Further consideration of Bill, as amended in Committee
New Clause 1
Removal of disqualification arising from faith
‘(1) A person is not disqualified from succeeding to the Crown or from possessing it as a result of that person not joining in communion with the Church of England as by law established; and all provisions to the contrary in the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement are accordingly superseded.
(2) Where a person who succeeds to the Crown or possesses it declares to the Privy Council that he or she is not in communion with the Church of England as by law established, the person who is next in line of succession to the Crown and who is in communion with the Church of England shall perform the functions of Supreme Governor of the Church of England in the name of and on behalf of the Sovereign.
(3) The provisions in subsections (3) to (5) of section 3 of the Regency Act 1937 apply to such a person who is Supreme Governor, with the substitution for references to the Regent of references to the Supreme Governor.’.—(Jacob Rees-Mogg.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 1, clause 2, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(2A) A child of a marriage, which at the time of the marriage disqualified one of their parents from succeeding to the Crown or possessing it, who is at the time of the coming into force of this section of the Roman Catholic faith shall not as a result be for ever incapable of succeeding to the Crown.’.
Amendment 2, clause 2, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
‘(2B) A child of a marriage, which takes place after the coming into force of this section between a Roman Catholic and a person in line of succession to the Crown, who is of the Roman Catholic faith shall not as a result be for ever incapable of succeeding to the Crown.’.
It occurs to me that the Leader of the House must have a sense of humour. Today, as I am sure you know, Mr Speaker, is the anniversary of the death of his late Majesty King Henry VIII, so it seems only appropriate that we should be discussing the Succession to the Crown Bill on such an anniversary. After all, King Henry introduced three succession to the Crown Bills, and some of the problems we are dealing with today originate with his reign. I have proposed two further amendments, which you have graciously said, Mr Speaker, we can deal with in the course of our debate on the new clause, and I shall come to them secondarily.
New clause 1 is the crucial part of what I am proposing. It is a development within the context of the Bill to attend not just to one discrimination but to a second that is inherent within the current rules governing the succession. From time immemorial, the succession has gone to the eldest male heir, but since the Act of Settlement 1701 it has had to go to a Protestant. There has been a religious discrimination as well as discrimination on the grounds of sex. My new clause seeks to amend that to allow for anybody of any faith to succeed to the Crown while making provision for the established Church.
Many countries in the world have a Crown that is only temporal; they do not have a Crown that is spiritual as well. The mediaevalists debated at great length where power should rest in those two spheres, and I do not wish to rehearse the schoolmen’s arguments. There are, however, two distinct and separate powers and authorities: the temporal one that deals with the laws we live by and how we should lead our lives in respect of society; and the spiritual one that looks to the higher plane and the greater authority that comes with religious belief and religious conviction.
In our country, those two powers are merged in the Crown. The Crown is both the spiritual head of the Church and the temporal head of the nation for one part—and one part only—of the Crown. On Tuesday last week, on Second Reading and indeed in Committee, we debated whether that was right and how it applied in a more modern age. It is worth looking, as we did last week, at some of the detail. Because the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she is or has under her an established Church in Scotland, but she is not formally head of it. She puts in a Lord High Commissioner to represent her at meetings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but she is not the Supreme Governor of the established Church in Scotland in the way she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England. There is no established Church in Wales; there is no established Church in Northern Ireland. As far as I am aware, there is no established Church in Antigua and Barbuda, in Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher-Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon islands, Tuvalu or in Her Majesty’s other realms and territories. When we deal with one discrimination but not the other, therefore, we leave a discrimination that applies only to a very small part of the totality of the Crown.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a discrimination is inherent, and has been since time immemorial, in relation to the eldest? My hon. Friend refers to a discrimination in relation to the Protestant faith, but is there not also an in-built discrimination against younger male heirs?
Had my hon. Friend not been meeting His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales last Tuesday, he would have heard the debate on an amendment that I tabled to clarify this matter, because the current Bill, rather than maintaining any system of primogeniture, might simply create co-heirs. Of course, the concept of monarchy has an unfairness in it—the very word “monarchy” means that one will rule; it cannot be everybody in the country. However, the reasons for having discrimination on the grounds of faith—in 1688, formalised in the Act of Settlement in 1701—are very different from those that apply today.
Likewise, if you think back to Richard the Lionheart, Mr Speaker, as I am sure you often do, with his fine statue outside the House of Lords, you will acknowledge that it had been necessary since time immemorial to have a king who was able to fight, lead armies in battle and show his great strength, and that was easier for a male than for a female. The last king to lead troops into battle was George II.
Historically, therefore, there may have been reasons for having a religious discrimination, a discrimination on the grounds of sex, and the obvious discrimination within a monarchy of it being rule by one. As the discrimination on the grounds of sex is no longer necessary, or can no longer be argued for logically, nor can exclusions on the grounds of religion.
The reason for the religious bar in the late 17th and early 18th century was the genuine threat perceived by this country from the strong Catholic nations in Europe. In the reign of Elizabeth I, of course, the Spanish had been the threat, but by the reign of Queen Anne, the French were the greater concern. Through the secret treaty of Dover, Louis XIV tried to get Charles II to take a subsidy to establish a standing army that would enforce Catholicism on the nation as part of Louis XIV’s aim to get general European rule. You might be worried, Mr Speaker, about general European rule, but it is not in support of Catholicism.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, although it is worth bearing in mind that the House was controlled by Tories at the point at which the Act of Settlement was passed, so I am looking to revise a Tory piece of legislation.
The fundamental point is that the reason for the provision on religious discrimination no longer exists in the way that it did in the late 17th and early 18th century.
