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Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Does my hon. Friend agree that if someone has been ordained as a priest but, no matter how deeply held his views, feels unable to continue as a priest, the House and its Members have no right to prevent him from pursuing another career, if he wishes to do so?

Miss Widdecombe: Priesthood is a vocation, not a career.

Ms Ryan: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) says that this is a matter of vocation. The point is that it is not a matter for us, and it is a question of equal rights. However someone's career, occupation or vocation is defined, legislation should not prevent that person from entering the House.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As I understand it, the hon. Lady is arguing for the Bill on the basis of equal rights for different religions. Does she hold the same argument on the established Church of England? Would she argue for disestablishment?

Ms Ryan: I thought that I had made myself clear: I am arguing for the removal of the disqualification of clergy; I am not discussing the disestablishment of the Church of England.

There are no grounds for continuing to distinguish between the clergy of different religions in this matter. Whether or not ministers of any religious groups should be able to be elected to the House is a matter of choice for the electorate and the parties and religious groups involved, not a matter for legislation. This disqualification does not exist in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, local government or the European Parliament; those bodies have not had to consider a Bill such as this.

The relationship between the various Churches and the state has changed immeasurably since the first discriminatory measures were introduced, and it is now time to reform them. Reform must be based on equal rights for all citizens, be they ministers of religion, ex-ministers of religion or, indeed, not ministers at all. The playing field must be level. We cannot have legislation that lays down different rules for different religious organisations. That is a matter not for the House but for the organisations themselves.

The implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes these changes even more timely. Existing electoral law could be deemed to be a breach of the convention on human rights on several counts. Article 14 of the convention refers to religious discrimination; article 9 refers to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; and article 11 to freedom of assembly and association. Article 3 of the first protocol sets out the right to free elections. It is important that we act to remove clerical disabilities in relation to membership of the House before a situation arises where our human rights record is called into question.

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The Bill will help to clarify--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am being disrupted by chatter from both sides of the House. I wish it would cease. I want to listen to the hon. Lady.

Ms Ryan: The Bill will help to clarify the relationship between the state and religious groups in this area of electoral law, and will remove some of the complex arrangements for which the state has legislated that create inequality rather than ensure equal rights. Far from interfering in matters that should be left to the discretion of individual religious leaders, the Bill will enable exactly that to happen. It will reduce the influence of the state to some degree.

The Bill is a modest measure. There are many other issues that we should debate, many of which have been raised by Opposition Members from an sedentary position. However, the Bill can achieve an important reform of equal rights. I commend its Second Reading.

4.51 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): One of the delights of being a Member of Parliament is that we have the opportunity to explore rare legal and historical byways from time to time, and this is one of those occasions. Perhaps I should start by declaring that I do not have an interest. When volunteers were called for, I was a little slower than others in taking one pace backwards.

The topic is arcane in the extreme. As a nonconformist--as a Baptist and now a member of the Methodist church--I am not affected by the proposed exemption or legislation, unlike previous speakers who claim so to be. I believe not in the ordained priesthood but in the priesthood of all believers. It would create a problem for the Chamber if that belief were applied in the sense of the Privy Council's decision of 1951. I do not hold with bishops, and to save an intervention from a Conservative Member, it is my party's policy that the Church of England should be disestablished, as the Church in Wales and elsewhere has already been.

I approach the issue from a direction that is diagonally different from those who have already spoken.

Mr. Bercow: Even diametrically different.

Mr. Stunell: It might be diametrically different, but I think that it is more diagonally, and I chose my words carefully.

Fortunately, all Members are equal, although some are more equal than others. I suspect that the reality is that we all recognise that we are faced with legislation that has long outgrown any purpose or value that it had.

If we go back to 1801--we are repealing the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801, among other measures--legislation was introduced because a Church of England priest won an election for Old Sarum. That was when the issue arose. The 1801 legislation was

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the product of a specific electorial event to decide whether the Rev. Horne Tooke--a name to conjure with, if ever there was--should take his place in the House.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stunell: Why not? The opportunity to repeat that name is always to be welcomed.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, at that time, there was not an established party system, as there is now. Does he realise that when the 1801 Act took its place on the statute book, there would not have been a three-line Whip? Is he as surprised as I am that the issue before us, which is primarily one of conscience, is subject to a three-line Whip on the Government Benches, whereas on the official Opposition Benches it is subject to a one-line Whip?

Mr. Stunell: I may have a slight advantage over the hon. Gentleman in age and experience, so I am not at all surprised.

The Bill attempts to look back only 172 years, since when there has been mess, delay and dither on the issue. Fifty-one years ago, Rev. MacManaway--another name to conjure with--created yet another opportunity for the House to look seriously at the situation. There was much detailed thought, but the opportunity to take action and reform matters was thrown away. Three years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs had another go and made recommendations.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made some potent points about why on earth those matters were not considered in electoral legislation that has come before the House since then. However, the fact that opportunities have been missed in the past does not mean that we should fail to take them now. The Home Affairs Committee report stated that there is

One might have understood the position if Church of England clergy were not permitted to offer themselves for election to the House. After all, bishops have a route into the House of Lords. Extraordinarily, however, the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 permits them to relinquish and make their way into the House in certain circumstances. On the other hand, Roman Catholic priests, orthodox priests and Church of Scotland ministers who have no route into the House of Lords cannot seek relief or get excused. Retired orthodox priests cannot offer themselves, but imams, shamans and rabbis certainly can. Presbyterians in England are in a different position from those in Scotland, and retired Anglican vicars in Wales are in a different position from those in England.

The situation is a hotchpotch. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that, contrary to what the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, it is not the case that former Roman Catholic priests cannot offer

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themselves to the House. They can, if they have been defrocked. Defrocked priests can offer themselves, but those who have merely retired cannot.

Mr. Forth: They know what to do about that.

Mr. Stunell: The right hon. Gentleman would have to go through several stages if he wanted to enter the House via that route. However, that is a matter for him.

The House already has ordained Members--obviously not ordained by bishops, or they would not be here. However, I hope that provides some answer to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who asked whether it is appropriate to mix those two careers.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The hon. Gentleman confirmed the difference between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England. Church of Scotland ministers are not ordained by bishops; they are members of an established church. That is the issue.

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