HL Deb 27 March 2001 vol 624 cc200-24

9.20 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Although the Bill is short, that does not make it unimportant. The Bill proposes to allow serving and former ministers of religion to become Members of Parliament where previously some of them were disqualified, but it continues the disqualification of any bishops who sit in your Lordships' House as Lords Spiritual.

The Government believe that the current situation on clergy disqualification can no longer be justified. If a person wishes to stand for Parliament, it should be a matter for the electorate to decide whether they want the person to become their representative if relevant qualifications are met.

The current position is that some ministers of religion would be debarred from taking their seats, if elected, by virtue of the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 and others by Section 9 of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. The Bill will repeal the 1801 Act and the relevant section of the 1829 Act, and do away with a number of other provisions, which will become consequentially redundant.

Certain people are not affected by the present legislation or by the new Bill. These comprise Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and other religious groups, including most non-conformist denominations, whose arrangements for ordaining ministers do not involve ordination by a bishop. It is the latter point, the ordination by a bishop, that is the critical one and I shall return to this later.

So far as concerns the Church of England, it is the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act 1801 which prevents its clergy from becoming MPs. Former ministers, however, can divest themselves of their clerical responsibilities by means of a procedure set out in the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870, and can then, if the electorate so chooses, take up a seat in Parliament.

One particular difficulty is that no such procedure is available for ordained clergy of other episcopal churches: for example, the Roman Catholic Church. If a Catholic priest wishes to give up his ministry, whether temporarily or permanently, and then stand for Parliament, he would be unable to take his seat if elected. He could not turn to the equivalent of the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870 because an equivalent Act does not exist, and he would be debarred by virtue of the 1801 and 1829 statutes. That is the current position.

I am sure that some of your Lordships are aware of the case of Mr David Cairns, a former Catholic priest, who is intending to stand as the Labour candidate for the constituency of Greenock and Inverclyde at the next general election. If elected, he could be prevented from taking his seat in the other place. His case has re-emphasised the rather absurd position that continues today. I hope that this House will agree that it is obviously right that this matter should be attended to in the run-up to a general election, whenever that happens to fall. This is when a change in the law is relevant, and I am sure that Mr Cairns would hope that Members of both Houses would deal with this matter with understanding, regardless of their political persuasion.

One man will certainly benefit from the change, if he is elected. But others, whatever their politics, could benefit in the future. We seek to change the law to right the injustice where, if he or she were to be elected to Parliament, a candidate could not take the seat. Noble Lords will know that individual cases have driven change of this sort in the past—changes such as allowing the then Lord Stansgate to sit in the other place. Individual cases have provided that catalyst for change in the past, and will no doubt do so again in the future. We explored whether there were other ways of dealing with this issue rather than primary legislation, but we concluded that a Bill was required.

In September 1998, the Home Affairs Committee on Electoral Law and Administration recommended at paragraph 127, Volume 1, that, all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for, and serving as, Members of Parliament be removed; the exception would be in respect of all serving bishops of the Church of England who, for so long as places are reserved for the senior bishops in the House of Lords, should remain ineligible to serve as Members of the Commons". The Government broadly agree with that view. In a moment, I shall discuss in more detail the second part of the recommendation relating to bishops.

In June 1999, Siobhain McDonagh, the Member for Mitcham and Morden, introduced a Private Member's Bill in another place, which would have rectified the position. That Bill had cross-party support, but failed to make any progress at Second Reading. The Government were sympathetic, but wanted to consult the Churches before changing the law. The Government subsequently 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. It is already open to ministers of the Church in Wales, which is disestablished, to become MPs by virtue of the Welsh Church Act 1914, which overrides the 1801 Act disqualification.

I hope it is obvious that we do not envisage that there will be a long queue of clergy wishing to become MPs. In the case of serving ministers, this is a matter between the Churches and the individuals concerned. In the end, as I said before, it is for the individual to decide whether to stand and for the electorate to determine whether he or she should sit in the other place. We believe that there should be no bar in public law to prevent clergy from becoming MPs. But it is important to make clear that it is for the Churches and their clergy to consider whether their duties as ministers or priests can be properly carried out if they are also sitting as Members of Parliament. I understand that the Pope does not agree to serving priests being active in politics, so we are unlikely to see serving priests as Members of another place.

It may be asked, why not introduce legislation simply to put Catholic priests on the same basis as Church of England clergy, and allow them to divest themselves of their clerical responsibilities? There are two points here. First, we should expect Parliament to be cautious about whether it has the right to legislate on matters of doctrine or discipline within the Roman Catholic Church, even if indirectly. Once a priest has been ordained, our understanding is that the Catholic Church considers that he remains a priest all his life, even if he no longer practises as one. I hope that your Lordships will agree that we should leave the Roman Catholic Church to run its own affairs, and not try to regulate the relationship between that Church and its priests.

The second reason not simply to put Catholic priests on the same basis as Church of England clergy rests on a Privy Council case from 1951. In Re MacManaway, the Privy Council decided that the 1801 Act not only disqualified persons ordained in the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, but also all persons ordained by a bishop in accordance either with the order of the Church of England or with other forms of episcopal ordination. In the particular case of the Reverend James G. MacManaway, this included ordination in the Church of Ireland. Thus, broadly, any clergy who are ordained by a bishop are subject to the disqualification, whereas clergy and ministers of religion who are not ordained by a bishop are not subject to the disqualification. Current restrictions therefore apply more widely than only to Roman Catholic clergy.

I turn now to the part of the Home Affairs Committee recommendation that deals with the position of bishops. There are about 40 Church of England bishops who could qualify to sit in this place as Lords Spiritual. At any one time, only 26 are summoned to be Lords Spiritual. It is the Government's view that it is these bishops who should be disqualified from membership of another place, as they already have a voice in Parliament. I should perhaps add that, if, as a result of proposals for reform of this place, that number were to change, the number of bishops who were disqualified would also change. However, the general principle would not be affected.

The Home Affairs Committee's recommendation was to continue prohibition on all bishops from the other place. Although we consider it extremely unlikely that bishops would wish to become MPs while they perform their duties as bishops, the Government feel it right to lessen the statutory restrictions except, as I say, for those bishops who already have a voice in Parliament—the Lords Spiritual.