I am rather surprised to hear my hon. Friend’s comments, because although I had to be absent from the Chamber during the debate last week, I think I read in the parliamentary record that he had no objection to being called a Papist, despite the antiquity of that term, because he understood that it represented part of this country’s history. Does he depart from that now in saying that the historical aspect of the Protestant ascendancy in this country is not relevant today?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, which made him sound even more antiquarian than I am. I do not think that I have ever heard anyone argue for the Protestant ascendancy in the House, and as far as I know it has not been argued for here since 1829, although conceivably some may have argued for it since then. It is absolutely right to say that there are historic aspects of the construction of our constitution that it would be better for us not to change.
Yes. The Catholic Emancipation Act 1829 makes it clear that the Prime Minister is entitled to be a Catholic. The last office to be specifically excluded was that of Lord Chancellor, but, as far as I am aware, the provision was amended in the late 1970s. The one thing that a Catholic Prime Minister cannot do is make or advise on appointments in the Church of England. That is specifically listed as a felony.
The point is that times have changed, and the Bill has come forward. If there were to be no change in our plans for the succession, I would not be the one charging the barricades and saying that we ought to be changing them, but the Government have proposed this change, which they wish to limit to a very narrow sphere. They wish to limit it to making primogeniture equal among males and females, and to allowing marriage to Catholics, without considering the grating unfairness that currently exists in our laws of succession in an age of much greater toleration, and in an age in which so many of the areas in which the Queen is sovereign do not have an established Church.
I always listen with great interest and enjoyment to my hon. Friend’s speeches on these matters, because he is so knowledgeable. Does he foresee a time when an heir to the throne could take his case to the European Court of Human Rights because he was not permitted to belong to the religion to which he wished to belong?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I also think that the law should represent the reality. It is inconceivable that if a sovereign of Canada—including, obviously, Quebec—decided to convert to Roman Catholicism, that sovereign would be deposed, thrown out and replaced. I think that even in this country and even with an established Church, we cannot accept the idea that a sovereign on the throne who decided to convert to Rome would be suddenly chucked out of Buckingham palace. When the law has moved away from the reality, and we are amending the law in any event, perhaps it makes sense to carry out a comprehensive reform of the law to make the two match up.
There is a part of the Act of Settlement that requires the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England, so I am not absolutely certain that my hon. Friend is correct, but my new clause would get rid of the bar for all religions. This is not simply a Catholic issue. I have concentrated more on the Catholic issue because that was the reasoning behind the Act of Settlement and the reason for its becoming part of our law, and also because clause 2 of the Bill deals with marriage to Catholics. Marriage to Catholics is a specific Catholic exclusion, but communion with the Church of England is the requirement when it comes to inheriting the throne.
Let me explain why I support an established Church. My new clause provides for the maintaining of a Protestant head of the Church of England. That is partly to do with our history and traditions, which we see even on the Mace. It has a cross on its top as a symbol of the shared Christianity that this country has had since its very foundations as a nation, going all the way back to St Augustine coming and converting England and the ultimate joining together of the Crowns. Christianity has run through our history.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it allows me to remind the House that Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have taken our Lord to visit Somerset when he was a young man. Some people maintain that that is mere legend blurring into myth, but I am quite convinced of its veracity.
I think that an established Church is good for the body politic—it is good for us that we can have jubilee celebrations held in St Paul’s cathedral or Westminster abbey, and that we can have that focus of national life through an established Church—but obviously an established Church cannot have as its head somebody who belongs to another Church. That would be logically inconsistent. It would be unfair on the Church of England; it would mean that bishops and archbishops appointed within the Church of England were appointed by somebody who did not share their beliefs and that could not be the right thing to do.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that might have been an amendment worthy of consideration. It is not the amendment I tabled. My amendment sought to maintain the supreme governorship of the Church of England in a regency whenever the sovereign was not in communion with the Anglican Church under the Regency Act 1937, which requires the regent to be a Protestant and to meet the terms of the Act of Settlement. I would prefer to keep things that way because the Crown and the headship of the Church of England could come back together when a future sovereign was an Anglican, and my approach would not permanently separate the two. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward new thoughts on the matter; one of the reasons why it would have been better to have had a longer time for, and longer gaps in, debating this important subject is because then such ideas could have been discussed.
My new clause is extremely simple. It is a recognition—no matter how much I am sometimes reluctant to recognise it—that the modern world is different from the early 18th century. There may have been many glories in the early 18th century, but one of the glories of this modern age is that we are tolerant—we are tolerant of different religions. We believe that people practising other faiths is something to be welcomed and encouraged, and that has made us a stronger nation rather than a weaker one. Therefore there should no longer be a bar on the grounds of faith in respect of the sovereign, as long as we can make provision for the established Church of England, which there is and which I support.
That circle can be squared by providing for a regency. That relatively simple and straightforward proposal deals with a problem that people have recognised in this country for many decades; we have not suddenly woken up and realised that a non-member of the Church of England cannot become sovereign. Bills have been presented to Parliament to deal with that, and this seems the right time to be doing it, as we are legislating on the Crown succession and we are in discussion with the Commonwealth members who also have the Queen as sovereign to see whether they will agree to it.
Is it not the case that his holiness the Pope, who wears the triple crown, is also a temporal sovereign? Would it not be a requirement of that office that he be of the Catholic faith? Does that situation have any similarity with the point that my hon. Friend is making?
Much though I admire his late Holiness Pope Pius IX, he was the last Pope to exercise effective temporal power. His Prime Minister was assassinated in Rome, and from that point on, the Papacy’s temporal power in Italy has been restricted to the vicinity of the Holy See—that very small amount of land. Suggesting that we should open up the Holy See to non-Catholics when there are only about 2,000 residents, almost all of whom are in holy orders, is faintly although engagingly absurd.
I always listen to my hon. Friend with great admiration on these and all other matters, as I did his father, but on his interesting suggestions on a regency, and in connection with the fact that Her Majesty is one of the two rulers who are anointed, how does his regency proposal deal with the problem of the coronation oath, in which the sovereign very specifically must declare that she will support a Protestant Church as the Church of England?
