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Mr. Gummer: I am sure that I was not the only Member who was unaware of the precise definition of the word "symbiotic" as my hon. Friend used it about our right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). If he explained it in detail, it would help us a good deal.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That may or may not be true. It certainly would not help the deliberations on the Third Reading of the Bill. I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Buckingham would return to those directly.

Mr. Bercow: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would otherwise have been enormously keen to refer to the precise page in the Oxford English dictionary, but on the basis of your guidance, I shall not make the attempt. I am grateful for your restraining influence.

Of all those who oppose the Bill, the person who has done so with the greatest passion and intellectual consistency is my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary. It is important to emphasise that her view is perfectly legitimate. She is motivated by an intellectual conviction that the Bill is unjustified, and by her sense of the ethical, as well as the practical, incompatibility of serving priests continuing to serve as priests while being practising Members of the House of Commons.

I happen to believe that my right hon. Friend is mistaken in her conviction, but she adheres to that conviction tenaciously and powerfully, as she adheres to every other conviction that she holds or has held in the past. I do not criticise my right hon. Friend at all. We take different points of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West is in a broadly similar category. He is opposed to the Bill in principle. He thinks that it constitutes a form of parliamentary and possibly even religious vandalism, so he cannot bring himself to support it.

It is only fair to record that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has a different motivation entirely, as he helpfully reminded me. He made it clear in his contribution that he can see a case for the Bill. He thinks that it ought to be stated much more explicitly that the Bill is not just about the protection of one category of religious person, but that it extends much more widely--indeed, universally--to accommodate people of all faiths.

In that respect, he made what might be called the conservative politically correct case for an all-embracing, deregulatory measure.

There is nothing remotely surprising or unusual about that. In a sense, my right hon. Friend argued for the equivalent of what Dr. Erhard argued for in the immediate aftermath of the second world war regarding a bonfire of economic controls. In the light of his zealous commitment to deregulation, allowing the market to make decisions and leaving matters to the populace to judge for themselves, it was to be expected that he would not get hung up on a point of ecclesiastical doctrine or liturgy. Sure enough, he has done nothing of the sort, but he is motivated by one other factor: he believes that the Bill is cynically motivated, that it should not be introduced now and that it is unacceptable that, unless any last-minute developments occur, it will benefit only one individual, who has put himself forward as a prospective parliamentary candidate at the forthcoming election.

I want to deal briefly with those points, but before I develop my argument, I remind the House of what the Under-Secretary said at the commencement of Second Reading. He pointed out that two principal measures confirm in statute the discrimination to which there is now such widespread objection: the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. On Second Reading, there was some debate and dispute about whether one might be obliged to refer to as many as seven or eight items of legislation to say whether a minister of religion could be elected as a Member of Parliament and then take his seat. The hon. Gentleman said that he would not dilate on all those measures because he had been advised by Government lawyers that the two Acts did the trick on their own. However, there is widespread objection to that legislation and clear, strong and spontaneous support from

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the different Churches in this country for the relatively modest reform that the Government now wish to take through the House.

I think that the Government are justified in seeking to introduce the Bill, but a recurrent question in all the debates on it is why they did not do what they are now proposing some time earlier. The argument that they should have done so is not entirely without merit. Many references have been made to the Home Affairs Committee report produced in the 1997-98 Session, which, as the Under-Secretary reminded the House, called for the removal of these antiquated restrictions on the entitlement to sit in the House of Commons.

We can argue the toss about how many opportunities the Government have had in this Parliament to introduce in legislation that has since been enacted the change proposed in the Bill. On my reckoning--I feel sure that I will have the eager and earnest attention of the Under-Secretary as I make this point--there were at least three opportunities earlier in this Parliament to introduce the measure that they now commend to the House, even though they were not very much earlier. The first opportunity--I think that I have got the right chronological order, although I cannot be certain--was the Representation of the People Act 2000. The Government could have constructed or amended that measure in Committee or on Report to make the changes that they now commend.

Siobhain McDonagh: On a point of information, I asked the Chairman of Ways and Means whether I could table such an amendment to either the Representation of the People Act 2000 or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Both times, I was told that such a proposal was outside the scope of the legislation.

Mr. Bercow: That is very interesting, though I am bound to tell the hon. Lady and the House that I in no sense retire hurt on the point. What she has said is not necessarily conclusive, not because there is a qualitative distinction or a distinction of status between her and a Front-Bench Member, but because the terms, purpose and architecture of a Bill are, in the first instance, matters of Government intention and Government inspiration. Therefore, although it may have been impossible for her to table an amendment of the kind reflected in this Bill, I am not at all persuaded that it would have been impossible for the Government so to have crafted the Representation of the People Act 2000 to admit of the change that they now commend. She may not be convinced, but that seems to me to be perfectly credible.

The hon. Lady referred also to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The same argument applies. Similarly, we undertook a lengthy, albeit hurried debate--the two are not incompatible--over a day and a half when we considered the Disqualifications Act 2000. It suited the Government to make a particular and narrow change, which was of interest to Members of the Dail, and they took that opportunity very much at the behest of Sinn Fein. The Minister would be hard pressed to prove that it was legislatively impossible to introduce a measure of the type that forms the basis of this Bill. Perhaps he is about to enlighten us.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Certain things are possible, but they may not be desirable, and there were two good reasons why

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such a measure may not have been desirable. First, accepting an amendment would have significantly widened the ambit of that legislation to include matters of this sort. A large number of other issues would have been introduced and there would have been potential to make further amendments to the measures, both of which were broad enough.

Secondly and much more importantly, we wanted fully to consult with the Churches, which took time to draw up their responses. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the previous cardinal regrettably died and a period elapsed before a new cardinal was appointed. We were concerned to ensure that the consultation was carried out properly and that we gave all the various Churches the time and opportunity to reach a view on the matter. They have done so, and we are grateful to them for that. Had we rushed into introducing an amendment to the legislation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, we would not have allowed the time for consultation that the matter required.

Mr. Bercow: I always stand to be corrected or persuaded, but I am afraid that the Minister has not succeeded. It was a nice try. He advanced a poor argument as forcefully as he felt able to do in the circumstances, but it was not remotely persuasive. He should not be unduly troubled by what I am saying, however, because the Home Affairs Committee report was published in the 1997-98 Session and the three Bills to which I have referred were considered in the 1999-2000 Session.

Ministers have an extraordinary attitude to time. When it suits them, they hurry matters through at a ferocious rate of knots, admitting of minimal time for debate or objection. However, when they want to doff their hat to leisurely consideration and full consultation so that all points of view may be aired over an extended period, that is the course that they invariably take. Whatever justification the Minister might advance, it is not credible to argue that the consultation needed to take two years.

My view--shared by a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends--is that the Government could have made the change earlier. However--this is where I suspect the Minister and I agree--the fact that we could have done the right thing earlier, but did not do so, does not obviate the need to do the right thing now, when we have a further opportunity. That is, if I may say so, the lacuna in the arguments of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. They say "They could have done it before and did not bother to do so; why should we indulge them now?" I do not consider that to be a credible and sustainable position.

If we are fair--it irks me to be fair to this ghastly, crass, burdensome, irritating, smug and patronising new Labour Government--we must accept the reality that all Administrations have legislative priorities, and judgments to make about them. They are able to introduce some Bills in a Session, but not others. It is not possible for them to introduce every measure that is desirable, and that they would like to introduce, in a given Session. The fact that a Select Committee report has called for a measure does not mean that that measure will immediately be presented, and it is the height of absurdity to suppose otherwise.

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