Already, there is no bar to clergy or bishops being elected to the European or Scottish Parliament, to the Northern Ireland Assembly or to the National Assembly for Wales. Nor is there any bar on their being elected as local councillors or mayors. This has worked satisfactorily and there have been no problems recognised in such arrangements. I think that one can reasonably argue that the position at Westminster. therefore, is out of step with all others. This Bill will rectify that anomaly.

I believe that the Bill will be a useful one. It will remove some archaic and anachronistic restrictions which are no longer appropriate. I hope that your Lordships will agree. This is not a controversial measure and it received a large measure of support from across all parties in another place. The disqualifications I have referred to are no longer relevant to our times and it is appropriate that the legislation be repealed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

9.31 p.m.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I appreciate the complexities which the Minister has described and I sympathise with the dilemma the Government face. I am glad that the Minister said the Bill owes its origin to the hard case of the Roman Catholic priest who wishes to stand for Parliament at the next election. I am sorry for that: it is a hard case. But the fact is that that priest knew when he took orders and took his vows the position of his Church as regards election to a legislature.

The Roman Catholic Church in its canons of 1983 forbids priests to stand for a legislature. It has a long tradition in that regard which goes back to the turn of the past century in Italy and France. Further. that priest knew when he took his vows at ordination that the Vatican does not easily allow its priests to abandon their orders and to become laymen. All that he knew about. In contrast, as the Minister pointed out, Church of England priests have an easy ride. They can legally and very easily renounce their orders and, as the right reverend Prelate knows, take them up again later—I have a colleague who did just that—if their political ambitions fail or if they decide to abandon them. I have to say that Father Cairns took his vows and he knew the altar on which he laid himself.

I want to point out, because it is relevant to this debate, why the Roman Catholic Church took that view. The Roman Catholic Church forbids its priests to sit in legislatures. It considers that it is inappropriate for a parochial priest with pastoral responsibilities to adopt a political career since as a pastor his job is to achieve unity and minister to all. I hope that the Minister is listening to what I am saying as he seems to be involved in a conversation of his own. To be an active priest and to be a politician is contradictory. Politics are by nature adversarial. To be a priest in a pastoral role and to be a politician is quite difficult. It is noticeable that the right reverend Prelates traditionally are expected to remain apart from partisan politics.

As noble Lords know, I am a clergyman of the Church of England. I can assure your Lordships that I would not have accepted a life peerage, certainly not the political peerage that I accepted, if I had been in any pastoral position whatsoever.

I do not wear my dog collar in this House for obvious reasons. I do not claim to speak for the Church. I believe that any Christian can be a member of any political party in this House without betraying his religion. But one must consider the position. If we open another place to clergymen, their Churches could not force them to abandon parochial responsibilities. The Roman Church will excommunicate Father Cairns but the Anglican Church does not indulge in excommunication. So we have to face the problem.

The other factor which was not mentioned by the Minister is the nature of the unique situation in the United Kingdom: that we have two established Churches. In an established Church the bishops, the Lords Spiritual, sit in the House of Lords. They represent the Church. The right reverend Prelate will agree that in this House I make no claim to represent the established Church. But Anglican parochial clergy could claim in another place to represent the Church. There could be a contradiction in the role of the established Church.

There are further problems with regard to Scotland. Traditionally, the Presbyterian Church, the established Church in Scotland, has had its own general assembly. Whereas the general assembly has had Members of this House and another place as lay members, until recently the clergy have always remained detached from the secular Parliament. There has been a long tradition in the Scottish Church of maintaining its independence from the secular Parliament. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has an honourable tradition in maintaining freedom from the secular Parliament. There would be some dilution of that hard-fought independence if members also sat in another place.

The Minister mentioned the devolved assemblies. I agree that, lightly, they have admitted their clergy. They have not given thought to issues of establishment, the nature of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy. As a sovereign Parliament, we should give more thought to the matter.

Hard cases made bad law. I agree that the case of Father Cairns is a hard case. However—I repeat—once he knelt for ordination in the Roman Catholic Church, he knew what he was taking on. To expect an Act of Parliament to alter his situation seems to me strange. I suggest to noble Lords that this is not an easy Bill. There is the question of establishment. There is the fact that the Anglican Church could not stop people with pastoral responsibilities sitting in another place if they decided so to do. The Roman Catholic point is that a minister has to be a symbol of unity: an active politician cannot be so. I repeat: I would not have accepted a life Peerage if I had been a parochial parish priest.

On a point of principle, I believe it is wrong that the Bill should be hurried through in the shadow of an election for one particular hard case. I agree with the Minister; the situation is very hard for Father Cairns. He made his decision and now wants to reverse it. He will most likely be excommunicated anyhow. But it is not our job to solve a problem of his own making. There is the problem of the nature of representation of the established Church. I do not believe that the devolved assemblies are an example for us.

I hope that noble Lords will take great care over the Bill. I am not prepared to advocate an easy passage before an election.

9.40 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his stamina. I hope that I shall not make too many demands on it. I was persuaded to intervene in the debate by my colleague Robert Blackburn, from the law department of my college. Anyone who has read the excellent brief prepared by the House of Commons Library will appreciate that he speaks with such authority on the subject as to make me appear a rank amateur. I am therefore all the more pleased to find that he, I and my noble friends are united in the welcome that we extend to the Bill.

As the Minister said, the Bill arises from an individual case, but it has been needed ever since the case of Mr MacManaway. I followed that case when I was a 13 year-old and concluded that something must be done. It never occurred to me that 50 years later I might have a walk-on part in helping that to come about.

I did not realise then that, given the speed of our political system, the case is proceeding at the rate of greased lightning. If there had not been an individual case, this would not have been done.

I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington of Oxenford, had to say about that case. I understand that the position of the Roman Catholic Church is, "Once a priest, always a priest", just as it also holds the position. "Once married, always married". I respect both those views, but in neither case should they be binding on the state. I agree with John Locke that a Church is a voluntary society. The definition of a voluntary society is that one may voluntarily leave it. There is a bigger argument than the noble Lord suggested.

The state of the law is thoroughly confused. We have had a great whittling down of general disabilities and restrictions on sitting in Parliament for religions. When I took my seat here, I exercised my right to affirm. That right is only 100 years old—barely yesterday in terms of parliamentary history. When I did so, I received a warm and welcoming smile from the Episcopal Benches. That was my first experience of House of Lords manners and I welcomed it warmly.