We are legislating now for the succession of the Crown; the coronation oath is legislated for as well. We could legislate to take account of that in such a way that the sovereign would not be able to obstruct the Protestant faith, and would therefore be obliged to give the supreme governorship of the Church of England to a regent. That is a way to get around the problem of the unfairness and lack of tolerance in an age that is tolerant, and yet protect the interests of the Church of England. I am reluctant ever to disagree with my right hon. Friend, who is the wisest Member of the House, and not just by virtue of being the Father of the House. History usually says he is right—he has been right on so many issues in the past 50 years—so it is with considerable reluctance that I disagree with him, but I think the problem he mentions could be solved.
New clause 1 would be a simple, easy change that would provide for the Church of England and deal with other areas of the world where the Queen is sovereign. It would not perpetuate an unfairness and deals with reality.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman about what seems to be at least a technical defect in the new clause? If the sovereign decides not to declare to the Privy Council that he or she is a Catholic, the procedure for ensuring that there is a Protestant supreme governor of the Church of England is not activated or brought into force.
That is a fantastically late 17th century point. The language of coronation oaths of the late 17th century shows that people are obsessed by Jesuit dissemblers and believe that a sovereign who wants to get around the oath will come to the throne—he could have his fingers crossed behind his back or, even worse, a dispensation from the Pope saying that he is allowed to say that he is a good, honest Protestant when he is not. A sovereign is not likely to behave in that type of Jesuitical dissembling way. Our sovereigns tend to be good, upright and honest sovereigns rather than sovereigns who deceive us as to their religion. That is likely to remain the case.
I have dealt with new clause 1, and should like briefly to deal with amendments 1 and 2, which I tabled. The amendments are in honour of Henry IV of Navarre—not our Henry IV but the French Henry IV. He is supposed to have said—historians argue over this, as they argue over anything—that Paris is worth a mass. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), and the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), among others, discussed when somebody was deemed to be in communion with Rome for the purposes of the Act of Settlement and whether somebody would be excluded if they said, on becoming sovereign, “No, I’m not a Catholic,” when they had been christened or taken first communion as a Catholic.
Amendment 1 would make it clear that such a person would not be excluded at that point. It is separate from new clause 1 and has a different effect, but the clarification depends on allowing marriage to a Catholic. That is to say, as I said last week, that the canon law of the Catholic Church requires a party to a mixed marriage to use his or her best efforts to bring up a child of that marriage in the Catholic religion. If a party to a mixed marriage with an heir to the throne followed his or her Catholic requirement, the child would be excluded under a straight reading of the Act of Settlement, which I do not think is the intention of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is seeking to address an interesting point through his amendments. However, would it not be fair to say that the Catholic spouse of an heir to the throne might feel that, with the full might of the British establishment against them, they had made every endeavour and been unsuccessful?
That is perfectly possible, but at what point would we know that that was the case? It seems to me that it is very important that we know who our sovereign is. We do not want to go through the courts to try to establish whether the child was brought up as a Catholic and was therefore in communion with Rome and excluded under the provisions of the Act of Settlement.
My amendments do not seek to change the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England. They are separate from the new clause, but simply state that a child brought up as a Catholic would not be deemed
“for ever incapable of succeeding to the Crown”,
which is the language used in the Act of Settlement about Catholics succeeding to the Crown. The question of eligibility could be clarified at the point of succession.
Does not the hon. Gentleman’s amendment address a situation that has arisen in other Protestant monarchies of northern Europe in which someone who had been brought up a Catholic decided to convert to being a Protestant when joining the royal family? Does it not look as if the wording of the Act of Settlement makes a once-and-for-all decision as soon as any kind of commitment is registered and should we not be clear that someone is free to make a choice at a later stage in their life?
I am in complete agreement with my right hon. Friend. The Act of Settlement deems somebody who has been a Catholic for a minute to be dead in terms of the succession, and it passes over them as if they were dead. Once we allow the marriage of a Catholic into the line of succession to the throne, that provision makes absolutely no sense. We could be arguing that at the point of a Catholic baptism, the child was a Catholic even though it had given no personal agreement to its religion and should be disbarred from the throne.
The hon. Gentleman is right that a child who decided to be confirmed as a Catholic would be excluded, but it is perfectly possible, not least because our Churches are coming closer together, for somebody to be confirmed a Catholic at the age of 12 or 13 but to decide on finding at the age of 23 that the throne was about to be offered to him that he might prefer to be an Anglican. We need to be clear about when people are excluded, so that if an heir to the throne decided that the religious bar meant that becoming King of England was worth changing religion for, the result would be clear and decisive. We do not want the monarchy to pass from one generation to the next only for us to have to go to court to work out who our sovereign will be based on the wording of a 1701 Act of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman posits a situation in which someone gives up his Catholic faith for the Crown, but he must surely be aware that in mixed marriages it is not at all uncommon for children to experience aspects of both denominations and, at some point in their life, to make a choice that might debar them from the throne.
Once again, I am in entire agreement with my right hon. Friend. It is important that the decision is made at the point of succession so that that flexibility is allowed. In ordinary family life in some mixed marriages, couples go to an Anglican service one week and a Catholic service the next.
I am afraid to say to the hon. Gentleman, who I hope is not in that unhappy state, that an excommunicated Catholic would be excluded from succession to the Crown because that person would have been in communion with Rome at some point. It is an absolute. If at any moment in their whole life they were in communion with Rome, they are excluded from the throne, deemed to be dead. That cannot be the intention of the clause that allows a Catholic to marry an heir to the throne. That will simply create confusion and we will not know who the monarch is going to be.
I think that, in canon law, it may be canon 1125 which refers to best endeavours. Is it not the case that he who brings up a child in the Catholic faith or attempts to do so by using best endeavours is defeated in those endeavours if it be a legal impossibility? So the issue as to the connection of that infant child to the Crown and the Catholicism or otherwise of that infant child is dealt with in that way. Best endeavours cannot be achieved if it is a legal impossibility.
