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Mr. Gummer rose--

Mr. Hogg rose--

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, then to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and then to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and then I shall make some progress.

Mr. Gummer: Does not the Minister agree that although it would have been inappropriate for him to have included in the Bill a series of clauses about fire safety, it would not have been inappropriate for him to have included a series of clauses that removed all disqualifications on Her Majesty's Roman Catholic subjects? That is the gravamen of the attack. He could have done so without the need for any extra parliamentary time. The fact that he did not do so is at least a disappointment and at most a serious wrong.

4 pm

Mr. O'Brien: I have much sympathy with the principle that the right hon. Gentleman is advocating, but I do not assent to the practical effects of introducing a Bill to

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remove some of the distinctions. The bells, oh the bells! I can imagine the debate about whether people wanted more bells to ring or whether the muezzin should have rights to call the faithful to prayer, and to what extent we should allow that through loudspeakers. With his experience of Parliament, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman can imagine that, too. So, I do not accept that introducing such a Bill would have been easy. We wanted a focused Bill, and that is what we have got. A particular case exposed the particular principle involved.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman has spoken of the injustice to Mr. Cairns--just as there would be injustice to Mr. Cairn's association and electorate--and I agree, but would not the problem go further? Would not it probably breach Mr. Cairns's convention rights if he were prevented from standing? Would not it be difficult for the Home Secretary to make a declaration of compatibility on the Bill if the amendment were accepted?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall tread with a little caution. The right hon. and learned Gentleman rightly asks me to express a view on whether the amendment might cause us to breach the European convention on human rights.

Mr. Forth: Who cares?

Mr. O'Brien: It is the law of the land, and it is right that we take due account of it. I want to reflect on the matter. I suspect that we might get very close to an infringement. Indeed, I suspect that if we had not introduced such legislation as this Bill, we might well have found ourselves challenged in the Court under the convention on the Cairns or some other case. That was not particularly why we introduced the Bill, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a good point.

Mr. Bercow: I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) will not spoil the argument, because I for one--I suspect that I will be joined by colleagues in this observation--could not give a tinker's cuss about the view on the European convention on human rights. I am motivated by different factors in my support for the Bill and in my opposition to the amendment.

I in no way dissent from what the Minister has said, but will he nevertheless confirm that one effect of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary would have been to enable Monsignor Bruce Kent, had he been elected, to take his seat in 1992 to represent the people of Oxford, West and Abingdon? If the Minister accepts that that is correct--I believe it is--why did no Labour Member propose such a measure in the run-up to that election? Was it on account of the fact that Labour knew that Father Bruce had not the slightest prospect of being elected, or was it because it did not wish him to be? Which is it?

Mr. O'Brien: I am not aware of any discussions that went on before 1992. I was not in this House, and neither was the hon. Gentleman. Therefore, neither he nor I were in a position to bring forward such a Bill as this. When the case of David Cairns was brought to my attention, I thought that justice needed to be done, and I think that in due course the House will do justice to David Cairns.

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Let me explain why this issue was not dealt with in a Bill introduced earlier in the Session: we wanted to consult the Churches, and that consultation has now been completed. [Interruption.] I am being interrupted by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) who, from a sedentary position, and in her usual vociferous style, is waving her five fingers in the air and saying that there could have been five Bills. We could not have included this measure in five Bills in the period following the consultation. That was not the case. There were two possibilities, but the consultation period on this measure had not been completed in time to include it in those Bills. The short title of the Bills would not have enabled us to include this issue. None the less, short titles can be dealt with. However, by the time the issue was before the House and the consultation had been completed, it was not possible to include it in those Bills.

Dr. Godman: I disappeared from the Chamber for a minute because I dashed to the Library to obtain a copy of Cardinal Thomas Winning's letter, which was part of the consultation. Cardinal Winning says in his letter, inter alia:

That is the anomaly that I had in mind.