However, there has been no corresponding change in the rights of clergy to take their seats. There are anomalies everywhere: between the treatment of the Church of Ireland and the Church in Wales; between the treatment of episcopally ordained and non-episcopally ordained ministers; and between the treatment of Christian ministers and non-Christian ministers, which ironically bears much more harshly on the Christians, because the law goes back to the days when no others were envisaged.

Given that odd series of situations, it is worth stopping for a moment to ask how we got here. The present law got here for three reasons, of which two are no longer operative and the third we can no longer regard as Parliament's business. The first was the separate representation of the clergy in convocation. The key to that is that in the early days of Parliament—in fact, for several centuries—the clergy used to pay separate taxation, voted by their own representatives in convocation. It was therefore not proper for them to have representatives voting taxes for other people that they did not pay. That first reason for the separate treatment of the clergy is clearly out of date.

As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, suggested, there were serious problems in applying that doctrine of an established Church to the Church of Scotland, where it did not really fit, but that is just one more reason for getting away from the old pattern and passing the Bill.

The second reason for the specific disabilities against Roman Catholics dates back to past centuries when there was a nationalist hatred expressed against the Church of Rome, which is now strictly confined to the Treaty of Rome. As one Member said in another place in the 17th century, they are members of the body of this land who have studied to be incorporate with others.

Those attitudes have disappeared very rapidly during my lifetime. We owe a great deal to Pope John XXIII. I remember vividly a moment in 1962 when he threatened to put South Vietnam under an interdict for persecuting Buddhists. One can imagine how rapidly the weak certainties in which I was brought up crumbled in the face of that experience. My mind went into a revolving door and remained there for some time. As this has changed and as I do not believe that a single person in the Chamber would query the loyalty of any other Peer on the grounds of their faith or their lack of it, I believe that the disabilities are totally out of date.

The third reason concerns views about the office of the ministry. As expressed in the 17th century: It is of such importance that it will take up the whole man". We heard that view expressed by Miss Widdecombe in another place and we heard it expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, just a few moments ago. I do not argue with that view; I simply argue with the propriety of the state in deciding it on behalf of the Churches. We must now say "Churches". There are many Churches and they do not all take the same view on this question. Therefore, if the state were to take a general view, it would be imposing that view on Churches which did not share it and yet would have to follow it.

I very much prefer the view expressed by the then Archbishop of Westminster to the MacManaway committee: It ought riot to be for Parliament to debar people from becoming candidates as far as the church is concerned; that ought to be for the ir ternal discipline of each church". I agree strongly with what the Minister said about not intervening in any question of the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Apart from any question of theological propriety, the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is not a national matter and not proper to any national assembly.

In 1982. the General Synod of the Church of England voted by a narrow but clear majority in favour of the proposition that clergy should be free to sit in Parliament. I do not want to enter into argument about how far Parliament could override that constitutionally. I want to say simply that in my opinion Parliament should not.

It is now for Churches to decide for themselves what limits they should place on the freedom of action of their clergy. I hope that the Minister will confirm that nothing in this Bill can possibly be construed to restrict the freedom of Churches to discipline their own members. In a free country and in a plural society that must be for the Churches themselves. It is not our business. The Bill recognises that and I welcome it.

9.48 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, we on these Benches similarly welcome the Bill. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has just reminded us, it responds to a long-standing wish of the General Synod and of other Churches. He reminded us of the motion that was passed in the General Synod in 1982, which said: This Synod believes that clergymen of the Church of England should be free like other citizens to take their seats as elected Members of Parliament and, in accordance"— reminding us of some earlier work— with the recommendation of the Church and State Report 1970, asks the Standing Committee to request Her Majesty's Government to introduce appropriate legislation to enable them to do so". We have taken rather a long time to get here.

We see no reason why a person should be disqualified from standing for election to the House of Commons simply because he has received episcopal ordination. It should be for the electorate to decide whether they want a priest to represent them in the other place.

Some noble Lords have discussed whether we are dealing with hard cases. I remind the House that every single step in the history of this matter has been formed around hard cases. As has already been outlined, in 1553 Prebendary Newell was excluded from Parliament on the old constitutional ground that the clergy were taxed by convocation, so it was not appropriate for a priest to be in the House of Commons. The 1801 Act similarly arose because Home Tooke wanted to be a Member of Parliament and Parliament quickly legislated to exclude the clergy on the ground that a great number of benefices were in the gift of the Crown or the nobility and that the admission of the clergy to the Commons on that basis would diminish the purity and impair the independence of the House.

It is not for me to comment on the purity of the other place. However, it is a fact that a priest of the Church of England cannot sit in the other place but, as has already been said, a priest of the Church of Wales can do so. A priest of the non-established Scottish Episcopal Church cannot do so but a minister of a non-established Church in England can do so. Similarly, as has already been said, a Roman Catholic priest cannot stand for election simply because he has received episcopal ordination. In other words, we have a total muddle in the law.

Furthermore, in our judgment the arrangement infringes the rights of the people in a democratic society. If in all other respects except that relating to a person's clerical status people are qualified as citizens to become Members of Parliament, is it right that the law should prevent the people making the relevant choice if they so choose? It is high time that that anomalous legislation was repealed; the clergy should be given the same opportunities as all other citizens. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for whom I have great respect, that he has not been required to stand down from his orders in order to sit in this place. That is the crucial point in this context.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, my point—I stress it again—is that I would not have accepted a life peerage if I had had pastoral responsibility. The right reverend Prelate will agree that the Anglican Church could not enforce that but that the Roman Catholic Church can.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, my point was about the noble Lord not having to stand down from his orders. In my diocese, I have quite a large number of priests who are in secular employment. We have priests who teach in schools and who work in the City of London or—dare I say so—in the defence service. We have priests who work in all sorts of contexts. They are called ministers in secular employment. They are in holy orders and they are set in those contexts. I cannot for the life of me see what is so impure about the House of Commons that it is impossible in principle for a priest to sit in it.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt twice; I shall not do so again. The Roman Catholic position in canon law is that politics are adversarial. Being a teacher might be somewhat adversarial—I was one for 40 years—but it is not like sitting in this place or the House of Commons. That is the difference. A pastor is the centre of unity.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I take the point that it is for each Church to decide its own discipline around its own clergy. We are talking about the law as it applies to the state and about what we should do as a state. I have friends in holy orders who are members of local authorities. They are deeply involved in adversarial politics and believe with integrity that they can do so. I have never believed—I should not sit in this place if I did—that politics are such a corrupt and difficult exercise that it is impossible for Christian people, be they in orders or otherwise, not to participate in them.