I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend misses the point. It is a question of the succession. It may be that somebody has been brought up as a Catholic who is relatively remote from succeeding to the Crown, but in a “Kind Hearts and Coronets” way suddenly becomes much closer. That person would be excluded, but more importantly, the best efforts issue means that there is a lack of clarity as to whether or not such a child has been excluded.
Are we saying that a Catholic can marry into the Crown but must then immediately say, on the birth of any child, that this child has not been anywhere near a Catholic church? How are we classifying this connection with Rome that in the Act of Settlement is a very broad connection for a very good reason: at that point people were worried about the Old Pretender. They thought that his Catholic upbringing made him a threat from the moment of his birth. That is why it is all-encompassing, and we are now amending the law to allow a Catholic to marry into the throne, without dealing with the technicalities that follow from that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important role of the Head of State is to act in the interests of the country when a Prime Minister acts in her or his own interest? Looking back at monarchs, the Queen has behaved immaculately throughout her reign. There have been grave doubts about some of her predecessors and doubts about her possible successors. Is it not much more important that we choose the character of the monarch, rather than the religion?
I think the monarchy should be an hereditary monarchy and should go through the nearest line that is available. I do not think there should be a character test for the monarch. The great and weighty responsibilities of monarchs turn people into serious-minded individuals capable of that great honour who sometimes in their youth were not capable of it. One thinks immediately of Henry V and also of Edward VII, both men who, in their youth, were relatively irresponsible, but when that great honour of being King of England fell upon their shoulders, they rose to it magnificently—gloriously, regardless of their religion.
All I am trying to do is make sure that in future we know that the monarchy is safe and secure and to whom it has passed—that we do not open it up for the courts to say, “Well, this person once went to a Catholic church. This person had a Catholic baptism. Therefore let us go to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who is 190th or some such in line to the throne, and who, having been perfectly Protestant all his life, might be very suitable.”
We need to be clear because so many functions of this nation would be thrown into doubt if there were no Crown. If we are risking people being ineligible for the Crown because of shoddy legislation, we then face the prospect of being unable to use the prerogative powers, which might make it quite difficult to open Parliament.
I attached my name to these amendments because they reflect an amendment I tabled for last week’s debate that was not selected. I wish to explain why I did that, for the record and for some of my constituents and other supporters who might find it a bit bizarre.
Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), those who have participated in the debate so far have had an interest either as monarchists or, in the context of the amendment, as Catholics. I am not a monarchist—I am a republican; I see the monarchy as a complete anachronism—and I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic, as the parish priest optimistically describes me.
Over the past 10 or 15 years, I have sat in this Chamber on a number of occasions when successive Members have tried to remove anti-Catholic discrimination from our legislation. Dr Evan Harris and John Gummer did that when they were Members of this House. The simple reason, they argued—I fully agree—is that we in this House should not allow our institutions and our legislation to be founded on or framed by discrimination. This measure is the last remnant of anti-Catholic discrimination that sits within our laws. Frankly, it is offensive to discriminate on religious grounds, and every Government in recent years has said so. We have legislated time and again to remove such discrimination, so why can we not do it in this case?
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) went through a trajectory of 300 years in the space of one speech; it has a been a major breakthrough to bring him into the 21st century. As he argued very eloquently, on whatever grounds this discrimination was introduced centuries ago, it is no longer relevant, and I am convinced that at some point it will be challengeable in other forums and courts. This is an ideal opportunity to say to the outside world that we will not tolerate discrimination of any sort. It is anti-Catholic discrimination that has historically been present in this kind of legislation, but such discrimination pertains to every other religion as well. We have heard potential successors to the Crown say that they are happy to be seen not as defenders of the faith but defenders of faith; if that is the case, so be it. We have an opportunity to send out a message that we are opposed to all discrimination, that we accept that the institutions we establish should not be founded on discriminatory legislation, and that we will remove this stain from the character of this House and our constitution.
John Gummer and Dr Evan Harris argued their cases extremely eloquently, more so than I can. When I left the Chamber after those debates, I thought, “If I were a member of a particular religion and that barred me from a particular office, I would find it offensive.” We might think that this debate is about something that is necessarily insubstantial in the everyday workings of our society and our lives, but it is not; it is about a symbol of past discrimination that must be removed. By removing that stain, we can go forward into a modern society
The amendment is framed in anti-disestablishmentarianistic language, in that it creates a rather exotic formula, but is not the inevitable consequence of debating this matter that it will lead us towards a debate on establishment and the role of the Church of England as the state Church, the role of the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and the title of Defender of the Faith, which was awarded to Henry VIII during the time of his communion with Rome?
I agree that this will lead to that debate, but I am happy to take these reforms one step at a time. That is why the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset is extremely clever, because it would enable those who wish to maintain the established Church and not to move towards the disestablishment debate to pause at this stage.
I think it is inevitable that that debate will come back, but it is not for today. Today is about removing the way in which we discriminate against those who are not members of, or in communion with, the Church of England. This is a way of removing the ostracism of the past. It is time to send out a message that this is a modern, multicultural society, with people of all faiths and of no faith, and that no one should be discriminated against at any level of society, from the monarchy right through to every other institution. Let us seize this opportunity.
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman about the obnoxious nature of any legislation, however ancient it may be, that is prejudicial to any religion. Those of my faith and many others are also excluded in the same way, because of that legislation. Why does he think that, whereas other examples of bias towards or prejudice against other religions have been done away with centuries ago, in many cases, or certainly many decades ago, this one remains? Does he think it might be due to the internecine complexity of the issue, rather than any prejudice?
