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Mr. Forth: I declare my personal position, because it is important in such a debate that everyone knows where we are coming from. I am not a member of any Church or faith. In that respect only, I probably represent in my modest way more people in this country than most of

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those who have spoken or who are likely to speak. I can therefore claim to come to the issue from a genuinely impartial point of view. I have no involvement with faith, Church or religion, so I consider the issue from that perspective.

In principle, I support the thrust of the Bill. On this point, I share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). It is a matter for the voters only to judge who should come to this place. However, to elaborate on what he said--I hesitate to say that I am correcting him--the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 contains a list of the people who are disqualified from election to the House of Commons. They include senior civil servants, judges, ambassadors, members of the forces and the police, paid members of the boards of nationalised industries--it is a pity that there are any left--Government-appointed directors of commercial companies, of whom there certainly should be none, and directors of the Bank of England: bless their cotton socks.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Has my right hon. Friend noted that those posts are all connected in that they are, in some sense, offices of profit under the Crown? The difficulty with this Bill is that it deals with a residual issue whereby Roman Catholics were specifically excluded. Will he consider the fact that other disqualifications apply to Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects? However, they are not dealt with by this Bill because it applies to a particular person in particular circumstances. That is what I object to in the Bill.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend because I was going to say, in parenthesis, that I will not support the Bill unless the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) and myself is accepted. I will not support a Bill that has been introduced at this stage to benefit one individual in a very political fashion, but that is a matter for subsequent debates and perhaps for Third Reading. However, I share my right hon. Friend's view.

2.15 pm

I would support any measure that sought to remove an artificial, arbitrary, historic, traditional or any other kind of discrimination against the members of any Church or faith. Because I see all Churches or faiths in exactly the same way, I see no reason to discriminate. I understand the ramifications of any change for the established Church and the monarchy, and they will have to be resolved properly--not with such indecent haste. My support for the measure in principle is unshakeable but, unless we amend the timetable, I will regrettably be unable to support the Bill in its present form.

My amendment No. 12 may be unique. It is certainly very rare in that it exhibits what I would normally describe as political correctness. When I examined the Bill, a doubt entered my mind as to whether the use of the words "minister", "religious denomination" and "ordained" would necessarily cover all Churches and all faiths. I wish I heard less of it, but I hear endlessly about how we are now a multicultural society and that all faiths are equal and welcome. To the extent that that is the case, such a Bill should cover beyond doubt with equal validity

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all the people who may be affected. That covers the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made, but in a slightly different way.

I have searched elsewhere for definitions of the crucial terms that appear in the Bill. I looked up the word "minister" in my thesaurus. It first resorted to the term "clergyman", which it defined as

My anxieties were therefore multiplied. The terms of art used in the Bill rely on the words "minister" and "ordination", but I have seen a definition that relates them simply to the Christian Church. Interestingly, the thesaurus offered alternatives to the word "minister"; they included cleric, divine, parson, preacher, priest, reverend, chaplain, curate, pastor and vicar and--because it was an American thesaurus--it offered several other suggestions that I thought I had better not repeat in this place.

That gives us an idea of the difficulty of the issues that we are now exploring. Things get more intriguing when one considers the use of the term "the Christian Church". As the hon. Member for Thurrock asked, does it include the orthodox Churches? Obviously, it must, but what about--I hope that I do not offend anyone--Jehovah's Witnesses or the Plymouth Brethren?

Mr. Gummer: I am happy to inform my right hon. Friend that neither of those denominations has ministers, so there is no difficulty. Jehovah's Witnesses are, of course, heretical and potty. What is more, they do not vote in elections as they are still waiting for the theocratic kingdom that is unlikely to come.

Mr. Forth: That is a matter for Jehovah's Witnesses, but I am not sure that my right hon. Friend has answered my question in the way that he had hoped to. In the list that I cited, "preacher" was offered as a possible alternative to the word "minister". No doubt I shall have to elaborate on this point, because I have not yet satisfied all members of the Committee. However, my point is that the alternative terms for "minister" show the difficulty that we shall face unless we put the matter beyond doubt. That is the reason for the wording of my amendment.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is entirely correct to say that Jehovah's Witnesses do not vote, but I certainly do not identify with what he said about their being potty--far be it from me to cast aspersions. I am a mild-mannered fellow and I would in no way descend to that level of abuse. I should point out that the same goes in terms of non-voting for members of the Plymouth Brethren. However, the fact that neither the Plymouth Brethren nor Jehovah's Witnesses vote does not mean that they are not entitled to ask others to vote for them.

Mr. Forth: Indeed. The fact that a large number of Labour supporters may not vote in the coming election may also have some implications, but I am not sure whether to get involved in that.

Mr. Gummer: In order that the House should not be misled by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), I should point out that it is not true that the Plymouth Brethren do not vote: only closed members do not vote, whereas open brethren do. That distinction is

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very important. I have closed brethren in my constituency and they do not vote, but open brethren do. If my hon. Friend has open brethren in his constituency--

The Chairman: Order. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) are moving to the periphery of the argument. I should like us to return to the centre.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful, Sir Alan. I do not want to be diverted from the main thrust of my argument--[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am always ready to help him.

Mr. Forth: Indeed, Sir Alan; I am always conscious of that.

I was at the end of my list. My right hon. and hon. Friends rather spoiled what I thought was a whimsical point, but I shall persist with it anyway. As well as giving what are now rather contentious definitions, I was going to throw in the Wee Frees--I do not know whether anyone in the Chamber understands that term.

It is obvious even from this brief explanation of the matter that the term "minister" is not satisfactorily defined and therefore may raise some doubts. That is even more so in respect of the definition of a rabbi as one ordained and having juridical and ritual functions. In the Muslim religion, the term "mullah" is an honorary title referring to ecclesiastical dignitaries. When I got to looking up Hindu and Brahmin religions, there was also mention of the priestly order.

People of various other faiths could be subsumed into the general term of "minister" because the word "ordination" and the phrase "holy orders" arise repeatedly. The definition of "religion" gets us into even deeper water. It refers to belief in a superhuman being or beings, a personal god, a system of faith, doctrine and worship. That would encompass a very wide range of beliefs, activities and adherences.

When I looked for a definition of "ordination", what I found touched on a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) drew to our attention. "To ordain" was defined as to set apart for office or duty, to appoint and consecrate, to dedicate or to confer holy orders. The term "dedicate" was defined as to give up wholly for some purpose. That takes us back to what my right hon. Friend said at the start of the debate.

Frankly, I do not want to get involved in all that. I am not qualified to judge--certainly in the company of my right hon. Friends--but I wanted to draw the attention of the Committee to and gain its support for my amendment, which would put it beyond doubt that where we are seeking to eliminate any disqualification of someone who is a minister or ordained as part of a religious denomination, we intend to refer to what I have set out as the equivalents. I have tried to expand that in a Pepper v. Hart sense. If we are going down this route--and I hope that we are, because in principle I want to sweep away all historic and arcane disqualifications--we have to get the provision right and make sure that it is all-encompassing.

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