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Mr. Bercow: I am anxious to establish--although I think that it will gradually become clear--whether my right hon. Friend is objecting simply or primarily to the cack-handed manner in which the matter has been handled, or to the proposed change on principle. If the Government had not introduced the Bill with such haste and had got on, as we would both favour, with the
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend is inviting me to deliver my punch line before I have reached it. As I have such respect for him, I shall accede to his request. My view is simple: whoever is elected by our electoral process to represent a constituency is entirely a matter for the voters in that constituency. Whether people who are elected are acceptable to us is neither here nor there. Debarment by statute is probably wrong. History is important and we should be prepared to adjust our view appropriately, but not in this Bill, not now, and not in the piecemeal way in which we are being invited to consider the matter.
Although police officers and some others are debarred, I want there to be a minimum number of restrictions on people's eligibility to be elected to this place because it is for the voters to decide. By and large, people in this country get the politicians they deserve.
Mr. Stunell: Do I understand the right hon. Gentleman's approach correctly? Is he saying, "Make me good, but not yet"? Is not a little reform better than no reform? Is not a little movement better than no movement?
Mr. Forth: Absolutely not. Perhaps I should start my speech again because obviously I have not persuaded the hon. Gentleman of my case. I condemn the Government and their fellow travellers in the hon. Gentleman's party for doing what he has described and claiming it as a virtue. They introduce piecemeal, disconnected and ill-thought-out change for the sake of it. They usually call it modernisation and think that that will fool us, but it does not. My argument is that the Bill is wrong, ill-conceived and has been introduced at the wrong time. That is why I am unhappy with it.
I want to raise a more sensitive and delicate matter, even at the risk of offending some colleagues and people outside the House--I have, of course, never shrunk from that. I am concerned about possible conflicts of loyalty. My understanding of history does not begin to rival that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, so I am diffident about raising the issue. However, at the time of Henry VIII and the reformation, the question of to whom people in this country owed their primary loyalty must have arisen. Was it to our sovereign monarch and sovereign state, or to something or someone beyond, which at the time was the papacy? That issue is still alive. Indeed, it might be even more potent in our multi-faith society. Some people might believe that sections of our multi-faith, multi-cultural society have, in some circumstances, not only a divided loyalty, but a greater loyalty than that given to the Queen and the state.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): My right hon. Friend's point about Henry VIII is important. He was the first successful Eurosceptic, and he showed that a single Act of Parliament can remove the power of European courts. I understand my right hon. Friend's argument and agree entirely with what he is saying about where allegiance lies.
Mr. Forth: I hope that my right hon. Friend's excellent book, which he launched today in the Jubilee Room, will contain more on that matter. I am sure that we will all be much the better for reading it, although I have not managed to get around to it yet.
Mr. Winnick: The right hon. Gentleman referred to the status of Catholics at the time of the reformation. Is he suggesting that Catholics are not loyal to the United Kingdom or have a wider loyalty to an outside force?
Mr. Forth: No, that is a matter for Catholics. I am simply saying that we should not duck this issue. I confess that my understanding of the intricacies of the Catholic Church is limited, but I am making the more general point that it is possible that the total loyalty that someone has, by dint of their vocation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald called it, expressed in formal terms to a deity or moral authority could clash, in some circumstances, with the loyalty that we should all feel to our state and our monarch. That may manifest itself in many different ways, and it is directly relevant to the Bill because of the removal of the disqualification that we are now discussing.
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious charge, and a great deal of what he says seems to be based on innuendo. Will he give us an example of circumstances in which loyalties may be challenged?
Mr. Forth: I do not think that I was using innuendo at all; I thought that I was making the perfectly clear point that potential conflict exists and we should not duck that matter or skate over it. My difficulty with the Bill is that in the warm glow of consensuality that is becoming ever more popular in this place and in the body politic, we risk not squaring up to such issues and resolving them to our satisfaction before we move on. Surely, as a political institution, we are still sufficiently mature--although I sometimes wonder--to discuss these matters properly and deal with them or dispose of them before we move on to legislate. That is my point, and if it makes Labour Members uncomfortable, I am doing my job.
Mr. Stunell: I hesitate to provoke the right hon. Gentleman, but is he suggesting that there might be an occasion when the House would want to proscribe certain religions from putting forward candidates? That seems to be the direction in which his argument is going. If I understand him correctly, he is saying that although this measure might be good enough for Roman Catholics and other well-known denominations, there might be others that we have not yet invented which the House would want to prevent from offering candidates. Is that his thinking?
Mr. Forth: Yes, it is indeed. I have in mind the possibility of organisations that many hon. Members may find offensive, subversive, dangerous or threatening calling themselves a religious denomination for the purposes of the Bill and seeking to promote their members as politicians or Members of Parliament. We may have to think about that.
Mr. Stunell: We seem to be moving from a discussion about whether we should repeal legislation that restricts certain people to an argument that we should retain that legislation in case we want in future to restrict certain people who are not currently covered. I look forward with considerable interest to the right hon. Gentleman's amendments in Committee.
Mr. Forth: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to that. Let us hope that we have enough time in Committee to deal with all the matters in detail and at whatever length is necessary. However, that is the next debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and you would not want me to anticipate that, would you?
I have another simple query that I am sure the Minister will be able to answer. The heading of clause 2 is "Short title, commencement and extent", but I see no reference in the Bill to a commencement date. When does the Minister envisage that will be? Timing is an important consideration, and here we must pause for a moment and work backwards from when the Minister thinks the general election is likely to be. As the whole reason for the Bill is to allow one individual to be elected to this place, it is obviously essential, if the Bill is to fulfil its purpose, that it is enacted and commenced in time for the general election. We are therefore entitled to hear a bit more from the Minister about whether he believes there is sufficient time left properly to consider the Bill in all its stages in this House and in the Lords before Parliament is dissolved.
I ask because no date has yet been named for the remaining stages of the Bill, and I understand from the next item of business that the Government are to ask the House to deal with the matter in a Committee of the whole House. We have a short recess coming up, so I assume that the matter cannot and will not be dealt with until afterwards, which takes us to the end of February. That means that the Government will presume upon the House of Lords to deal with the Bill rapidly and peremptorily in time for it to be enacted so that the individual Labour candidate gets statutory cover for his candidature and can come to the House.
I shall be interested to see whether the Minister has any comment to make about that. It strikes me that, in their typically arrogant way, the Government are making a series of presumptions about the parliamentary process, both in this House and in another place. I think that those presumptions are unacceptable, but the Government have long since ceased to bother themselves with that. Perhaps as a result of the matters that I and other Members have raised, we will pay attention to the Bill in Committee and on Report, and the House of Lords will want to examine it closely. I hope then, at the very least, that the Government are presuming too much about the parliamentary process, and all their plans, ploys and plots to get one person elected by altering the law of the land may well not come to fruition. If that is the case, I will certainly shed no tears.