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Mr. Gummer: I am worried about my right hon. Friend because it seems to me that we should be drawing

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1070

a distinction between the decision of this House as to who should be qualified to stand for it and the decision of Churches as to who they should allow to stand for Parliament. It seems to me to be perfectly proper for the Catholic Church to say that it does not want its priests to stand for Parliament. It can make that decision; whether or not one agrees with it is a personal matter--I declare an interest in that I am a Catholic and accept that piece of discipline--but it is not for the House to support that view or in some way to give credence to it. I am not quite sure whether my right hon. Friend has explained why his amendment deals with that issue better than the Bill does, and that is what the Committee needs to know.

Mr. Forth: I agree with my right hon. Friend, but we seem to have reached opposing conclusions. I am absolutely of the view that it is a matter for religions, Churches and faiths and their adherents to decide or determine whether or not they wish to disqualify themselves from political activity. Some approach the issue in a fundamental way, and others do so in different ways. I respect that; I have no difficulty at all with it.

There is nothing wrong with the Bill in terms of its historic context, but I may disagree with other right hon. and hon. Members in terms of the individual concerned. It would appear that it is necessary for us to put beyond doubt in legislation the fact that anyone who is a minister of religion will not be disqualified by the law from being elected to this place. I hope that we would all respect the right of members of an institution of faith--to use a rather modern, all-encompassing term--to decide what they will do and from what they may be disqualified. That is a different matter altogether. My amendment is designed to put beyond doubt the fact that we wish this to be an all-embracing principle.

Because of our history, we may have started by focusing on the Roman Catholic Church. I understand that, but I want to make sure that now, early in the 21st century, we acknowledge that we can no longer focus simply on the established Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church or other Christian denominations. Our society now consists of many different faiths, both Christian and non-Christian, and, even within the broad umbrella of the Christian faith, many others of which we may approve or disapprove. I have no view on any of them, for the reasons that I have given.

My amendment is simple, direct and uncomplicated and I hope that it will attract the support of right hon. and hon. Members. I really cannot get involved in the amendments tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, for reasons that I have tried to explain. However, I believe strongly that the House should be able to express its view on matters such as this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said that she wanted to express her view and wanted to know the view of the Committee, and I am certainly prepared to help her to divide the Committee so that Members can express their views, although that should not be taken as an expression of my supporting or not supporting the substance of my right hon. Friend's amendment.

Mr. Bercow: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can help me. If we posit a scenario in which an individual, either with the approval of his faith and its masters or in the face of their acquiescence, decides to stand for Parliament, is elected and takes his seat, but subsequently

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finds himself in conflict with his organised religion and subject to a threat of excommunication because of a speech that he has made or a vote that he has cast, does my right hon. Friend think that that would constitute a contempt of the House?

2.30 pm

Mr. Forth: My instant response is no. I do not believe that our responsibilities lie in that direction. As a general principle, the law should not interfere in the internal workings of a Church or institution of faith. That should be respected as a matter for its adherents, not for the state. Another Bill, which will be discussed at a later date, involves the same principles, and they are of great importance. I do not agree that it is our responsibility to frame laws that would interfere arbitrarily in the internal workings of faith groups, Churches or other institutions, to sort out matters that are, by definition, issues of faith. That would be dangerous, even if we dressed them up as human rights.

I hope that I have persuaded the Committee to support my modest but important amendment. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald wants to divide the House, I shall be only too happy to give her my assistance.

Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): I reject all the amendments. I am especially concerned about amendment No. 15. The tone of the debate worries me. I get the impression that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is interested in the issue only because of her particular faith, and many outside the House would probably agree. The remarks about the Plymouth Brethren and Jehovah's Witnesses were deeply intolerant. Some hon. Members seemed to smirk and sneer at people whose beliefs they do not have much in common with or share. Those who are members of a church that has people who are episcopally ordained--be it the Catholic Church or the Church of England--have put themselves on a higher plain. I absolutely reject that notion.

I was born and brought up a Catholic. I am committed to being tolerant and to working, living and acting in a community that is multifaith and multiracial. I want a community that is based on equality and tolerance. People outside the House will find it impossible to believe that other hon. Members approach communities on the same basis. Some of the remarks were very unchristian.

Mr. Gummer: I hope that the hon. Lady will draw a distinction between my comments on the Plymouth Brethren and the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Plymouth Brethren are respectable and earnest people who belong to a long-standing faith. Although we have different views, I respect those people. However, Jehovah's Witnesses hold a belief that is provably fraudulent and wrong. It is right to be tolerant, but not to be ignorant. Jehovah's Witnesses base their faith on doctrines that are propounded by a crook and a fraud who was arrested and found guilty as such in court. For us not to make that perfectly proper distinction is to mislead our constituents.

Ms Ryan: The right hon. Gentleman makes my case. I cannot comment on such remarks.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is well able eloquently to

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defend himself at all times. However, the hon. Lady is trying it on when she attacks my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I have taken an interest in the Bill since its inception. To avoid any doubt, I am neither a Jehovah's Witness nor a member of the Plymouth Brethren. However, many of my constituents are, and I have the highest respect for both faiths.

Ms Ryan: The hon. Gentleman demonstrates that we all want to be tolerant and respect others.

It is important that we stick with the Bill as drafted. We would create or perpetuate problems were we to accept the amendments. I have some sympathy with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I doubt whether a practising priest could fulfil his commitment to that role while working here. Being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job. However, the same argument applies to anyone with an outside interest, such as directors of businesses, lawyers or barristers. The situation is problematic whether one is a practising Catholic priest or a Church of England minister.

As for the conduct of the debate, it is important to mention--as many hon. Members have--that the Bill has been proposed because David Cairns, who is a man of great integrity, was selected to stand as a Member of Parliament. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Minister admitted that that is what triggered the legislation. However, we cannot hold David Cairns responsible. We would have taken the same action irrespective of a candidate's party. The Bill is long overdue and it is right that we propose it. It is wrong to make David Cairns the subject of the debate and responsible for the Bill. This is a matter of equal rights--his as much as anyone else's--and he is entitled to be treated fairly.

Mr. Bercow: None of us wants to over-personalise the issues, but the hon. Lady, in common with other hon. Members, has referred to Mr. Cairns. I am not going to pontificate on Mr. Cairns's integrity. As I said on Second Reading, I have no strong views about him, for the simple reason that I have never made his acquaintance. However, she is unwise to bang on about his integrity when, on the admission of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman)--for whom I have the highest regard--Mr. Cairns deliberately refrained from telling the constituency Labour party of the problem that would arise in the event of his selection.

Ms Ryan: That point has been made. However, it is right that David Cairns was able to put himself forward for selection on the same footing as other candidates. Legislation that is against human rights and is discriminatory should not be able to place a millstone around his neck that prevents him from being selected. The law is completely out of date and unnecessary. When David Cairns put himself forward for selection, he knew that he could expect a Labour Government, of all Governments, to do something about his rights.

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