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Mr. Forth: Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?
Mr. Gummer: I shall return to my right hon. Friend in a moment.
I wish to make another point that is pertinent to the Bill. We British are inclined to believe that the only people who discriminate are people abroad, and that we are always perfect. In fact, we have a long history of pretty bad discrimination. I do not wish to associate myself with a whole range of things that we, like so many others, have done in all sorts of places. We happen to have done some pretty good things as well. The rule of law has been much enhanced by the fact that Britain took it to many parts of the world. There is no doubt about that, and I am not for a moment underestimating the huge contribution that we have made.
However, this Bill is in some part an acknowledgement that we have discriminated in many areas. Northern Ireland provides an example that we live to regret. Let us not easily believe that this is an unimportant issue. We should place ourselves in the proper ambit of the standards to which we should all adhere. In a sense, being willing to adhere to those standards through the Bill will allow us to have the right to say to other people, "You, too, should adhere to those standards."
We should abhor discrimination. The fact that the issue is properly covered by the European convention on human rights, which is referred to in the Bill, is a matter that we should be pleased about. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham might support that view when I remind him that it has nothing to do with that institution with which he is not altogether happy--the European Union.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he is not as alone among his right hon. and hon. Friends as their comments about the European convention might have suggested. When the Human Rights Bill was considered on Third Reading, the Conservative Front Bench spokesman wished the Bill well and there was certainly no Division. In fact, the Bill received broad support from all parties.
Mr. Gummer: I agree with the Minister. I wish to conclude my speech, but I have an awful feeling that I promised to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, and I would not want to miss what he has to say.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I simply wanted to suggest that in exactly the same way as the Bill seeks to put right something that happened a long
Mr. Gummer: If we are behaving properly as regards these matters, we need not worry about the European convention. If we are not, it is pretty disgraceful. So I do not consider that to be a sensible argument. In large measure it is otiose, and bringing it into our law was not a high priority for me because I do not think it matters very much, and because certain peculiarities of the common law make it quite difficult to deal with. However, it is a pity to object to the European convention on human rights in a rather offhand way when we are debating the removal of discrimination, which is the proper thing to do and something of which I approve.
Mr. Bercow: Of course I am aware that the European convention on human rights is not related to the European Union, but can I put it to my right hon. Friend that many Conservative Members--I suspect a very large number--opposed the Human Rights Bill on Second Reading, and that many Conservatives are motivated by belief in the Burkean doctrine of rights, which is not a doctrine of natural rights, rather than by the highfalutin declarations of abstract principle that tend to be reflected in the European convention?
Mr. Gummer: I shall not be led away from the Bill that we are discussing, which reflects a view of human rights that seems perfectly compatible with Conservative beliefs. I say that as someone who has a difficulty with the word "rights" in any case. I happen to believe that we do not have rights, but obligations. I do not believe that created human beings can have rights, but that we owe our creation to the Almighty and therefore owe obligations to him and to our fellow creatures. Our rights inhere in other people's obligations rather than in anything that is selfishly held to ourselves. That happens to be my view. I think that Thomas Paine did a great deal of damage, and that we would have done much better to follow a much older tradition in terms of rights and obligations.
I am not sure that that gets us anywhere when we come to discuss the European convention on human rights. I am pleased that the House will be passing a small Bill with a small effect; but it is a proper effect and it removes yet again another piece of discrimination against the Catholic Church.
On Third Reading we have to confine ourselves to what is in the Bill, but let me say to the Minister that this Bill reminds me of one of those new office buildings in which the largest part of the space is made up of an atrium, otherwise known as an empty hole. I feel that we ought to have had a better Bill. It ought to have got rid of all those things that suggest that being a Catholic makes one a second-class citizen. I do not understand why that opportunity was not taken, and I wish it had been. I shall vote for the Bill, but my vote is cast on the basis that the Government know that the next Conservative Government will do what this Government should have done.
Siobhain McDonagh: Almost four years after getting elected, I still cannot attempt to be as eloquent as other hon. Members have been on this issue and I have not learned the ways of the House enough to want to repeat what other people have said.
For my part, supporting the Bill is about saying that we should not discriminate against people of any religion or no religion. A Methodist minister, an imam, a Catholic priest and a Greek Orthodox Church priest should have an equal right to stand for Parliament, to be selected, to get elected--if the voters so wish--and to take up a seat in the House. As a Back Bencher, it has been an amazing voyage to see a tiny issue, which affects few people, create such interest and concern and generate understanding in hon. Members. That process has strengthened the House. It has shown that we do not only debate huge issues that involve millions of people, because this matter involves the rights of the individual.
I thank Professor Robert Blackburn of King's college for his help. He was mentioned several times on Second Reading. Without him, I would have had no knowledge that such discrimination existed. I believe that he has also been a great help to the Home Office and my hon. Friend the Minister in particular, whom I also want to thank. My small insight into how much it takes to get a Bill this far makes me even more amazed at the amount of work that Ministers and shadow Ministers do. The forces of conservatism are strong and it is very difficult to achieve change. The proposal that we are debating today is right because it is wrong to discriminate. The proposal is right not because a Labour candidate will be discriminated against if the law is not changed, but because it is right in itself.
My interest began because a constituent would not have been allowed to take up his seat were he elected. However, it has become a wider issue because people of my faith and others are discriminated against, which is wrong in the 21st century. We should change the law as quickly as possible. I am sorry that that did not happen two years or 18 months ago, but it was not for the want of trying. Many issues affect the Government, and I am glad that this small issue has reached the top of their list. The change will benefit not only David Cairns but everyone else who wants to stand for election and is disbarred because he previously decided to become a member of the clergy of an episcopally ordained faith.
We should pass the Bill because it is right. It is to the benefit of the House that we care about such matters.
Mr. Stunell: I thank my hon. Friends who were gracious enough to allow me to speak on their behalf in the debate. It has been a fascinating occasion.
I am pleased that the Bill will become law. We should be ashamed that residual acts of religious discrimination are still on the statute book. The fact that one case prompted the change is not a good reason to back away from ending discrimination. Much has been said about discrimination against Catholics, and I certainly oppose legislation that has that effect. I am a Baptist and legislation that applied to Catholics applied to Baptists with equal force. From the different end of the religious spectrum, I feel as strongly as others about the need to withdraw such acts of discrimination. When the Bill is
There is no reason to discriminate against people simply because their Church or their employer has a different set of rules. Those engaged in some types of employment are prevented from engaging in political activity--indeed, I spent some years working in that type of employment. I accepted the restrictions of my employment, but I was not prevented by law from doing that which I eventually did, which is change my employment and take up political activity.
We appear to have misunderstood one of the consequences of the existing law: that the law as it stands, unreformed, tends to keep out of the House of Commons those who accept the values of society which we all profess to espouse profoundly, and let in those who do not necessarily share those values. On the pragmatic and rational grounds of trying to get into the House of Commons more people who espouse the values that we all say we share, we should be prepared to pass the Bill.
Widely diverse views have been expressed in our debates--I call the phenomenon the Buckingham consensus. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made a powerful speech--considerably longer than my own will be--in which he drew attention to the existence of many different views. He attributed four different views to members of my own party, but, on reflection, he might repent of that, especially as he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed five different views during the debate.