That may well have been the case in the past, but I think we have moved on. When the issue was debated in a different form—I think it was on a private Member’s Bill promoted by Evan Harris—Lord Falconer did the maths, calculated the large number of descendants that could have a claim to the throne and argued that we did not have parliamentary time and that the issue was irrelevant anyway. If we change the proposal on marriage, however, it may soon become very relevant, because we would not want to bar a future monarch from marrying a Catholic, a Jew or a Muslim. I think that that will come on to the agenda very quickly, whereas in the past parliamentary time was not found for it because it was not seen to be relevant.
Does my hon. Friend agree, having been present at previous debates, that the objection to breaking the taboo about the royal succession comes from those who say that once we get rid of this particular indefensible idiocy, the other foolishness involved in the royal succession will be exposed and people will come up with suggestions to reform the whole system so that we can have a monarchy or Head or State who are electable?
I assure the House that supporting the amendment is not my cunning plan to get rid of the monarchy overnight. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that there will be a debate as we move through this century about all our institutions, including the monarchy. That is why I was disappointed that his amendments were not selected, because I think we should have had a debate about alternative forms of Heads of State and the ways in which we can select them, rather than let the position be gained as a result of hereditary entitlement.
I will leave my argument there. I needed to put on the record why I put my name to the proposed new clause and why I tabled a similar amendment. It is about ending discrimination. On Saturday, I attended the annual dinner for pensioners organised by Botwell Catholic church St Vincent de Paul Society. When I told them about the two things that we were legislating on this week, the women cheered for ending gender discrimination, but everyone cheered for ending discrimination against Catholics. I say to hon. Members that this is not an historic thing—it is relevant. If someone in this country is born Catholic or into any other religion, or if they have no faith, and they are still discriminated against, that is unacceptable, as successive Governments and Members of this House have said. Now is the opportunity to legislate on it.
I start by echoing what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. He has put the case simply: in this day and age, when it comes to a person’s suitability to become the Head of State, they should not be discriminated against because of their religion. That is why I was happy to put my name to the new clause, moved so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), and to his amendments.
I have been campaigning for years against barring Catholics from either marrying into the royal family or succeeding to the throne, particularly the first issue, which is bizarre. Indeed, I have introduced a ten-minute rule Bill and tabled early-day motions on the subject. We were constantly told that it was all too difficult and complicated to change, and that we would have to change hundreds of lines of legislation in hundreds of Acts of Parliament. But, hey presto! It is now being done. Although the Deputy Prime Minister gets a lot of stick in this House—including from Government Members —and in the media, I am on the record as warmly congratulating him on being the first leading member of this or any Government to get a grip on this issue and to try to solve it.
However, there is one final logical absurdity, which my hon. Friend is trying to address. I repeat this point because it is worth making: in this day and age, a person should not be barred from a position such as Head of State just because of their religion or lack of religion. There are many people in this House who have no religion and who do not wish to come to Prayers or who do so just to reserve their place. They are just as worth while as Members. There is no reason why we have to keep this bar in place.
I am a traditionalist, like my hon. Friend. Even if the new clause were accepted by the Government, it is extremely unlikely that it would be activated in our lifetimes, or indeed ever. As far as I know, there is no likelihood of Prince Charles or Prince William becoming a Catholic. It is therefore somewhat academic, but just because an amendment is academic does not mean that it is not worth debating and acting on if it is the logical and right thing to do. It is unlikely to be activated not just because of the nature of the likely successors to the throne, but because a person who is brought up as a member of the royal family is surely extremely unlikely to want to bar themselves from the throne or put their chances of succeeding to the throne at risk.
Indeed, it might happen that somebody becomes an atheist or an agnostic, or does not want to be a member of the Anglican faith. By the way, I have enormous sympathy, respect and, indeed, love for the Anglican faith, which is inherent in the traditions of our country. However, it is perfectly possible that in some future generation, somebody will not want to be part of it for quite profound reasons of personal conscience. That is why this matter is important. It is not just an academic, legalistic debating point; it is a matter of deep personal conscience. What is more important to an individual than their faith or lack of faith? It is somewhat strange in the modern age to say to somebody that if they want to become the head of this particular state, that job goes with being a member of a particular Christian denomination. It does not fit in with what we do in many other areas of our national life.
I, too, want to be absolutely clear about that. As I am speaking, people’s minds might be ticking over thinking, “Oh, here’s just another Catholic pushing his own religion.” This is not about my belief at all. I am very ecumenical. I am a member of Lincoln cathedral council. I think that the Anglican liturgy is wonderful in every single respect. My hon. Friend and I are traditionalists. In no way are we attacking the Anglican Church or, most importantly, the fact of this country having an established religion. That is important.
One of the single most dangerous aspects of modern life—the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will no longer follow my argument; indeed, he will strongly disagree with me—is the advance of secularism and the fact that religion is retreating from more and more aspects of national life. Even “The Sunday Half Hour” on Radio 2 on Sunday nights has been banished to 6.30 in the morning. Maintaining the established Church as a symbol—only a symbol—is terribly important, as is what my hon. Friend is doing today. He is trying to square the circle, to be absolutely fair and say that as a modern nation we should respect people’s conscience to maintain their own religion—or lack of it—and succeed to the headship of state. He is also trying to protect the established Church, and although other solutions might have been offered, including the one proposed earlier that the Archbishop of Canterbury could become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the idea of a regency is good and squares the circle.
However, such a situation is extremely unlikely because, as I said, I am sure that anybody brought up in that environment would want to remain in the Anglican Church. I understand that James III of blessed memory, the Old Pretender, whose portrait, as you know Mr Deputy Speaker, hangs in Stonyhurst college in your constituency, was offered the throne on the condition that he renounced his faith. He refused to do that although he could have succeeded Queen Anne. In fact, I understand that about 50 people had a superior hereditary claim to George I, but they were all bypassed because, as my hon. Friend has made clear, there was in those days an absolute obsession about ensuring an Anglican Head of State.