We on these Benches fully take the point that, because as bishops we are Members of your Lordships' House, it would not he appropriate for a Lord Spiritual to stand for election to the House of Commons. But perhaps the Minister can clarify a point. Many bishops are not Lords Spiritual. What is their position? Forty-two bishops qualify to sit in this House, 26 of whom do so. Will the Bill exclude all bishops or only the 42 who are qualified to sit in this House as Lords Spiritual? I did not quite understand the logic of that argument and perhaps the Minister can tidy up that point for me.

We support the provisions in the Bill for dealing with the point in relation to Lords Spiritual. We welcome the Bill. We have waited a long time in the Churches for it. It puts right an anomaly and I hope the House will give it a fair wind.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, as a layman, I hesitate to get involved in this discussion.

9.51 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I am next on the list and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, will be able to speak in the gap.

I too welcome the Bill and I do so because I believe that no discrimination should be taken against anyone who wishes to stand for public office. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, referred to the case of David Cairns. It is fortunate that that case arose because it brought this issue to the fore. It really is time that we removed the archaic and discriminatory restrictions which are placed on some ministers of religion, and so bar them from becoming Members of the other place. It was unfortunate that this matter was not followed through when the Select Committee on Home Affairs took its decision three years ago.

We are discussing a piece of legislation which is over 200 years old and which has long outgrown any purpose or value. I cannot give the historical analysis that was so eloquently put by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who is no longer in his place. But we should look briefly at 1801 and examine the origins of why that legislation was introduced. It arose following a single hard case, as the right reverend Prelate said. A Church of England priest, the Reverend Home Tooke, won an election for Old Sarum. The question was whether or not he should be allowed to take his place in the House of Commons.

It is interesting that that piece of legislation had stood for 150 years, and it was only 51 years ago that the Privy Council decided that the 1801 Act not only disqualified persons ordained in the Church of England, but also all persons ordained by a bishop in accordance either with the order of the Church of England or with any other forms of episcopal ordination.

The Minister and others identified many pieces of legislation which brought us to the situation we are now at. I do not apologise for trying to spell them out again in order to show some of the inconsistencies and how irrational they are. For example, mention was made of devolved parliaments and assemblies, and I remind this House that that was a piece of legislation that went through this place. I cannot remember anybody tabling an amendment which said that ordained ministers of any religious denomination should be disqualified from those legislative bodies.

The Clergy Disqualification Act 1870 enables members of the clergy of the Church of England to renounce their position so that they are free to stand for election and take a seat in the other place after a period of six months. But there is no parallel procedure for the clergy of other religions.

Roman Catholic priests, Orthodox priests and Church of Scotland ministers cannot seek relief and be excused. Retired Orthodox priests cannot offer themselves,, but imams, shamans and rabbis certainly can. Presbyterians in England are in a different position from those in Scotland and retired Anglican vicars in Wales are in a different position from those in England. Again, as the right reverend Prelate said, there is a complete lack of clarity and there is muddle in the law as it stands. It is anomalous, inequitable, inconsistent and discriminatory.

I go even further. An active nonconformist minister could stand in a constituency in which his church is situated, but a retired ordained priest who no longer has any adherence would be disqualified from taking his seat. Further, as has been mentioned, the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 states that no person in holy orders in the Church of Rome should be capable of being elected to serve in Parliament as a Member of the House of Commons. As has been said, that presupposes that once a Roman Catholic priest has been ordained, he will remain in holy orders, whether he continues in priesthood or not. So, resignation is clearly not the answer.

However, it is not even as simple as that. It is not the case that all former Roman Catholic priests cannot offer themselves to the House; they can if they have been defrocked. We are saying that a defrocked priest can become a Member of Parliament, irrespective of the reason for being defrocked, but a retired priest cannot. Somehow, that seems even more anomalous.

I must also take up the point made about the argument as to whether one can be a good priest and a good Member of Parliament at the same time. Ann Widdecombe, in the other place, said that that was not possible. That says that those who already hold public office and are members of the clergy do not carry out either of their functions very well. Currently, there are MPs who are ordained ministers. On 6th February, the Reverend Martin Smythe, MP for Belfast South, outlined his position in the debate in the other place, at col. 832 of the Official Report. He stated that as an ordained priest in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when he became an MP he was relieved of his pastorate, but that he was still able to perform duties to help his colleagues carry out pastoral work, which he does.

This antique statute has no place in parliamentary proceedings and legislation. We cannot expect to promote a more tolerant, multi-faith, multicultural and fair society while we allow such distinctions to exist on religious grounds. The Bill is not about conscience. It is not even in a sense about religion; it is about equal rights, the democratic rights of citizens to stand for public office and to take their seat in Parliament. I believe that there are no grounds for continuing to distinguish between clergy of different religions under the law.

It is also important perhaps to look at another little piece of history and to remind ourselves that Catholics campaigned to be able to stand for Parliament, as did Jews in the 1860s because they were debarred. Charles Bradlaugh, who represented Northampton, was four times refused the right to sit in the House of Commons because he had no religious views. That, and other reasons, is why we have to ensure that this legislation goes through. It is another stage in that process.

I think—I would like the Minister to tell me—that to allow the current situation to continue must surely be a breach of the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 14 of the convention refers to religious discrimination, which this clearly is. Article 9 refers to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and Article 3 to the right of free elections. It seems to me that unless we do something about this legislation we shall find ourselves in breach of that Act.

There should be no discrimination against anybody who wishes to stand for public office. As has been said, that view is supported by the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and Ireland, which have given support to this legislation.

I believe that the arguments in favour of change are irrefutable. It is clearly right that there should no longer be legislative grounds for distinguishing between clergy of different religions. As was so rightly said, the matters we are dealing with are matters for the person and the Church concerned and they are matters for the electorate. They are certainly not matters for the legislature and I hope that the Bill will receive an easy passage through this House.

10.5 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, it may be thought by some that repealing the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act may be one of the early steps leading to the creation of a theocracy in Britain. There are other straws in the wind that lend some credence to that view.

In the first place, religious revival in the form of fundamentalism is to be seen across the globe and that has certainly become an important influence upon governments. Indeed, in some cases, religious fundamentalists now form governments.

