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3.30 pm

There are one or two Members of Parliament who are independent--or, as in the case of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), independent in practice. Although I disagree profoundly with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on a range of matters, it cannot be said that he is not independent in the House. I do not consider it unreasonable for someone

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to come to the House with a political label and then behave independently. Others, of course, come to the House as independents in the first place.

Mr. Hogg: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more independent-minded Members we have, the better?

Mr. Gummer: I do not want to be led down that route, but one of the joys of debates such as this is that we hear some Members speak from the heart. That does not usually happen in the House. It is important for the House to have independent-minded and independent Members, and I would consider it perfectly proper for someone to perform such a role even were he an episcopally ordained minister of the Church of England or a priest in the Roman Catholic Church.

Dr. Godman: I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. Paragraph 3 of canon 285 in the Roman Catholic code of canon law 1983 states:

Despite the explicitness of that law, I am given to understand by the Minister that the Catholic Church in Scotland, and indeed the Catholic Church in England and Wales, have no objection to the Bill as it stands.

Mr. Gummer: The Church has no objection because it thinks that this is its business rather than ours. I do not understand why we think it is our business; it is the business of the Catholic Church, and we should work on that basis.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: So it is the business of the Church of England to establish how many bishops should take their seats in the House of Lords, is it? I accept that it is for the Church to decide which bishops they should be.

Mr. Gummer: I am not discussing the established Church; I am discussing the Catholic Church. [Interruption.] There is a fundamental distinction to be made, and my hon. Friend must make that distinction. We happen to have an established Church in this country; we could have an argument about whether we should have one or not, but we do have one. We are now discussing something that straddles the established and the non- established Churches.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred quite properly to the canon law not of the Anglican Church--which has its own canon law--but of the Catholic Church. He was merely saying that the Catholic Church had reasons for what it decided. The Catholic Church has no bishops in the House of Lords--although if there were some there, they might say things that would shock, and would stand up to debate rather more powerfully than what I have heard from a number of bishops who are currently in that House.

Mr. Swayne: At least the Catholic bishops believe in God.

Mr. Gummer: That is certainly true.

Things used to be different. Bishops used to play an active part in politics, but they have decided, perfectly properly, that that is not how they wish to act in future.

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That is a reasonable decision, and we should respect them for it. In any event, it is their business. The question of how many bishops of the Church of England should be in the House of Lords, however, is a matter for the establishment, and hence a matter for the House of Commons, because that is what we have ordained. We have not ordained the same in the case of the Catholic Church, for two reasons. First, the Church did not want it; secondly, we would not have it. After all, we threw out the Catholic Church. We said, "We're not having you as the established Church. We're going to have this lot, and we're going to do things this way." We could not have said, "But while we're about it, there are one or two things over which we will retain control." That would be a very peculiar approach.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Does my right hon. Friend not understand that in its current form, the Bill entitles a bishop in the Church of England, or the established Church, who is not a Lord Spiritual in the other place, to stand for Parliament, and that the same applies to an ordained and practising Church of England clergyman?

Mr. Hogg: Why not?

Mr. Howarth: That is another matter. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that unless the Bill is changed, a bishop in the Church of England could stand for Parliament.

Mr. Gummer: As it happens, that is the subject of a later amendment. I shall confine myself to the subject of amendment No. 14, which relates to clergymen.

I was trying to make a distinction between two arguments that are different. The reasons for them are different, and we should approach them from a sensible historical position. We should say first that we should not exclude Catholic priests, because they do not operate under the jurisdiction and within the structure of the established Churches, and secondly that we should not exclude Anglican clergymen, because there seems to be no rational case for doing so. Things are not the same now: Anglican clergymen no longer have an office of profit under the Crown as they once did, and it is reasonable for us to respect that. When it comes to the bishops, no doubt we shall all say what we think.

I want to say something about the whole question of independence. [Interruption.] I think we have had rather a good debate so far, and I do not want sedentary interruptions to spoil it.

I know nothing about the person who is to stand as a candidate, and I would say nothing that would denigrate his position or what he said to the selection committee. I do not think any of that matters. Let me, however, say something seriously to the Minister. Although I agree with every word of the Bill, I consider it an affront that, either through ignorance or for some other reason, the Government did not present a simple Bill to exclude all the discrimination that can be applied to Her Majesty's Catholic subjects under our law.

I do not think it proper that the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster is forbidden by law to walk down Victoria street in his clerical clothes. That is unacceptable, and in this day and age we should have removed the law. A short

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Bill would have removed it. [Interruption.] It is easy enough to say that earlier Governments should have done that. I am not making a party political point; I am merely saying that the present Government had a real opportunity with this Bill.

Miss Widdecombe: Five Bills passed by Parliament gave the Government an opportunity to introduce these measures, but they did not take that opportunity. We must conclude that that is because the Bill that we are discussing is all about the prospective Labour candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde.

Mr. Gummer: It is true that such action should have been taken before, and that there were a number of opportunities for it to be taken. We know why this Bill has been introduced. I do not think any member or supporter of the Government could possibly claim that it is here for any other reason--but that, in a sense, makes my point even stronger.

I support the Government in opposing the amendment, but I do so with a heavy heart, because I think that they had an opportunity to rid us of a manifest inequity. I do not understand the logic of the Home Office in not even asking itself whether we should think about other issues. Is it not about time we ended the present circumstances in which Westminster Cathedral commits an illegal act every day when it rings the bell? Is that not unacceptable? Does the Minister realise that when the millennium peal rang out at midnight, every Catholic church was doing something illegal?

Mr. Hogg: I rather agree with my right hon. Friend about the removal of all disabilities from Catholics, and I am sorry that it has not happened. My wife and my children are Catholics. In the spirit of inquiry, however, may I ask him whether his views extend to the succession to the Crown?

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. We are moving from bells to the succession. I think that it would be a very good idea if the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) returned to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Gummer: Mr. Lord, as my neighbour in Suffolk you have often come to my aid, but today you have given us a spectacular example of that. I thank you very much indeed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has moved her amendment in a spirit of compromise, and of care to bring the two sides together. I think, however, that history is against her. The problem is that the two historical strands that have got us where we are do not admit of a compromise. We have to leave the Catholic Church, in its universal majesty, to make its own decisions and not to propose that this place has any right to shackle in any manner what the Holy Church does. Conversely, in the case of the Church over which, because of its establishment, we do claim some curious control, we have to say that there is no rational reason for clergymen not to stand for election to this place, nor, if they are elected, for this place to say that they may not sit here. That surely is the rational response.

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For those reasons, I think that we should oppose amendment No. 14.

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