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6.27 pm

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): I take the opportunity to speak in this debate because it is about fairness and tolerance. I remember that, many years ago, when I was at St. Mary's Catholic junior school in Jarrow, one of the highlights was when the Catholic missionary from Africa or elsewhere came to the classroom to inform us about his work with the poor. That gave us an insight into his vocation and into what seemed to be an idyllic existence, helping the poor in an exotic country. I also remember the tales told in school about the famous Father Rooney from Hebburn, a town in Jarrow. He was a great priest, a fund-raiser for the Catholic Church, who travelled widely and had many famous friends, such as the Kennedys and the Sinatras. He even had a racehorse named after him, such was his notoriety in the Catholic world for his good work.

Of course, as I grew older, reality sank in and I realised that the priesthood is not the glamorous life that it was portrayed to be when I was a young child. Very few people become a priest because it is such a hard life and such a difficult vocation. That is why those who make it, and those who stay in the priesthood, are such special people. Priests are great men because they have a vocation and a way of life that very few people can follow. Very few people embark on becoming a priest without serious thought. Once they are in the priesthood, they must make an important decision if they want to leave. Some young men get so far, fail and do not bother trying to be ordained. Some are ordained and then decide that they do not have the calling, so they drop out.

The question is whether those who decide, after they have been ordained, that they do not have the calling, should be discriminated against for the rest of their lives for their honesty. They are honest to themselves, to their God, to their community and to their congregation when they say, "I don't think this life is for me. I want to serve God in the community in a different vocation." Should they be classed as second-class citizens, and should they be discriminated against for the rest of their lives? Surely that is what the debate is about.

Mr. Key: Is not the greatest discrimination that the Roman Catholic Church refuses to ordain women?

Mr. Hepburn: I shall continue with the point that I was making. Any sort of intolerance or unfairness should not be tolerated by any society. It is not for me to

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comment on what the Catholic Church does internally. I am talking about what the state can do to try to create a fair environment in which people might prosper.

We know that the Bill is not entirely about Catholic discrimination, but it was the Catholic issue that caught my eye originally. We know that there are anomalies. Some members of the clergy are disqualified and some are not. Some priests can relinquish their ministry and become Members while others are unable to do so. Certain Christian priests are disqualified whereas ministers of other religious faiths, such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, are eligible. I merely point out the anomalies.

Is it right that a Catholic priest, who decides that he no longer wants to continue in that role and wishes to join society, to marry and to have a family, for example, because the vocation is not for him, cannot become a Member, whereas a practising Jewish rabbi or Muslim cleric can stand for Parliament and become an elected Member? It is obviously not right.

Ministers of the Church sit in the House. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made his point clearly. The example should be given again of Bruce Kent, a former Catholic priest. No matter what anyone thinks about him politically, his views were pinned to the mast. He is a CND supporter and a socialist. He has always seemed a loving and caring man to me. He stood for Labour at Oxford in 1992. If he had been successful, he would not have been able to become a Member. There seemed no reason for that.

The present position is nonsensical. It stems from some historical row that took place about 100 or 200 years ago, or 500 or 600 years ago when Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife. I do not care especially what the reason was. The unfairness should be challenged.

One valid concern is whether the passage of the Bill will result in the House being awash with clergy. However, that is a matter for the Churches and not for Parliament. If the Churches want people to stand for Parliament, that can be done.

We are in a new era of fairness, equality, caring and modernisation. We do not stand for discrimination in our modern society. That should not be tolerated on any basis, whether it be age, gender, disability or religion. What goes for Members should stand also for the monarchy.

When I was younger, there were young people alongside me who decided, "I might go for a calling and go into the priesthood." Some might have been successful and become missionaries, for example. Some might have become great priests doing a great job for local congregations in carrying out the work that suited them. Others may have tried. Some might have been ordained, only to decide that it was not for them. I would hate to see those people condemned for life because of religious discrimination that stems from centuries ago, which we as a responsible Parliament, made up of all parties, seem to be upholding.

6.34 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). He represents the area that was the home of the Venerable Bede. On this occasion, I find myself agreeing with him entirely. Perhaps that is dangerous.

