Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stunell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his informed intervention.

I want to make the general point that it is unusual to hear Conservative Front-Bench Members make the case that those who come into the House should have only one job. It is very much the norm for Conservative Members to have two jobs in Opposition; when challenged, they always claim that that brings advantages to the House. I wonder whether the work load and demands involved in being a Queen's Counsel differ greatly from those of a priest. Certainly, the profession is better paid, but the work load and demands are not very different.

I want to put it clearly on the record that Liberal Democrat Members certainly want an end to the anomalies that the existing legislation creates. We want to end the outdated religious discrimination that underlies it, and the Bill delivers that, albeit late in the day. It is, in principle, right, and we shall support it on Second Reading.

Mr. Bercow: Earlier, I made the point that, for Conservative Members, this is a free vote. I asked whether it was for Government Members and, eventually, it became clear that it was not. Is it a free vote for free-thinking Liberal Democrat Members?

Mr. Stunell: I was about to say that for the Liberal Democrats, every vote is a free vote.

The question that the Government have not answered, and which they must answer, is whether the measure is at the top of their list of priority reforms for this Parliament. I remind the Minister that the second stage of Lords reform, the introduction of legislation for the devolution of regions in England and a referendum on proportional representation are outstanding. Those all appeared in the Labour manifesto, but the removal of clergy disqualification certainly did not.

There must be more than a suspicion that, whereas progress on those matters has been slow because the Government fear the loss of influence and of power, the Bill has been accelerated because it is in the interests of their candidate in Greenock and Inverclyde. It is a pity that such a modest and long overdue reform is tainted

6 Feb 2001 : Column 823

with Government self-interest. It would be nice, just for once, to see reform that was exactly that--reform--rather than it turning out to be expedience dressed up as virtue.

I seek an assurance from the Minister. Should the unthinkable happen and the Bill not make progress in this parliamentary Session, would he still see it as an urgent priority in the next Parliament, when his party's pressing need for it will have evaporated? The test of reformers is that they are ready to reform, even when it is not solely in their own interest.

We wish the Bill well; it is long overdue. The pity is that it is tarnished by its cynical timing and its opportunistic intentions.

5.1 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who said that, as the provision has been on the statute book since 1801, we have dithered in removing it. That is probably true, although it sits ill with the view that the Bill is being rushed through Parliament for the benefit of a particular prospective parliamentary candidate.

I was interested in the intervention of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who makes some fine interventions on the Floor of the House. He said that in 1801, we did not have the party system. At that time, there was the Napoleonic throne and William Pitt was Prime Minister. Macaulay stated in his "History of England" that the system of parties began in 1843. As this is a wide-ranging debate, I throw in that insignificant and irrelevant piece of information.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Bell: I await the Exocet missile that will come from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).

Mr. Bercow: Not at all. It is always a pleasure to joust, in the friendliest way, with the hon. Gentleman. My question is simple. Why was the measure non-urgent after 197 years of the anomaly, and why has it become spectacularly urgent after 200 years?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful for that intervention, to which I am able to respond. I imagine that the reason behind the Government's thinking, to which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred, was that the legislation has the support of the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and Ireland. That being the case, the legislation is appropriate for the statute book.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is right. As I said, a private Member's Bill was introduced. The Government did not support it at that stage because we wanted to consult the Churches. We have now consulted them and they have indicated their support. Moreover, a particular case has presented itself and, if we did not change the law now, someone whom the people might wish to elect would be prevented from standing.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and for referring to the case of a particular

6 Feb 2001 : Column 824

individual. As the House likes its history lessons, we can go back to the case of Charles Bradlaugh, who was regularly elected and would not swear the oath on the Bible, but wished to affirm and could not do so. It was many years before that anomaly was removed from the statute book.

I speak as the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The Church of England welcomes the Government's intention to legislate to remove the disqualification, except in the case of Lords Spiritual.

The Bill responds to a long-standing wish of the General Synod and of other Churches. We have had some debate on whether bishops who are not yet Lords Spiritual should be permitted to become Members of the House, and it has been asked whether such a practice will cause a great number of by-elections. I am reminded of a Dean Inge phrase that was liked by Winston Churchill:

Some of the scenarios about which hon. Members have heard today are not likely to happen during most of our parliamentary lives.

However, questions have been asked about Lords Spiritual and I know that the Church of England has expressed concern about factual language and draftsmanship points. Most of those concerns relate to paragraph 8 of the explanatory notes on the Bill. The Church of England is considering the matter with the aid of our legal adviser and we are seeking to iron out rucks in the Bill--a process that will, of course, improve it.

I do not wish to detain the House--

Mr. Bercow: Go on.

Mr. Bell: Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's encouragement, I shall conclude my remarks. The Church of England supports the Bill and wishes it well on Second Reading and in Committee. We hope that it will be safely launched on to the statute book.

5.6 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I shall vote tonight on the ecclesiastical issues that are raised by the Bill, rather than on the party political ones. As a matter of principle, I shall delight in voting against the guillotine that the Government are imposing.

