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Mr. Hogg: I should like to begin with an apology--particularly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), as I did not hear her speech--for missing the earlier part of the debate. However, I know my right hon. Friend's views, because I have occasionally had the opportunity to read them.
I shall be very brief because, apart from anything else, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has said everything that could possibly be said on the subject, and a few additional words, too. I am a libertarian, and I ask myself four questions which I think deal with the matter pretty conclusively.
The first question that I ask myself is whether Members of Parliament are in fact capable of performing functions outside the House in some other capacity. I declare an interest: I am a practising barrister. I think that it is a very good thing for hon. Members to have external interests and to practise at them. My conclusion is that there is nothing about this place that prevents hon. Members from pursuing other activities as well. Indeed, I believe that it is a good thing that many do so, as it brings a wealth of experience and independence which I greatly welcome.
Mr. Gummer: Would my right hon. and learned Friend be kind enough to say that even more clearly? It is surely to the detriment of the House if hon. Members do not engage in business and other outside activities. If they do not, all they can bring to the House are their memories or their theories. Those with activities outside the House--I restate my interest--at least bring to it current knowledge of how the world outside works.
Mr. Hogg: I believe that very strongly. My right hon. Friend is right. He has described independence and independent-minded Members of Parliament. I believe that independence flows at least in part from having an existence and an experience outside this place, and also from having the resources to be able to say boo to the goose--by which I mean those from the Whips Offices who sit on the Front Benches.
Mr. Bercow: For the avoidance of doubt, and to respond to the earlier observations of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, so far as this Bill is concerned, he sees no qualitative difference between the practice of a religious faith or responsibility and the practice of a profession or business arrangement?
Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend's mind is as logical as my own, because that was my second point. Having asserted that I think it is a very good thing for hon. Members to have current interests outside this place, my next question is precisely the one that he has just asked: is there anything about the role of an ordained priest that causes
Finally, I find it quite impossible to distinguish between the reasons for disqualifying priests of the Catholic Church and the Church of England and those for not doing so in relation to the members of many other Churches, including the apostolic Churches identified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal.
Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend sounds resigned. I am afraid that, so far as I am concerned, she is going to have to be resigned. I have disagreed with her on various occasions when she has spoken, and this is another of those occasions. I really cannot even get into the lists in terms of understanding the arguments in favour of this group of amendments. I think that they are wholly and utterly wrong. I shall therefore take very considerable pleasure in opposing amendment No. 14.
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I should like first to apologise to the Committee for being absent for an earlier part of the debate. I notified Mr. Speaker and the Government and Opposition Front Benchers that I would miss it. I am sorry also to have missed what has evidently been a very lively debate. It has certainly been lively since my arrival.
I am very much with the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and very much against the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on this group of amendments. As I made clear on Second Reading, I do not approach the issue as someone with a Catholic or Episcopalian background; I am a Baptist by profession of faith. As I have also made clear, I disagree with many of the very fine points of distinction that have been drawn between ministers and priests--on who does what, and on whether there is a major difference between the roles.
The restrictions not only keep some good people out, but are entirely arbitrary in their effect. I fear that amendment No. 14 would make the impact of the restrictions even more arbitrary and strange.
We already have a situation in which a priest or other clergy member of the Church in Wales may stand for Parliament and, if elected, sit in this place. A retired clergyman or clergywoman in the Church of England may stand for election to this place. If one is a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, one may stand, but, if one is a retired Catholic priest who has not gone to the trouble of getting defrocked, one cannot stand. If one is an orthodox priest or a retired orthodox priest, one cannot stand. If one is a rabbi or a Methodist minister, one can stand. The distinctions are meaningless, not just in secular law but in New Testament theology.
The sooner that we sweep away the remnants of religious discrimination in our democratic practice, the better. That is not specifically the Liberal Democrat line. I am sure that in my party we would find people who hold a different point of view, as on many other subjects--[Interruption.] That may not surprise hon. Members, but I am happy to stand here in my own right to say clearly that it ought to be offensive to us in this day and age that religious discrimination is built into our legislation.
I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal; perhaps we should have gone further. We certainly should have gone sooner. However, the fact that we should have gone sooner or further does not mean that we should now go nowhere. To that extent, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is misdirecting her efforts, and so are those who support her case and her cause. We should be trying to eliminate religious discrimination, not entrench or refine it. To that purpose, I shall certainly vote against the amendment and support the Bill.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said that the debate was lively. My instant reaction was that he was not talking about the debate that I had heard--but of course he was not; he was in a different debate.
The debate has been sensible, if lengthy. Sometimes it almost verged on being an argument about angels on a pinhead, but that might be appropriate in this case. The debate has none the less been good humoured, and certainly constructive. I extend my thanks particularly to my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) and for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) for their contributions and for their support for the Government's position.
I agree strongly with the right hon. Gentleman that the House should be open to as many people as possible, that it should be the choice of the electorate whom they send here and that it is not the job of the state to interfere with the internal organisation and practices of Churches. That is a Tory way of being politically correct, and I agree with him.
A number of points were raised with which I shall deal head on. Evidently, the Bill was introduced to address the case of David Cairns. I was open about that at the outset on Second Reading. Let me make it clear that that is the reason the Bill was introduced. It was patently obvious to us that an injustice would be done if David Cairns was prevented from taking the seat that the electorate might put him in a position to take after the election. It would have been wrong to allow that situation.
There are many demands on parliamentary time, all the time. Arguably, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal raised several points with which Parliament might like to deal. There are many other issues, too. I have been trying to secure the introduction of a fire safety Bill for a couple of years. There is always a premium on parliamentary time. However, a patent injustice was about to be done with which the Government felt it appropriate to deal. Other issues may well have to be dealt with at some point; that remains to be seen.