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It is extraordinary that we are debating this issue as we enter the 21st century. It is an old hangover from old law and prejudices. There is a list of those people who are not allowed to stand in Parliament. They include, as we all know, undischarged bankrupts, offenders sentenced to more than one year in prison, persons convicted of corrupt practices at elections--they are disqualified for seven years--and those holding offices listed by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, which includes the class of people that we are now debating.

It includes also senior civil servants, judges, ambassadors and members of the regular armed forces. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) in his place. I had the pleasure to speak after he made his powerful maiden speech. The hon. Gentleman was in the armed forces. The list continues with members of the police force and paid members of the boards of nationalised industries. How few such board members are left? Also included are Government- appointed directors of commercial companies and directors of the Bank of England.

I will not name those who I think are disreputable and those who I believe are to be admired. However, it is astonishing that included in the list are practising clergy of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church of Ireland and former or practising priests of the Roman Catholic Church.

I would not wish to try to emulate or even compete with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in his historical knowledge, but I read some information that told me that in 1678 there was the second Test Act. It did not effectively prevent Roman Catholics from serving in Parliament, but it required them to make a declaration abjuring transubstantiation, worship of the Virgin Mary and the celebration of mass. In practice, that would bar all Roman Catholics, especially Roman Catholic priests, from serving in this place.

There might have been a problem at that time with dual loyalty. I usually agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and there might have been a dual loyalty between the Holy See and that of England. I am sure that now there would be no conflict of interest in, to use my right hon. Friend's word, a deity and the House of Commons. Most of us probably believe in a god of some sort, and I hope that most of us exercise our conscience from time to time. Conscience is often dictated by one's religious views, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Islam or whatever.

I was keen to speak in the debate because I believe that one of the greatest Prime Ministers that we ever had, certainly until the 1980s, was Benjamin Disraeli. He was baptised at an early age, but if that had not happened and if he had followed the religion of his antecedents--Benjamin Disraeli is considered generally as being Jewish--he would not have been able to be Prime Minister. I think that we all agree that that would have been wrong. It is equally wrong now to say that Roman Catholic priests should be barred from membership of the House.

Mr. Winnick: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about Disraeli. We all know the story of why he was baptised by his father. It arose from a dispute with the synagogue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that being the supreme opportunist that he was, even if Disraeli had not

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been baptised, he would have made sure, without the slightest hesitation, of becoming a Christian at the appropriate age so as to be able to come to this place?

Mr. Fabricant: It is not for me to try to imagine what Benjamin Disraeli might or might not have done. I do not think that he was an opportunist. He was a patriot. He recognised that in years to come there would be a party like the Labour party, which would seek to nationalise everything. He knew that he had to create the modern Conservative party--which he did, in effect. If that is called opportunism, I say "Hear, hear". I remind the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that new Labour tries to emulate today's Conservative party, especially that of the former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Let us not have no doubt whatever about that.

Although I do not object to the principle of the Bill, I object to the way in which it is being introduced today. As hon. Members have pointed out, the Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended in 1998 that such a Bill should be introduced in Parliament. The hon. Member for Walsall, North and I serve on that Committee, but I did not have the honour of doing so when it made that recommendation. One has to ask oneself why the Bill is being introduced now? I have to say that the answer is plain, simple opportunism, and is to do with the Labour candidate who is standing for Greenock and Inverclyde, who earlier fought for Ayr, where he was rightly rejected by the electorate.

Incidentally, I note that in The Independent, Mr. Cairns was reported as saying that he is "confident" that the law will be changed before the next general election. I wondered how he could be so confident? After all, for my party, the Bill is to do with one's conscience and there is a free vote on a one-line Whip. As I have argued, there are good reasons for introducing the Bill, although perhaps not at this point. I popped out of the Chamber when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was speaking and checked with an honest and honourable Labour Member--whose name I shall not divulge in the House, lest he be hanged, drawn and quartered--who showed me his Whip. I was amazed that, for the Government, this is a three-line Whip, not a matter of conscience. Mr. Cairns therefore has every right to say that he is confident that the law will be changed before the next election.

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