Secondly, Britain itself has not been immune and has seen an upsurge in fundamentalism in recent years in some of its own religions; notably, Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Thirdly, very recently, echoing the sentiments of President George W Bush, Government Ministers and their Conservative shadows have spoken of the possibility and even the desirability of inviting faith communities to join in partnership with government to administer such tasks as the health and social services. Such musings risk stirring up sectarian divisions such as those that have now become an endemic feature of Northern Ireland.

Then again, commentators seeking to give some flesh to the Prime Minister's "Third Way" approach to policy making—not that the term is mentioned much nowadays—suggested that Mr Blair was aiming to introduce Christian Democracy of the kind common to many of the states of mainland Europe. On hearing that, one staunch Labour intellectual retorted, "Christian Stalinism more like, to judge from the Government's propensity for control freakery!".

I do not possess the historical perspective of my noble friend Lord Russell, but I hope to illustrate the fact that I possess some limited powers of predicting the future. As long ago as 1985 I anticipated some of the developments which I outlined in a satirical essay I wrote entitled "White collar, blue collar, dog collar: speculations on the coming ecclesiastical industrial complex".

Following what I took as axiomatic—the collapse of democracy in Britain—the nation had to be saved. My chosen hero was an Anglican worker-priest, who became a tycoon bishop and ultimately Prime Minister/Archbishop, spending weekdays at No. 10 and weekends in Lambeth Palace.

In the course of his rise to ultimate power, I wrote that it had been found prudent to repeal the House of Commons (Clergy Disqualification) Act, so I claim some intellectual property rights in respect of today's Bill. What started as part of a piece of political science fiction is now about to become reality.

The denouement I contrived was that my Prime Minister/Archbishop restored the fortunes of the country so successfully that the Church of England felt confident enough to proclaim saints. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, however, corporations could be considered for sainthood along with individuals. The ever-versatile Civil Service obligingly adapted the totting up procedure for driving offences so that five Queen's Awards for Industry or Export established a prima facie case for beatification and 10 a case for canonisation. And thus it came to pass that Marks & Spencer actually became St Michael.

The present Government have shown a marked penchant for cosying up to fat cats and big business. While their exaltation of tycoons has bordered on the reverential, it has fallen short, thus far, of sanctification. Nevertheless, the future scenario which, having let my imagination run riot, I sketched out 16 years ago captured some of the elements of contemporary political reality perhaps too closely for comfort.

To come back to earth to address the immediate business of your Lordships' House, I support the passage of this Bill. Such discrimination against the priestly caste, be it Anglican, Catholic or orthodox, by debarring its members from election to another place is wholly unwarranted in this day and age. Repeal may be a necessary step if anyone was so foolish as to want a theocracy but, thank goodness, it is not a sufficient one.

10.10 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, I strongly support the Bill. During the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill I proposed a set of amendments which were disallowed by the Table on the grounds that they fell outside the scope of the Bill. Those amendments would have amended that Bill so as to repeal the disqualifications which the legislation that we are debating this evening now removes. Following that, with the indispensable help of my friend Professor Robert Blackburn, who is one of the leading experts in Britain on electoral law and practice—the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has already referred to him—a Private Member's Bill was drafted. I had intended to lay that Bill before the House until the Government, quite rightly, decided to promote their own Bill, of which I am very strongly in favour.

Why did not the Government include that measure in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill? The answer is a very honourable one; namely, at that time they were engaged with the Churches in consultation which was not complete. I can vouch for that because, when I submitted my amendments to the Table, I also sent them to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for their comments. The response from the Roman Catholic Church was that it was heavily involved with the Government in consultation which was not then complete. Therefore, there are very good reasons why the Government did not include the legislation in the earlier Bill. That is one of the arguments against the view that this is somehow being rushed through. It is not. There was a process of consultation and proper concern about whether it could be brought forward earlier. However, the process of consultation made that very difficult, if not impossible.

Why is the Bill important? As other noble Lords have said, it removes a long-standing anomaly in electoral law which has gone relatively unnoticed. From the debate this evening it is fairly easy to see why that is so: it is quite complicated, the roots of the legislation to be repealed are historical and many people do not understand the complexities of that history. Some of the issues, such as the definition of what it is to be in holy orders, are rather arcane, and in addition it affects very few people. There is an anomaly here which has been hidden for a very long time, and I believe that this is a good moment to try to rectify it.

The Acts which are to be repealed in whole or in part have a long history and their provisions are entirely anachronistic or not part of Parliament's business. I very much agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his description of those provisions. I do not bore your Lordships by going through them again. I am wholly in agreement with the noble Earl. But I believe that the effect of the Acts is discriminatory, because people who have taken holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church are disqualified for life, even if they abandon or repudiate their priesthood. Whether they choose to join another Christian denomination, another religion or become atheists, as I understand it they are still regarded as priests for life. Anglican clergy, however, can remove the disqualification via the Clerical Disabilities Act.

I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that it would be improper for Parliament to go down the same road as was trodden in the passing of the Clerical Disabilities Act. It is not a matter of providing some mechanism for Roman Catholic priests to abandon their orders in a way that would infringe the rights of the Catholic Church: rather, it is for Parliament to remove the disqualification which priests who are held still to be priests then suffer. That is entirely proper for Parliament, whereas the former would not be. I also agree with my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton that the existing legislation is quite possibly a breach of the Human Rights Act in respect of free elections, non-discrimination and freedom of expression.

It is worth reiterating two points made by the Minister in his opening remarks: first, that the removal of disqualification was recommended by the Home Affairs Committee of another place; and, secondly, that the present Bill was given a Second Reading in the other place by a vote of 196 to 15.

What, if anything, might be said against the measure? There is the point about vocation made by Miss Widdecombe and also this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, that in a sense priesthood is about a complete way of life and commitment. It is a calling which is quite different from politics. That may be so, but surely that same point applies to ministers of religion in other denominations and indeed other faiths. I cannot see that episcopal ordination makes a difference to the point that the life of a minister of religion involves that—if it does—complete engagement of a person. That applies across faiths. I do not see why it should be invoked particularly in relation to episcopally-ordained ministers as opposed to the generality of ministers of religion of whatever kind.

In a free society that should be a matter for the Churches themselves. If they do not wish to see their priests who are currently in orders involved in politics they can take action against them through the canon law or through the other devices open to Church authorities.

