is simply a hangover from the days when the participation of Roman Catholics in public life was rejected. Today, the House can opt to get rid of that
The second reason not to put Catholic priests on the same basis as Church of England clergy rests on a 1951 Privy Council case. In Re MacManaway, the Privy Council decided that the 1801 Act disqualified not only persons ordained in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but all persons ordained by a bishop in accordance with either the order of the Church of England or other forms of episcopal ordination. In the particular case of Rev. James G. MacManaway, that included ordination in the Church of Ireland. Thus, in broad terms, any clergy ordained by a bishop are subject to the disqualification whereas clergy and ministers of religion not ordained by a bishop are not subject to the disqualification. Current restrictions, therefore, go wider than Roman Catholic clergy.
Dr. Godman: I am exceedingly grateful to the Minister. Am I right to think that the Bill extends to the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament? I have no doubt that all Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament and the overwhelming majority of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly would support it, but can I take it that discussions have taken place with the Executives of those legislatures?
Mr. O'Brien: The Executives will be aware of the provisions, but my hon. Friend is wrong to suggest that they will apply to the Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament as they are already enacted in the devolution legislation. For example, there is no prohibition on a Roman Catholic priest becoming a Member of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.
Mr. Bercow: The Minister has fairly referred to the 1801 and 1829 Acts, but is he aware that it has been suggested by at least one eminent authority that to answer the question, "Can a priest sit in the House of Commons?", reference to no fewer than nine pieces of legislation dating back to the 16th century is required? I feel sure that the Minister is intimately familiar with each of the other seven and wonder whether he can enlighten the House.
Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to set out my great familiarity, of which I am sure he is well aware, with the other ancient and archaic pieces of legislation. Perhaps some are not so archaic; we shall have to wait and see. Parliamentary counsel have assured me that introducing a Bill referring to the 1801 and 1829 Acts will enable us to achieve the purpose that I hope the hon. Gentleman will endorse in due course. He nods; I am glad that he will do so.
There is always pressure on parliamentary time, and there are always many Bills that Ministers and others want the House to debate. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned seven earlier pieces of legislation, and at some stage Members may wish to raise issues relating to those. The question for us, however, is this: at what point do we need to deal with these matters?
It is true that the case of David Cairns is pressing. I do not dispute that he is seeking to stand as a Labour candidate, and others may try to take party political advantage of that; but, in all sincerity, I do not think that Members should wish to prejudice any member of any political party who wished to stand--they should ensure that no such person is blocked by an old piece of legislation. Indeed, I hope that no legislation would prevent someone wishing to stand as a Scottish National party candidate from at least being tested by the electorate. I suspect, however, that, once tested by the electorate, such a candidate would be rejected by the electorate.
Mr. McLoughlin: The Minister has clearly relaxed into his speech. He described the Bill as a tidying-up measure that is necessary in view of a general election which, as we well know, could take place in the next 14 months. Can he tell us--bearing in mind the competence of the Home Office, which we all admire--when he expects postal vote forms to be available so that people can exercise their votes?
Mr. O'Brien: I very much hope that they will be ready on 16 February. I am not sure how that relates to the Bill, but I am sure that David Cairns--if, indeed, he is able to stand for Parliament--will be pleased to hear about it.
The hon. Gentleman may well ask why, if we knew about this matter then, we did not include it in the Queen's Speech. At that stage, we were not sure how its provisions would operate. We are dealing with the interrelationship between the way in which Catholic Church canon law operates and the way in which legislation passed by this Parliament operates. One of the questions is, "At what point does a person cease to be a priest?" That person
As the hon. Gentleman will see if he consults section 9 of the 1829 Act, it appears to suggest that acceptance that a person has conducted a mass constitutes recognition that that person is a priest. That appears to be an on-going recognition--a recognition that the person continues to be a priest. The issue is not entirely clear, however. We cannot allow a situation whereby, if David Cairns stood and the people chose to elect him, an old piece of legislation which I suspect no one would seriously support--I should be surprised if anyone did, but let us wait and see--prevented him from taking his seat.
The case has presented us with a dilemma. We considered it until Christmas, by which time it was clear to me that we needed primary legislation. We therefore presented the Bill at the first opportunity.
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Should my hon. Friend not sound altogether more enthusiastic about the fact that priests and former priests are queueing up to stand as Labour candidates and support the Labour party? Is not the pique displayed by Conservative Members caused by the fact that although they used to pride themselves on being described as the Church of England at prayer, they have long since lost the support of all the Churches in the country?