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Miss Widdecombe: I am not surprised, but I am disappointed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on knowing more than the Minister, who had not a clue about what his usual channels were proposing with regard to a free vote.
I am disappointed because traditionally in this House, Church matters have been subject to a free vote. I remember the very lively debate on the ordination of women as priests. That was subject to a free vote. Other debates, perhaps less lively, on the ordination of divorced persons as clergy and several other Church issues have been subject to a free vote. I am not surprised, because this is a very dictatorial Government, but I am disappointed.
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Before the right hon. Lady moves on from her very interesting point about suffragan bishops, does she seriously believe that the Church of England would appoint a suffragan bishop who was a full-time Member of this House to a diocesan bishopric? If not--as is almost certainly the case--that bishop would have no chance of becoming a Member of the other place anyway.
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman has a great deal more faith than I do in what the Church of England might or might not do. I have no idea whether it would make such an appointment, but our duty is not to second guess the judgments of others; it is to try to establish a coherent set of rules that will cause as few problems as possible.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): May I suggest to the right hon. Lady that one of the differences between a whipped vote on this issue and free votes on the other issues that she cites is that, on those issues, we were receiving measures from the Church of England for consideration? We were not initiating those measures. On such occasions, we usually have a free vote. May I also suggest that, if we were to have a free vote on this matter, it would make no difference to Labour support for the measure?
Miss Widdecombe: I usually have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman. I was expecting an extremely difficult intervention from him, but that piece of sophistry is rather disappointing. He suggests that if Church business is initiated by the Government, conscience does not come into play and a three-line Whip can be imposed, whereas if the measure originates from the Church, the matter is entirely different. That is a piece of reasoning to which the right hon. Gentleman would normally award delta double minus if he were in his usual form.
Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman is not in his usual form, so I ask him to sit still for a bit and regain it. Perhaps later on, when he has thought about the ludicrous proposition that he has just made, I might be happy to take a further intervention.
As to the right hon. Gentleman's second point--that a free vote would make no difference--if we applied that logic to issues of conscience, we would be whipped on some that were extremely serious, and he would be the first to decry the practice. We know why the measure is being whipped: because this constitutional business is not being undertaken on its own merits, but for a particular Labour candidate in a particular constituency.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): The right hon. Lady is certainly in excellent form; I congratulate her on that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made the point that synodical and Government legislation are dealt with differently. The right hon. Lady is right to point out that we could have a vote of conscience on Government legislation. However, is she really telling the House that a slight change in our electoral law to permit clergy, or others, to stand for Parliament is a matter of conscience?
Mr. Bell: The right hon. Gentleman intervenes more often from a sedentary position than he ever does standing up. He knows full well that the measure has nothing to do with an individual parliamentary candidate; it meets a long-standing Labour obligation to rectify the constitution and rid it of a small anomaly.
Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman renders beautifully to Caesar, but he is not wholly convincing. The change is not small; it is major. I do not say that just because a provision has been on the statute book for a long time, it can never be overturned, but the measure overturns a long-standing law. It is not a slight change; it is one that will mean a great deal to many people.
My right hon. Friend refers to timing. Although the Bill might well favour Mr. David Cairns, does she agree that, as it is being introduced so late in this Parliament, it also discriminates against people who might have wanted to pursue a parliamentary route but who did not offer themselves for selection by either party? Such measures should be introduced on an all-party basis at the beginning of a Parliament, rather than at its tail end.
Miss Widdecombe: I am extremely sympathetic to my hon. Friend's point--in other circumstances, the Minister would be sympathetic too. It is undeniable that, during the course of this Parliament, opportunities have arisen for the introduction of the measure at a stage when more than one particular candidate could have benefited. However, the point is theoretical; we shall never know whether there would have been other candidates. For the reasons that I outlined, I hope not. We will never know whether others--perhaps from other parties or, perhaps, from the Labour party--might have benefited from the measure, but we know that the opportunities were there.
Indeed, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) reminded the Government about the matter when she introduced the House of Commons Disqualification (Amendment) Bill under the ten-minute rule in June 1999, before both the Acts to which I refer were even published. So despite the fact that there has been a Select Committee report, a ten-minute Bill and two Acts, the Government did not think it worth while to introduce this very important measure until a particular prospective parliamentary Labour candidate needed to take advantage of it.
The Minister's determination to introduce what he ignored for four years is now so great that there is a three-line Whip and a rushed Bill has been introduced right at the end of this Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) has said, the Bill will probably benefit only one person. I agree that if such a measure has to be introduced, it should be done on an all-party basis either at the beginning of a Parliament or at the end of a Parliament, but to take effect after the next one, rather than being done only to ensure that an individual--however worthy he may or may not be--can stand for election.
Although my views on such matters differ from those of many other hon. Members, I recognise that an anomaly exists and that there is a case to be made, but it is being made in entirely the wrong context and in too rushed and too cursory a fashion. Therefore, I am afraid that I shall not be able to support the Bill. That is not a party position; Conservative Members, unlike Labour Members, are perfectly free to take their own line, but I find intriguing the possibility of a priest in holy orders--which demand poverty, chastity and obedience--functioning in the House, but strange things happen.
Mr. Forth: I may wish to develop this theme if I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend mentions obedience. In this context, would she care to elaborate on obedience to whom? Is not it perfectly possible that if the Bill were unfortunately passed and an ordained priest were duly elected, there could be a very serious and real conflict of loyalty between obedience to the Caesars of the House and perhaps to other authorities elsewhere?
Miss Widdecombe: Clashes between God and Caesar are not unknown to those of us who take such matters seriously. I think that my right hon. Friend was hinting at the fact--we shall probably hear a lot later--that he believes that people of my persuasion are somehow dominated by some interesting European power, rather than by the monarch and Parliament. That is not so. I find intriguing the possibility that a priest with those vows should function here, but strange things happen. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that issues of Church and state are being determined by the self-interest of an obscure prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour party in Greenock and Inverclyde.