At one point in the debate in the House of Commons it was suggested that the Bill might open the door to religious maniacs becoming Members of Parliament. I find it difficult to take that argument seriously because it assumes that all potential religious maniacs must be in holy orders in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. That is a rather dubious proposition. If we took it seriously, it would be a case for general disqualification of clergy of all religions, not just those episcopally ordained.

It might he argued that this is a basic constitutional change and that it should have been given more time by the Government. I have already said that I believe that there has been a process at work here. Unfortunately it has emerged only with the Bill, hut it has been going on for quite some time. It was occasioned by the case of Mr Cairns and his desire to stand in the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency. However, the Bill should have been promoted even if there was no one currently disadvantaged by it. Indeed, how could we ever know if anyone was disadvantaged? There may be, or may have been, priests who have been deterred from seeking political nomination because of the law. They anticipated a reaction and did not seek a political career or involvement because of that.

There is no case for arguing against a constitutional change because it relates to a single individual. As the right reverend Prelate said, the 1801 Act was occasioned by the election of Home Tooke, and there will be a nice symmetry in repealing an Act of Parliament which was enacted to deal with one case in order to deal with another single case. I do not see that there is any harm in that. Indeed, the case of Bradlaugh and the case of Tony Benn, also known as Viscount Stansgate at one time, give good reason for thinking that constructive constitutional change can arise out of individual cases.

I have not covered all the arguments. I agree with the general account of the Bill given by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I hope that the Bill will be supported and that it will have a swift passage through your Lordships' House.

10.20 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I must first apologise to the House and, in particular, to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for appearing at an earlier stage to attempt to jump the queue. My only defence is to say that the error was due to the fact that I had been in the Chamber almost continuously since 2.15 p.m. and that I had entirely forgotten to check the speakers' list. That lapse may be attributed to old age. I am 80—almost 81.

I have repeatedly informed your Lordships that although I am a communicant of the Church of Ireland, which was disestablished in 1870, I was educated at a Roman Catholic school. So your Lordships may feel that I have a right to be somewhat neutral in this matter. I hope that this short debate will provide an opportunity for editors of newspapers in Northern Ireland to undo the damage they did to community relations and religious attitudes in Northern Ireland by reporting on the debate in the other place, summarised in headlines like: Westminster lifts ban on Roman Catholic priests". Unfortunately, their recklessness and irresponsibility had the intended effect in certain quarters. I deplore that very much.

I just want to say that my first encounter with the existing problem was in the case of an Eighth Army Anglican chaplain, who I think was not always a non-combatant, the Reverend JJ MacManaway, who was elected to Westminster in 1950. I was closely acquainted with him for most of the post-war period. Certain politically motivated persons drew that anomaly to the attention of various persons here in the Palace of Westminster, with the inevitable result that the Privy Council, no doubt acting on sound advice on the law as it then stood, unseated my friend.

We owe it to the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church to give our support to this limited Bill. They are all affected by the generally rather muddled situation that remains at the present time. We all concede that the present situation is out of date, but I make a plea to those newspaper editors for moderation. The law has long needed modernisation and I fully support the Bill and the Minister.

10.23 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the rules for the disqualification of priests and ministers of religion from membership of the other place are archaic and confusing. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has pointed out the anomalies. Disqualification does not apply at all to priests and deacons of the Church in Wales and does not apply to priests and deacons of the Church of England who have drawn up a certificate of relinquishment, whatever that may be. On the other hand, priests and deacons of the Roman Catholic Church, of the Church of Ireland, of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, of the overseas provinces of the Anglican Church and, it seems, of the Orthodox Churches and the smaller Christian Episcopal Churches, such as, I believe, the Armenian Church, are all disqualified for life without the possibility of parole, although I have to say that I do not expect many Armenian priests in any event to seek membership of the other place.

By contrast, the ministers of non-episcopal Christian denominations are not disqualified, with the sole exception of ministers of the Church of Scotland. No priests, ministers or holders of other religious offices of non-Christian religions are disqualified. I know of one rabbi who stood for election on behalf of the SDP in 1983.

The probable reason for the exclusion from the House of Commons of the established Church in England and Wales has been explained by my noble friend Lord Russell and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. However, that cannot be the reason for the exclusion of ministers of the Church of Scotland. Disqualification of Roman Catholic priests is expressly provided for by the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 and is now one of the very few remaining handicaps imposed on Roman Catholics. I seem to recall that, about a year ago, we passed an Act allowing a Roman Catholic to become Lord Chancellor.

Of course the disqualification of clergy does not extend to your Lordships' House where we have at least five life Peers, including the noble Lord—I wish that I could describe him as noble and reverend—Lord Pilkington, who would be disqualified from sitting in the House of Commons because he is an ordained priest of the Church of England or, in the case of Archbishop Eames, of the Church of Ireland.

Speaking as a non-believer of mixed Jewish and Anglican background, I have to say that none of this makes much sense to me. As the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, remarked, the role of an active priest and the role of a Member of Parliament may well be incompatible. However, that is a matter for the Churches to decide. If a priest or former priest decides to stand and is elected, it may be contrary to the rules of his Church and may lead to disciplinary action under the rules of that Church. Again, however, that is no reason why the state should intervene. Indeed, it may well be contrary to the human rights of priests to exclude them from the right to stand in elections.

The last parliamentary election that I fought was in Oxford West and Abingdon in 1992. My Labour opponent on that occasion was Bruce Kent, formerly Monsignor Bruce Kent. I am not sure whether he had been formally defrocked, but I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, may well be wrong in saying that a defrocked priest can take a seat. At any rate, that is the view of Professor Blackburn, as set out in the House of Commons Library guide to this matter. As it happened, Bruce Kent finished a distant third in that election, but had he won, he could well have been disqualified from taking his seat. I have to say that I disagreed with many of his views, but I formed a great respect and liking for him during the course of the campaign and I believe that he would have made an excellent MP, although perhaps for another seat. I believe that it is totally wrong that perhaps he would have been unable to take his seat if he had been elected.

In spite of what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, I believe that the purpose of introducing this Bill at this time is specifically to ensure that David Cairns—who has a better chance of winning his seat than did Bruce Kent—will not suffer the fate that Bruce would have done if he had won Oxford West and Abingdon. I regret that only now is this Bill being introduced to enable one particular candidate to take his seat.