I do not oppose the Bill. We are assured that the Church of England and other Churches were consulted and are content. I should like to declare an interest, as my late father was a Lord Spiritual, or, more technically, a Lord of Parliament--as opposed to a life peer--during his tenure of the See of Truro. A short while ago, during the passage of other legislation, hon. Members discussed the interesting question whether the time had come for them to record in the Register of Members' Interests their religion and denomination. That is an intriguing possibility, as such a practice would clear the air in relation not only to the matters under discussion, but to similar ones.

The Government are seeking to change the law for the worst possible reasons. The Under-Secretary just managed not to say that the history of the measure started in 1997, but we almost heard him make such a remark. He did not go far back in time, but I shall go much further in deploying my arguments. The introduction of the Bill is

6 Feb 2001 : Column 825

in the interests of the Labour party and of one man who wants to stand as a Labour parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming election. I do not know Mr. David Cairns and I hold nothing against him personally. I merely point out that, when the previous Government changed the law a few years ago in the interests of one of our colleagues, that person was ejected by his electors at the ensuing general election in 1997.

I understand that Mr. Cairns served as a Roman Catholic priest. Thus, unlike Church of England priests, he cannot draw up a certificate of relinquishment under the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870. Such a certificate would ensure that he relinquished not his holy orders, but the exercise of them. The Under-Secretary will wish that he had remembered that point. It is not that priests stop being ministers under the 1870 Act, but merely that they relinquish the exercise of their holy orders. As a Roman Catholic, Mr. Cairns has had to obey the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law 1983. Paragraph 3 of canon 285 of that code forbids clerics from assuming public office whenever it means sharing in the exercise of civil power. That is what the Roman Catholic Church says.

However, the Government are today inviting us to repeal the whole of the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and parts of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870, the Welsh Church Act 1914, the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and the Representation of the People Act 1983. We are tinkering, but on a grand scale, and we must pause to remind ourselves why we are doing so. I say "we" not only as a communicant and practising member of the Church of England, but as a Member of Parliament, which itself has been interwoven for hundreds of years with the Church in England.

The Bill is part of a process of removing civil disabilities on the ground of religion that goes back at least to the 1780s and attempts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts. Those attempts concerned the emancipation of Roman Catholics, notably the 5.5 million Roman Catholics in Ireland who came within the jurisdiction of Parliament in 1800 and 1801. That pattern of reformation continued as the Church of England functioned throughout the 18th and early 19th century as the religious embodiment of the state. Church and state belonged to each other, and the Church was expected to embody and express the religious aspirations of our nation. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and the Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 brought an end to the absolute primacy of the English Church. I stress that it is not only the Church of England but the English Church.

I want to acknowledge the help that I received in sharpening my ecclesiastical history from the staff of Sarum college in my constituency and especially the Very Rev. John Moses, the Dean of St. Paul's. I commend his excellent book "A Broad and Living Way" to those who wish to get more involved in that esoteric subject.

How relevant is the subject to the House? Some of my hon. Friends have said that the Bill has been introduced because it is expedient for the Government before a general election, that not many people are interested in it, and that it has a low priority. I have tried to ascertain the Bill's relevance and the state of belief in this country.

6 Feb 2001 : Column 826

The 17th report of "British Social Attitudes" was published last year. The table for church membership in Britain shows that 46 per cent. of the population declare that they are Christian; 10 per cent. declare that they are of another religion, and 44 per cent. claim to be of no religion. Those statistics are interesting because the trendy talk nowadays suggests that religion is for a tiny minority. The table for church attendance shows that 45 per cent. of the people of this country claim that they go to church, although 13 per cent. say that they go once a week. A little more than 54 per cent. say that they never go to church.

Do people believe in God? According to the report, 77 per cent. of the people who were polled in 1998 said that they did. Forty-eight per cent. said that they believed in God now and that they always had. Only 13 per cent. said that they did not believe in God now and never had. Again, those statistics are interesting for the doubters.

The Bill may be perceived as unfinished business and further ad-hocery. However, it is characteristic of the way in which the Churches have reformed throughout the years. In the 19th century, the process of disengaging Church and state was piecemeal and pragmatic, like the Bill. The establishment principle was qualified but not abandoned. It should not be abandoned in the 21st century.

For 200 years, the British Government have sought religious neutrality for our state. I shall cite some examples: the removal of restrictions on ground of religion for election to Parliament and public office; the abolition of the powers of church courts; the abolition of compulsory Church rates; the secularisation of the ancient universities; the introduction of civil marriages; the provision of public burial grounds and municipal cemeteries; and the establishment of civil parishes.

Another interesting move was made in the Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. The redoubtable Enoch Powell spoke passionately in the debate. On the comprehensive nature of the Church of England, he said:

Section 6 of the Measure states:

In other words, we must go back a very long time--way beyond 1921 or even 1801--when we are asked to revise these issues.

In spite of all that, because the Church of England is the English Church, and because of the nature of the reformation settlement and the responsibilities attached to establishment--which the Church of England should trumpet with much greater confidence--the Church of England has an outreach throughout the land unequalled by any other religion, Church or sect.

The Bishop of Durham said in a debate on the Wakeham report in the House of Lords:

6 Feb 2001 : Column 827

The English Church has, therefore, no cause to feel threatened by the Bill. It should, however, wake up and remember why it is the Church "by law established".

Next Section

IndexHome Page