We do not want to get too enmeshed in those arguments, but to be trapped at the beginning of the 21st century in arguments that raged at the beginning of the 18th century is frankly absurd. To remain trapped in the Act of Settlement, when there is absolutely no risk in a secular, modern, multicultural and multiracial nation of some sort of Catholic plot to take it over, is ridiculous.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his earlier statement in which he was convinced that a person brought up in an Anglican environment will naturally become an Anglican? At some stage we will get to a situation where an Anglican Head of State says, “I don’t believe any more.” Are we asking them to abdicate?
I delight in the relaxed nature of the Anglican communion. I am slightly worried, however, because the hon. Gentleman says there is not a Catholic plot yet he asserts there was a James III. If there had indeed been James III, there would not be Elizabeth II.
It was a joke. I am very loyal to the Saxe- Coburg and Windsor line and a great supporter of the Queen. As it happens, even if I wanted to be a Jacobite it would be difficult because they have all died out. The last one became a cardinal—[Interruption.] May I proclaim my loyalty to the Crown, Mr Deputy Speaker?
My hon. Friend mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury potentially taking over the position of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but would that not be rather incongruous? The Archbishop of Canterbury, at least in theory, is appointed by the sovereign. The sovereign would therefore be appointing an archbishop who would then take over their role, as far as the primacy of the Church is concerned.
This was an idea proffered by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and perhaps it was a mistake for me even to mention it. We are now in danger of dancing on the head of a pin and getting into a level of complexity that is not helping the argument.
The simple truth on which we should focus, as a modern Parliament, is that people should not be disbarred from a job—especially one in which they would represent all people, such as Head of State—just because of their religion or lack of it. The current bar is not even logical in its own terms. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has made clear, it does not apply to Scotland, where the Queen is not the head of the Church, and it would not apply to countries like Australia and Canada. So even in its own terms, what the Government are trying to do is illogical. We all know that they are trying to do it to preserve the established Church, because—like me—they believe it to be important. But it is perfectly possible both to respect people’s conscience and to maintain the established Church and this figurehead post—and it is only a figurehead post. Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I invented it as a post of real power and authority, but nobody actually suggests that in reality the queen or king in a modern country tries to interfere with the established Church, although they may sign off the appointment of bishops. Unlike Mary Tudor, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I—or even Charles I—a modern queen or king does not try to ensure that their own people are made bishops, or determine whether the Church is high church or low church. It is absurd. Supreme Governor is only an honorific post, and it is not therefore necessary that the king or queen is Supreme Governor. I do not want to get rid of the post—it is deep within our traditions and there is nothing wrong with it—and my hon. Friend’s proposal gets around the problem.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggests that the Queen has no relationship with the Church of Scotland, when in fact she appoints the Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly, and it is the Church that she has consistently and regularly attended in Scotland throughout her life.
If I made a bad or weak point, I willingly withdraw it and accept my right hon. Friend’s superior knowledge.
Amendment 1 makes an important point. It is almost as important as the one that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset made. If the legislation stays as it is, we will return to the world of the Act of Settlement, in which people were incredibly suspicious of some kind of papist plot. If someone had been tarnished in any way at any time in their life with Catholicism, they were excluded from the throne. As it happens, my eldest son is 640th in line to the throne, because he is descended from the Electress Sophia through his mother. He is not excluded from the throne as he was baptised as Russian Orthodox, although he has been raised a Catholic. So in our family we have found a way around the bar, but if the Bill stays as it is, we will return to a ridiculous, bizarre and absurd situation in which someone must never, at any point in their life, have taken communion in a Catholic church. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are many mixed marriages and we go to each other’s churches regularly. Even those who oppose new clause 1 must accept that the logical and right thing to do is for the person to be able to make an election at the time they become Head of State.
I am sorry to be pedantic, but the hon. Gentleman has made the same mistake several times in this debate and in previous debates. There is no such thing as Russian Orthodox baptism. There is Christian baptism, end of story. All Churches accept one another’s baptisms. The one difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church—and perhaps as a Roman Catholic he could persuade senior people in his Church to change their position—is that the Catholic Church believes that Anglican orders are null and void.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I think you will rule me out of order if I get into the intricacies of baptism, and which baptism is recognised by which church. In fact, the Catholic Church does recognise Russian Orthodox baptisms and considers itself in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. The problem lies not with the Catholic Church, but with the Russian Orthodox Church, which does not want Catholics to take communion in its churches.
We are in danger of becoming enmeshed in the kind of arguments that enveloped us at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. All my hon. Friend is trying to say in these very simple amendments is that, even if one supports the legislation as it is currently drafted, surely one should have the right to be judged on one’s faith at the time that one becomes Head of State or wants to become Head of State, and not be judged on what baptism one has received, what churches one attended in the past or what communion one has taken. Amendment 1, therefore, is even more important and apposite than new clause 1.
I will end on this point. As unlikely as it is in the near future that anybody will be banned from the throne of England because of their faith, I hope that we in this House do not accept the current situation when we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the law. We have been told so often that this is so complex and difficult to do that it may be the only chance in a generation. Is today not our chance in our time to stand up for religious freedom once and for all, and to say that all the disputes and hatreds of the past are now finished and that no office, however great, will be barred to someone because of their faith?
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and wonderful to support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who does his job so well as the Member of Parliament for the middle ages. It feels as though he is not just making history, but part of history.
It is extraordinary that a Bill presented as a reform or great change would actually put into law the concept of arranged marriages. We are very sniffy about them when we consider other religions and other parts of the world where one member of a family has absolute power in arranging the marriages of relatives, but that is what we are doing in this great reforming Bill. I do not know where the idea comes from that one person should be allowed to dictate the marital choices of six of her—later his—relatives. Is this a Liberal Democrat Bill? Is this the cutting edge of the future reforming zeal of the Liberal Democrat party: to espouse the concept of arranged marriages? This is the modern world.