However, my party has long supported disestablishment of the Church of England and we believe that archaic rules concerning disqualification from membership of the other place should have been swept away long ago. For that reason, while I am unhappy that the Bill is being introduced now for what appear to be self-serving reasons, it would be wholly inconsistent for us to oppose the Bill on that ground.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I have enjoyed the debate, especially the welcome and humorous contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Smith. It was particularly welcome for those of us who have been in the Chamber for some hours longer than we expected.

We have to be very clear about what we are being asked to do. The Minister explained the Bill as a kind of tidying-up measure to enable priests and ministers of the Church of Scotland to be members of another place—"priests" being defined as those ordained by a bishop. Primarily, of course, we are talking about Anglican and Roman Catholic priests.

As we have heard, some Anglican priests are not disqualified from membership of another place. The clergy of the Church in Wales are specifically allowed by the civil law to be Members of Parliament under the Welsh Church Act 1914. Church of England priests can take advantage of the Clerical Disabilities Act 1870.

I remember Ivor Clemitson, who was elected to another place at a similar time to myself. He was a priest of the Church of England and became MP for Luton East for a number of years. He had, of course, relinquished his orders at that time under the available mechanism. So there is not really a problem so far as concerns inactive Church of England clergy—that is, "inactive" in the sense of their clerical responsibilities—who are prepared to go through the necessary hoops.

However, that is not the end of the matter so far as concerns Anglicans. The Welsh case clearly indicates the constitutional connection between the provisions in this Bill and the establishment by law of the Church of England. It was on disestablishment, when the Welsh bishops left this House, that the Welsh clergy were permitted to become Members of another place. So the whole subject matter of the Bill so far as concerns Anglicans clearly reads across into the position of the English bishops in the House in addition to the specific mention of them in the Bill.

Their position is of course being considered in the context of House of Lords reform, as we know. The logical context in which to consider changing the rules for other clergy in relation to another place is when we change the position of the bishops' place in this House, if that is what finally emerges from the discussions about its future. We are asked to change half the law, in a piecemeal fashion, while consideration of the other half is still proceeding.

I turn to Roman Catholic priests. The Roman Catholic Church, like others, takes a strict and solemn view of priesthood. It requires a long period of instruction and preparation; it wishes to be certain of the individuals' vocation; and, when a man comes to be ordained, it insists on a full and real lifelong commitment. As has been said, once ordained a man is a priest forever.

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that I understand that it is legally possible under canon law to be relieved of the obligations and duties of a priest—that is, to be "laicised"—but it is deliberately difficult. If the promises of ordination could easily be disposed of, the commitment would be that much weaker, not only for the priest concerned but for every other priest too. In other words, it would devalue the priest hood itself world-wide. That is why canon law is framed and operated as it is.

But, in any case, "laicisation" does not mean that a man is not still a priest—he is. It means only that he is relieved of the obligations and duties of a priest. I am not a Roman Catholic but I respect the view that the Roman Catholic Church takes of its priesthood.

As we have heard, the Roman Catholic Church does not permit its priests to take part in the civil government of any country and therefore to become members of legislatures. Canon law specifically forbids bishops, priests and deacons from sharing the exercise of civil power. I understand that the present Pope has emphasised that government and politics are in the sphere of the laity.

So this Bill is therefore about those who want to become politicians against the promises that they made when they were ordained. However, as has emerged from the debate, the Bill has not been brought forward at this time because of the principle of the issue but because of one particular case. The Minister mentioned it himself, as has practically every other speaker. The reason for advancing the Bill at this time is that David Cairns is a prospective Labour parliamentary candidate. As has been said, he is a Roman Catholic priest and was active as such until some years ago, but more recently he has renounced his vocation and no longer wants to undertake the duties of a priest. I do not know whether he has been "laicised" and thereby relieved of his obligations and duties by his Church. But whether or not that is the case, he remains a priest forever and so under the civil law he cannot sit in Parliament.

Mr Cairns was selected last summer by the local party to be the prospective Labour candidate for Greenock and Inverclyde. I have heard that at the time of his selection he did not tell the public, his constituency Labour Party officers or the members of the party who had to decide on the choice of a candidate that he was disqualified from being an MP, although he presumably knew that perfectly well. I do not know at what stage Mr Cairns's true position became known to the Labour Party's national authorities; nor do I know when they agreed to try to get the Government to change the law to help him.

It would assist the House to understand Mr Cairns's position if the Minister would answer three questions. First, did Mr Cairns know that he was disqualified when he put his name forward for selection? Secondly, did the constituency members know that he was disqualified when they selected him? Thirdly, when did the Labour Party's national authorities know that he was disqualified under the law as it stands?

There is another aspect to all this. We are told by the newspapers that the Prime Minister has been planning for a long time to hold the general election on 3rd May and still wishes to do so. If that is what happens, the Bill cannot complete its passage through this House under our normal rules. There is simply not enough time. That is the Government's choice. Provisions of this kind were recommended some time ago by a Select Committee of another place. But the Government did not conclude their consultations and arrange for the responses to come forward early enough to take the opportunity to propose this measure to Parliament when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act was being debated—the noble Lord, Lord Plant, said that he tried to insert a provision into that measure—or during debate on the Representation of the People Act or the Disqualifications Act. All three measures have completed their passage through Parliament since the Select Committee made its recommendations. Above all, the Government did not cause the Bill to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech; nor did they introduce it early enough in this Session for it to be considered in the normal way if the election is to be held on 3rd May. Other Bills—

Earl Russell

My Lords, most of us on this side of the House have criticised governments at one time or another because their consultations were too cursory. Is it consistent to criticise the Government now because their consultations were too thorough?

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, all I am saying is that had the consultations—which took several years—allowed them to do so, they could have taken advantage of the other measures, or they could have introduced the Bill earlier in this Session. Other Bills have been considered in this Session and have received Royal Assent. This afternoon alone we finally passed the Vehicles (Crime) Bill and cleared it for Royal Assent after full discussion. It has only a very small hurdle to cover now. By leaving this Bill so late, if the election is to be on 3rd May, the Government have in practice denied to any other priest or former priest the opportunity that they seek to give to Mr Cairns; that is to say, the opportunity to go to a constituency to seek selection as a candidate and put themselves before the electorate.