In his letter of 4 February last year, Cardinal Winning asked whether the restrictions would be lifted on "clergy"--that is, on bishops, priests and deacons, or simply on priests alone? Has that question been answered?

Mr. O'Brien: All the restrictions on bishops other than bishops of the Church of England who are Members of another place would be lifted. Therefore, any restrictions on deacons or anyone else would be lifted. The only people who would, as a result of their ecclesiastical background, continue to be excluded from this place would be those who were actually Members of another place and therefore had a voice in the legislative process.

The key principle is whether we should exclude certain citizens from participating in the legislative process. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst read out the list of those who were excluded. As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal pointed out, many of those are in receipt of some funding via the Crown and there are therefore reasons for excluding them. However, that does not include the sort of people we are now discussing, who are priests or ministers in various ways of particular religions.

Amendment No. 13 would limit the meaning of ordination as relating to ordination as either a priest or deacon. It would echo similar words used in the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801. We consider that the additional words are unnecessary, although their effect would not be inaccurate in terms of the purpose of the clause. Parliament has not thought it necessary to retain that gloss on the meaning of the word "ordination" in the more recent legislation that refers to disqualification on grounds of ordination--that is, the 1998 devolution enactments and the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. We are trying to place election to this House broadly on all fours with the sort of provisions that relate to the devolved Parliament and Assemblies and also the European Parliament.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst for explaining the purpose of amendment No. 12. Our view is that the amendment is unnecessary. The meaning of "minister" does not need broadening. Those affected by the disqualifications in the 1801 Act and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 are sufficiently identified in clause 1(1)--that is, persons who have been ordained or are a minister of any religious denomination. The addition of "or the recognised equivalent" would provoke doubts as to the sufficiency of the phrase referred to in clause 1(1), which appears in the 1998 devolution enactments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and in the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. Accepting the amendment would therefore necessitate making similar amendments to those pieces of legislation.

The proposed words would also run the risk of being construed in a way that was restrictive. It is to do with the way in which the legal interpretation rules apply. If an additional phrase is added to a list, it may well restrict the breadth of the interpretation of those words. That could result in the amendment having precisely the opposite effect to the one intended by the right hon. Gentleman. In addition, including this wording could mean that we had to add it to the other relevant pieces of legislation. Accepting the amendment could cause problems.

For the purposes of Pepper v. Hart, the Government intend the Bill to receive the broadest possible interpretation and to cover the sort of circumstances about which the right hon. Gentleman is concerned. He and I agree on that issue, although I am not able to accept his amendment.

On amendment No. 15, I recognise that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald has strong reservations about the possibility of ordained clergy sitting in this House if they are also practising as priests. She mentioned this on Second Reading, and I recognise her concerns. She and I are of the same religious background, and I have some sympathy with the ecclesiastical idea--the religious idea--that priests have a full-time job and should not do another one. A number of arguments were presented most eloquently by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal about worker priests and other circumstances. However, the key argument was put forward by Members on both sides of the House--it is not the job of this Parliament to tell the Catholic Church what rules to follow and how its priests should carry on their work. It is Parliament's job to open to people the right to elect those whom they wish to elect.

The Catholic Church is not an established Church. The established Church may well have particular rules that apply. It is my view that election to this House and, indeed, to the devolved Assemblies and Parliament and to the European Parliament should be open to as many as possible, without artificial and unnecessary restrictions.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs looked at the issue in 1998 and recommended the removal of all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for and serving as Members of Parliament. It commented:

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Secondly, we consulted the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Churches in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. All were content for the restrictions to be removed. Representatives from the Roman Catholic Church pointed out that it would not affect them, because canon law would prevent serving priests from sitting in this place. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham referred, quite rightly, to the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales was disestablished in 1912--[Interruption.] I am corrected--it was 1914. The effect is that its ministers are able to stand for election to this House. If I remember rightly, back in 1979 Rev. Bill Morgan was a member of the Church in Wales and was able to stand at Worcester, in England, without restriction.

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