In another part of the Bill acting as a reform, we are denying the opportunity to 87% of our population of ever achieving the job of Head of State. We are excluding and discriminating against atheists, non-conformists, Catholics, Jews and Muslims, who can never be Head of State: that is what we are being asked to approve today. It is perhaps not the reform we were looking forward to.
The traditions of the Church have been referred to. I find little difference between the high Church of England and Roman Catholicism, particularly now that Roman Catholicism has, lamentably, dropped the Latin language, which was a great joy to my youth:
“Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.”
When I was in my “juventutem”, it was a matter of some pleasure—a joy, an education and a great richness—but it has gone now. What on earth is the difference that we are talking about?
I hope to speak briefly, because I think there may be some puzzlement among my constituents—
It is interesting that we have got on to linguistic discrimination. I could stay within the rules of the House and speak in Middle English, which very few, if any, people in the House speak, but I am denied the opportunity to speak in the language of Wales, which has the same authority and respect in this House as spitting on the carpet, where it is ruled as “unruly behaviour”. However, I will move on.
What is important in a Head of State? It is character, not religion. I am not allowed to be offensive to members of the royal family, because we are bound by rules that were created in the 13th century. I can do it outside this place, but not in Parliament—part of the infantilism of Parliament.
My hon. Friend is completely wrong. In the 13th century, 14th century, 15th century, 16th century and 17th century, Members of the House of Commons were regularly very rude about members of the royal family. The idea that we cannot be rude about members of the royal family comes from the 19th century.
I am informed otherwise by those who perhaps have an even greater knowledge of this place than others—it goes back a long way.
The practical situation is that if we talk about the choice of Head of State, we can make only favourable comments about the people concerned. It is not difficult to say anything favourable about our present Queen, who has had a remarkable reign and has never interfered with politics in any way. However, if we look back at her immediate predecessors—again, without being derogatory —her father had an unhappy time and her uncle was a very unsuitable monarch, and her great grandfather and various others were not suitable.
There are grave doubts about the immediate successor, which are well known. There are many doubts about him and we are not even allowed to know what he wrote in letters to Ministers a few years ago. [Interruption.] “Quite right”, says an hon. Member. Who are we to know? We are only the elected people of this country. We are the representatives of the nation, not someone who happened to be first past the bedpost some time ago. That does not qualify him to make the crucial decisions he would have take, which is common in most countries where they have an elected state and the Head of State is there to keep the Prime Minister in control. That might have been necessary in the dying days of Mrs Thatcher’s rule, the details of which I gave last week—
I will speak about new clause 1, as you rightly say, Mr Deputy Speaker, though these remarks are of relevance.
The suggestion is that we have a regent: a piece of ingenious constitutional gibberish that is part of the past rather than the future. We should be legislating for the future. Let us look at what we have got. I am still baffled—I cannot get these things across to the Table Office—as to how these outrageous decisions we are taking are consistent with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. Article 9 of the convention states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
That is enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998—not 1598 or 1298. It goes on:
“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
What has this got to do with a democratic society? This is about an autocratic society and a monarchy that have contributed nothing to our progress over the years. Rather, they have been an obstacle to democratic reform for centuries.
How can the Government claim that the Bill is consistent with the Human Rights Act? The rationale is there for a legal challenge. I am sure one will be made before long. There is no statutory law of male preference primogeniture for royal succession; it is common law construct that has become codified by practice over the centuries. The heirs of Sophia of Hanover currently have the sole right, enshrined in law under the Act of Settlement, to succeed to the English Crown, with all that that implies in terms of rights and entitlements of the English monarch as de facto Head of State.
I want to clear up one point. There is a belief that the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) is 246th in line to the throne, and according to Wikipedia, the authority for that claim is the blog of “Mr Paul Flynn”. I advise anyone who wishes to repeat that claim to treat it with some caution, because I know the process by which the number was arrived at, and no other authority makes the claim.
The Bill seeks to extend by law the rights in the Act of Settlement to all heirs of Sophia of Hanover, not just to the boys and men who would succeed under common law principles. By so doing, however, it seeks to create binding rights in law in favour of a very small group of additional potential future beneficiaries among the female heirs of Sophia of Hanover on the basis of birth alone.
A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman said that the monarchy had done nothing in the past 100 years for the advent of democracy in this country. May I suggest that he is wholly and unavowedly in error and that in fact the monarchy has done much in the last 100 years and more to act as a pillar in the protection of democracy?
I would be delighted, but let me say—although I probably should not—that the contribution of royalty has been of one head, grudgingly donated.
The Bill appears prima facie to be incompatible with article 1 of protocol 12 of the European convention on human rights, which forbids discrimination on the grounds of birth in any right created by law. Perhaps the Government would like to think about that point. We are creating not only a piece of new discrimination, new unfairness and new gender bias, but something that is in conflict with the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights.
It would be good to know what advice the Government have had on the Bill. I have tried to question the Government about this, but they have been reluctant to answer. The Bill states that it complies with the relevant rights. Nevertheless, this is one of the most atrocious Bills ever to come before the House. So many Bills have unintended consequences, however, and this one opens a Pandora’s box on the royal succession: those who believed that the rules were set immutably in stone now know that they are not, and now that there has been one change, there can be many others.
We must move forward to an adult, 21st-century choice of Head of State, as have most countries in the world—those free nations that elect their Head of State and give their entire population the chance to be elected. Under the Bill, however, only members of the Church of England can become Head of State. The Church in Wales has pedigree. The Celtic Church existed long before the Roman Church—this European import—came along to take over the country, and we have the great saints Illtyd, Dyfrig, Samson and a string of other great saints.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the Celtic Church—as I did in an intervention—but I am sure that the Celtic monasteries would have accepted the primacy of Rome. The Synod of Whitby settled some of these matters once and for all, so although there might have been differences, it would have accepted the primacy of Rome.