If the election goes forward on 3rd May, we may be asked to facilitate Mr Cairns's prospective membership of the House of Commons—if he is elected—despite the fact that he apparently deceived the local Labour Party members at his selection when he appears to have concealed his disqualification; and the fact that he seeks to become a Member of the other place, contrary to the promises that he gave his Church—some of the most solemn promises that it is possible to make. I wonder what value the constituents will now place on any other promises that he has made to them, either in the course of seeking the candidature or that he may make during the forthcoming campaign.

If the Bill were to be rushed through Parliament, we could also be asked to bend some of the most central clauses of our constitution, even while consideration is being given to wider, related changes. The qualifications for membership of the legislature are a central matter in the constitution of any country. The constitution in many countries cannot be changed, except by a more elaborate procedure than for other changes in the law. But if the election is to take place on 3rd May, we may be asked to accelerate our procedures for the sake of this one man.

That course would deny us proper Committee and Report stages in which to consider, for example, whether we should confine the permission to Roman Catholics priests who have been "laicised" and so avoid assisting in the breaking of canon law; what we wish to do about the establishment of the Church of England, and the future representation of the faith communities in this House; and whether all bishops of the Church of England should be disqualified, which is what the Select Committee recommended, or only those who are already Lords Spiritual and Members of this House, as suggested by the Bill. Indeed, the right reverend Prelate referred to that point. We should also need to consider any points on legal drafting that may arise. This House rightly prides itself on its detailed consideration of Bills, particularly when, as in this case, they concern alterations to ancient laws of a constitutional character.

The part of the Bill that refers to Anglicans is unnecessary to a considerable extent and is divorced from its proper constitutional context. The other part that refers to Roman Catholic priests is, at this stage at any rate, for the benefit of one man and one political party. Apart from his position, it can in no way be described as "urgent". I hasten to add that I do not believe that we should deny the Bill a Second Reading tonight; indeed, that would be against the normal custom in your Lordships' House. In any event, that would amount to saying that the matter should not be further discussed. I take the opposite view; namely, that the Bill deserves further consideration and will need further discussion. If other events mean that that incommodes Mr. Cairns, that seems to me to be his own fault. He set up the situation when he put himself forward as a candidate and, apparently, concealed his true position from the local party in Greenock. He cannot presume that Parliament will simply bend its rules to his convenience.

10.43 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I shall respond briefly to the debate. I shall not go into great detail, because I believe that we have had a fair hearing of some of the issues involved. With the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, I think it would be fair to say that there has been broad agreement on the Bill, though perhaps I should also mention the noble Lord. Lord Cope. in that respect. Before the noble Lord spoke, it was my understanding that, broadly speaking, the Opposition were in favour and rather supportive of the measure. However, heaving heard his speech, I am rather rapidly reviewing that assumption. Having said that, I believe that we have had a useful debate. As ever, I am grateful to all speakers who have taken part.

A number of quite interesting points were raised. I suppose that the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, expressed the most clearly-stated opposition to the measure, based around the principle of "once a priest, always a priest". He echoed the concerns raised in another place by Ann Widdecombe that this was a calling and a vocation and that we should not in any way undermine it by passing this piece of legislation.

The noble Lord also argued that hard cases make bad law. On some occasions that may well be the case. However, there are examples of hard cases which have made good law. I mention the case of Tony Benn when he sought to become a Member of the House of Commons. That case made good law. It did not just assist the Labour Party but also the Conservative Party when it wanted to appoint a new Prime Minister on the demise of Harold Macmillan.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made some important points in an entertaining speech. As ever, he gave us a history lesson. He reminded me of several pieces of legislation which I had forgotten since the days of my A-levels and reminded me why I so enjoyed history at the time. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, persuaded me that we were living in a form of science fiction, otherwise known as political science. I thought that that was a very entertaining contribution.

I was grateful for the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford. I shall try to answer the precise question that he asked. He asked what would be the position of the bishops who are not Lords Spiritual. They will not be disqualified from membership of another place. I thought that I had made that point clear in my opening comments.

In conclusion, I address an issue which I think the noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised. I think that he asked whether the Bill would inhibit the ability of Churches to discipline their members. It does not do that; it focuses solely—as I believe Members of your Lordships' House are now aware—on the right to stand for election. I think that that clarifies that point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, asked whether the current situation constitutes a breach of human rights. The reform is undertaken not to set right a breach of human rights. It is undertaken because we consider that the present law is in breach of a fundamental right; that is, the right to stand for election. We believe that the reform is right in principle. The current situation could well be challenged under human rights legislation. However, I should not like to speculate on that point as it is not a point for me to consider. However, I believe that we can all recognise that the measure adds another passage to extending the rights of all people in this country to stand for election if they wish. As I believe the noble Baroness argued forcefully and effectively, it gets rid of discrimination and anomalies—things that we want to see the back of.

I was grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield. He reminded your Lordships' House that some consideration had been given to the issue during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. Some thought was certainly given to rectifying the anomaly during the construction of that piece of legislation. However, it was felt at that stage that it was outwith the scope of that Bill. I think that that was probably the right conclusion to draw. However, this issue has been around for some time. The case of Mr Cairns has brought it sharply into focus.

While I as ever respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, which he always expresses with great sincerity and clarity, I do not think that it is for your Lordships' House to consider whether or not Mr Cairns has in any way, shape or form misled his local party. That is an issue for Mr Cairns, and perhaps for the local party, to consider. I do not believe that it was irresponsible of Mr Cairns to seek selection. I believe that he undertook that in good faith and in so doing he has valuably reinforced and highlighted an issue which it is important for us to tackle by way of getting rid of this long-standing anomaly which I do not consider has any relevance to our modern society or to our modern day constitution.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, will think again about some of his comments. I had hoped that the House would move forward with a fair degree of unanimity. I respect the point that hard questions should always be asked about legislation; and that legislation should be properly and effectively scrutinised. But I think it would he better if this legislation were accepted and adopted in good faith, with a good heart and in good spirit. Although it satisfies one individual and, peculiarly in this instance, one particular party, it is not brought forward in partisan terms. It has been brought forward to deal with discrimination and anomalies and to set right a situation which, it could be fairly argued, should have been tackled long ago.

The Government are firmly of the view that current legislation which prevents ordained clergy from being elected to serve in another place, and which prevents Catholic priests from having a similar status, is wrong. It is a short Bill but it is a significant measure. It will remove an unfair and archaic piece of legislation which prevents both serving and former ministers of religion from taking their seats if elected as Members of Parliament,

On that basis, I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill fulsome support at Second Reading and throughout its stages in this House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.