Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Fallon: My right hon. Friend has made again the point that he made earlier today, and very eloquent it is. However, in each of the three cases that he has put before the House, the process took some considerable time. The arguments made on behalf of the individual were rightly tested either in the courts or through successive attempts to change the law. We are being asked to consider making a one-off change very quickly just before a general election.

Mr. Gummer: My hon. Friend's case would be weightier if during the debate anyone had made an argument that even began to stand in real opposition to the central purpose of the Bill. [Interruption.] I will come to my hon. Friend's arguments in a moment. Even my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) began his argument by saying that he was in favour of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) is not against the Bill; he simply raises questions about the speed of the measure, and says that we do not have enough time to think about it.

We have had enough time to think about the measure--

Mr. Fallon: No, we have not.

Mr. Gummer: We have had nearly 200 years to wonder whether the proposal is sensible.

I am a Conservative; I am a believer that what has been is not necessarily bad, and that that which has stood the test of time may well be taken into account. I certainly believe that what is new is not always good, but 200 years--or at least that part of the last 200 years during which I have been able to think--have given me enough time to realise that there is no basis for such arguments.

This Third Reading reminds us of the central issue: Parliament cannot properly enter into discussions about the validity of holy orders. I am very committed to the importance of the validity of orders--indeed, like at least one other Member of the House, I have proved my commitment; it is the reason why I ceased to be an Anglican and became a Catholic. I did so because of the nature of authority and its effect on the orders of the Church, so I think that I have a right to speak on that issue.

The validity of orders is a matter of faith; it is not a matter of secular jurisdiction. The idea that that matter of faith should inform the discussion as to which persons should be allowed to stand for and sit in Parliament seems odd.

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1123

It would be much better for us to recognise, first, that the matter is one of enormous importance--more so than almost all the things that we discuss in this largely secular assembly. Secondly, however, the fact that it is important does not mean that it is relevant to the discussion about who should stand for Parliament. Its importance is eternal, but its relevance is minimal to that issue. That is why we should give the Bill its Third Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) expostulated when I suggested that no reasonable case had been made against the Bill. I do not want to do him a disservice. I should certainly not go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who sits on the Front Bench and who referred in uncharacteristically uncomplimentary terms to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West. I do not call my hon. Friend antediluvian, although I think that many of his views are not up to date. For example, his views on Europe are very, very out of date. However, that is proper for him; he can carry on as he is and let the world go by. That is up to him. He can be a Member of the House and make those points.

Let us imagine, however, that at some distant point my hon. Friend is ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England--not in Wales, but just over the border in the diocese of Hereford. After serving for a year or two, he decides that he has mistaken his vocation. At that point, he could become anything from a brain surgeon--if qualified--to a lorry driver or a taxi driver. He could represent the Rotarians at an international conference. There is no vocation that he could not follow--except that of Member of Parliament. The argument for that is difficult to uphold. Why could he do anything but be a Member of the House of Commons, even though he might have managed to persuade a large number of people to choose him as their candidate and to vote for him? That is manifestly barmy, and I cannot understand the logic of it, which is why I do not believe that a strong case has been put for retaining the current law.

A better case relates to clergymen of the Church of England on historic grounds. Once upon a time, Church of England clergymen owed their living to the state. The issue was tied up with ensuring that the House of Commons was not stuffed with placemen. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to say that that original prohibition was not discriminatory; it was a proper reflection of the need to keep the House independent. So in deciding whether to agree to Third Reading, we must ask ourselves whether that situation now obtains. The answer is no; it is no longer true that a member of the clergy of the Church of England has so close a relationship to the state, through payment, that he would be unable to act independently in the House.

The office of profit--in so far as a clergyman's salary today can be referred to in those terms--is no longer under the Crown in the direct sense that it once was. Perhaps, in an indirect sense, the livings in the hands of the Crown as patron are of that kind, but they are disgorged, shared or whatever in a wholly different way than they were in the past. It would be extremely difficult to show that a Church of England clergyman was a placeman in that sense, and thus should be denied entry

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1124

to the House. The argument relating to Church of England clergymen is stronger; none the less it can no longer be upheld.

It is also true that it is more proper for the House to deal with Church of England clergymen than with those of any other Church, for that is the established Church, and its establishment means that we in the House can properly deal with such matters. I do not suggest that that that is universally accepted, but given the constitution of the House, we can properly deal with the Church of England in a way that is different from our dealings with any other denomination. In our role as guardians of the wider public interest as affected by the established Church, we must ask ourselves whether it is proper for us to exclude its ministers from standing for election and sitting in Parliament. The answer is that no basis for such an exclusion exists.

The Bill's Third Reading cannot be held up on the grounds that we think that the wider interests of Her Majesty's subjects might be affected if clergymen were allowed to stand for election and to sit in the House. I can think of no way in which that would happen. Although you have not had the luck to be present throughout the preceding debates, Madam Deputy Speaker, I can say that I heard no argument to suggest, in that narrow sense, that in our role of defending the general public from the activities of the established Church, we should make an exception for its ministers. That brings me to the rights of others.

We have laughed about the curious anomalies that might be introduced if we were to make a distinction between the episcopally ordained and the non-episcopally ordained. I take the nature of episcopal ordination very seriously. Indeed, at the heart of my disagreement with the Church of England was my belief that it had forfeited its ability to talk about its episcopal ordination as it once could. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, I think that an important matter. I speak from an entirely religious point of view, but the suggestion that being able to dispense the sacrament validly should exclude someone from becoming a Member of the House of Commons seems very odd, especially as that exclusion does not apply to Baptist ministers, or to those who do not believe in the priesthood or in the sacraments in the same sense as Catholics do.

We are a curiously heterogenous House, but our ability to prognosticate on the detailed matters of theology and canon law has not hitherto struck me as being very obvious. I have listened carefully to the debates and I have heard people use words that suggest that their familiarity with the precise details of Thomist philosophy is at least distant. Therefore, if I were looking for a body to prognosticate on the nature of valid ordination, it would not be the House of Commons. I would go somewhere else, and that somewhere else would be the Church concerned.

The Holy Catholic Church has made its decision and it says that its priests cannot stand for Parliament. That is perfectly right and I agree with it. However, it is right that it, and not the House, should say that. It is right that I should support the decision in my capacity as a faithful Catholic, but not in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. That is the proper distinction for me to draw.

I shall say something that will upset a number of my colleagues, but I wish to say it none the less. We would be placed in a very difficult position vis-a-vis the

1 Mar 2001 : Column 1125

European human rights legislation if we were not to give the Bill a Third Reading. [Interruption.] Before my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham says anything, I remind him why the European convention on human rights was introduced. It was established by many countries, including the United Kingdom, to defend many minorities in the rest of Europe, particularly those behind the iron curtain and those who needed protection from persecution. Many of them were Jewish. I do not like the way in which some people take lightly a convention that was entered into in all good faith by this country to ensure that people were protected.

Next Section

IndexHome Page