BY SIMON CALDWELL
CARDINAL CORMAC MurphyO'Connor has accused the Government of abusing Parliamentary democracy by attempting to force through controversial new gay rights laws.
He said it was wrong that MPs were not allowed a chance to debate the issue when it came before the House of Commons this week.
Instead, MPs were allowed a single vote on the Sexual Orientation Regulations at the close of business late on Monday night — instead of midweek — when fewer members were able to turn up.
The Government won the vote with 310 MPs voting for the regulations and 100 voting against them. As The Catholic Herald went to press the proposals were due to go before the Lords where they were expected to meet with fierce opposition.
The procedures had earlier been roundly criticised by MPs from all the main parties when last week the Government gave the 16 members of a committee set up to approve the regulations just 17 hours' notice of the hearing. It is normal practice to give MPs a week's notice even for minor legislation and it is likely that committee members would not even have had time to read the regulations. The debate, which lasted only 90 minutes, involved just one MP other than three front-bench spokesmen since Meg Munn, the Minister in charge of the regulations. gave hardly any opportunity to discuss them.
Cardinal Murphy-0 ' Connor's comment ahead of the Commons vote reflected mounting dismay among politicians at the Government's attempts to force through the regulations.
"It is, surely, an abuse of Parliamentary democracy that these regulations are being considered by Parliament only through a hurriedly arranged and very brief meeting of 16 appointed MPs and a short debate in the House of Lords," said the Cardinal, the president of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.
"During the House of Commons committee meeting opportunity for serious debate was denied," he said. "Profound public concern about aspects of these regulations has not been heard. The debate on Wednesday in the House of Lords, although important in itself, will hardly compensate for the lack of a full debate in the House of Commons."
The Cardinal added: "Our society's understanding of the
pattern of family life and of the role of conscience and religious belief in public life remains a very important part of the political agenda.
"Noting the fact that the Sexual Orientation Regulations are being voted on in the House of Commons today, I again express our concern at their impact. not only on adoption services, but on cooperation between faith-based voluntary agencies and public authorities in public-funded services."
The regulations have the aim of ending discrimination against homosexuals in the provision of services, goods and facilities.
But they have been severely criticised by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders who fear that they will "discriminate heavily" against anyone who expresses the view that gay sexual acts are not equal to the conjugal love of heterosexual married couples.
The Catholic bishops have said that the regulations could force the closure of their 13 adoption agencies, which will lose government funding if they refuse to place children with same sex couples.
In January Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor pleaded directly for an exemption with the Prime Minister, whose wife and children are Catholic, but faced with a Cabinet rebellion Tony Blair would only give the agencies until the end of next year to comply with the law.
The Cardinal issued his statement after a standing committee meeting with other Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham and Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff.
Fanner Tory Minister Ann Widdecombe, a convert to Catholicism, said on Monday that there had been "almost an unprecedented shortness of timefrom the regulations being introduced and moved into the Commons. They were being moved with "extreme and unseemly haste". she said.
William Cash, the former Shadow Attorney General, said the Government was treating Parliament and the British people with contempt.
"I am absolutely appalled by this whole thing," said Mr Cash, the Conservative MP for Stone and a Catholic. "These regulations are being railroaded through like they didn't matter. We know that the Prime Minister didn't want the regulations to go this way. We know Ruth Kelly didn't want it.
Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough and a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instrinnents, said that the Government had not only stifled debate at committee level but had also arranged the timetable so that the rules would be approved when most MPs were not able to attend.
"There hasn't been a single backbench comment on this," he said. "If that's not an abuse of power.1 don't know what is. It is an absolute sham when you remember how important these regulations are."
However, Tory leader David Cameron. who outraged some Conservatives by backing Mr Blair over the regulations, allowed a free vote on the issue.
The only chance to debate the regulations was expected to come in the House of Lords on Wednesday when Baroness O'Cathain. a Tory peer, was to propose a motion to reject them altogether. Like MPs, peers were not be able to amend the regulations but could vote only either for or against them.
Baroness O'Cathain's motion proposed that the "House, having regard to the widespread concerns that the draft regulations compromise religious liberty and will result in litigation over the content of classroom teaching, and having regard to the legality of the equivalent regulations for Northern Ireland, declines to approve the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007."
It represented the last chance for opponents of the regulations to stop them from becoming law. Christian groups were planning to hold a prayer vigil outside Parliament to coincide with the Lords debate.
Forty lay members of the Church of England's governing General Synod also urged the 26 Anglican bishops who sit in the Lords to find the time to attend the debate and vote against the regulations.
Baroness O'Cathain, 69, is a distinguished economist who, in the early 1990s. was also the managing director of the Barbican Centre, London. She is an Evangelical Christian and a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.