I might address that point later, but the saints—Piran and the rest of them—are celebrated to this day in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. It is an independent Church and one that has been disestablished since the 1920s. It has none of the problems that we have today because it is disestablished. It has even supplied a brilliant Archbishop of Canterbury.
I look back with some fondness to the Roman empire as a time when we had a common currency in Europe. The hon. Gentleman might remember that the great Euro-world of the Roman empire was followed by the dark ages. In my constituency 2,000 years ago, two languages were on the lips of the children—Latin and Welsh. I rejoice that—this says a lot about its sustainability and survival—Welsh is still heard on the lips of our children, whereas we do not get many people speaking Latin these days, except for the hon. Member for the middle ages himself, the hon. Member for North East Somerset. Nevertheless, it is part of our inheritance.
I am delighted to support new clause 1 —it is a minute improvement to the Bill—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will press it to a Division, so that we can support his cause and stand up for a minor improvement to end the grotesque religious intolerance in the Act of Settlement.
I wish to speak to amendments 1 and 2, which raise an important point.
It was a bit much for the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to lambast the Government for introducing a Bill that removes gender discrimination in the royal family—something that the last Labour Government said they wanted to do but never got around to completing—and deals with the Royal Marriages Act 1772 and the limitation on sovereigns being married to a Roman Catholic. Were the Bill to cover the much wider issues of disestablishment or of whether the sovereign should no longer hold the position they currently hold in the Church of England, it would be a different Bill and a much wider consultation would have taken place.
The intention of the Bill might be frustrated, however, if the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is right, because the wording of the Act of Settlement about who is a Catholic is very detailed and picks up on almost any evidence of any connection with the Catholic Church at any time in the person’s life. As we discussed earlier, it is highly likely that the child of a mixed marriage will have experienced both denominations —and perhaps the Church of Scotland as well. Many parents offer their children the opportunity to see what different Churches have to offer.
It depends whether one thinks that Her Majesty was reconciled to Rome by that action, which did not involve being in communion with the Church of Rome—something from which the Church of Rome would exclude Her Majesty in any event—so it is only on the first of those two possibilities that what my hon. Friend describes might be so regarded. I do not regard it as such, because “reconciled” in that legislation meant accepting the authority of the papacy over the Church in England. That was what the argument was really about. Members of all Churches are very much reconciled to each other these days, because they realise that they share a common faith that is more important than their points of difference.
To reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) through my right hon. Friend, the Queen has attended vespers at Westminster cathedral, but in her entire reign she has been very careful never to attend a Catholic mass. Dare I say that I think that in this day and age that sort of care is not necessary?
Perhaps we should not get into a discussion about precisely how the Queen has dealt with these matters. From my standpoint, I see her as someone who has used her position in the Church of England in a way that is generally beneficial to society, by setting out the importance of spiritual things and laying emphasis—as she did in her most recent Christmas broadcast—on some of the moral and ethical conclusions that one might draw from these things. That is something of a satisfaction to non-conformists, Roman Catholics and members of the Church of Scotland, with which she has a continuing relationship—it is her Church in Scotland. In all those respects she has been exemplary in the way she has used those positions.
However, I turn to amendments 1 and 2, because—
I want to get on to amendments 1 and 2, because I am anxious that we get this right and I am interested in what the Government have to say about them.
It seems to me that the wording in the Act of Settlement might well preclude someone who, let us say, as a teenager or young adult chooses to be in the Church of England rather than the Catholic Church, having had experience of both in their lives. They could be automatically excluded by those features of their early involvement with the Roman Catholic Church that fell within the extended definition in the Act of Settlement of what constitutes having been a Catholic. Unless we deal with that, our legislation will be defective and will fail to fulfil its intended purpose, because at some future date it might exclude someone from being the sovereign even though they were in communion with the Church of England and wanted to uphold the Protestant reformed religion, as the coronation oath requires.
I have attached my name to amendments 1 and 2, but not to new clause 1. That is not because I particularly disagree with the point that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is trying to make in new clause 1, but in many ways because I am sensitive about such issues, as someone who is not a British national, but a citizen of the Irish Republic—that is the passport I carry; therefore I see myself as a citizen of a nation that does indeed have an elected Head of State.
I come to this House not to disrespect any of the institutions that are cherished by other Members and that are part of the British constitutional settlement. Where I can, I will support moves to remove and relieve aspects of discrimination wherever we find them. I said last week that this Bill does two valuable things in that it removes a layer of gender discrimination in the succession to the Crown and it lifts one layer of religious discrimination —the bar on a Catholic marrying the heir to the throne. However, as we heard in last week’s debate, those proposals in themselves leave many questions. As we heard, for some of us, one question concerns the remaining areas of discrimination, whereby anybody who at any stage in their lives had either been a Catholic or been deemed to be a Catholic would be barred from being an heir to the throne. In effect, it is the McCarthyite question: “Are you now or have you ever been a Catholic?” For anybody who has ever been a Catholic in any shape or form, that is it—they are out; they count as dead for these purposes. Clearly that is wrong and anomalous. I do not believe that, in passing this Bill, the House should choose to say, “Well, we still want to keep that—it’s about right that we keep it.”
That is what amendments 1 and 2 are really about. They essentially say that whatever arrangement might be made to accommodate someone who has been a Catholic or been deemed to have been a Catholic—or who deem themselves to have been a Catholic—that person cannot be barred from succeeding to the throne on the basis that they have been a Catholic at any stage in their lives. That is why I put my name to amendments 1 and 2—because I believe they simply remove that remaining discrimination.
The main reason for not putting my name to new clause 1 is simply respect for the Church of England. Obviously I am not an Anglican, and I am not even English. In many ways I feel sorry for the Church of England. In a way, because it is an established Church, everybody keeps taking slices off it, on one issue or another. In many ways, we as legislators find ourselves invited to vote or decide on matters pertaining to the Church of England, whereas I would be much more comfortable not encroaching on any matter relating to the Church of England’s life as a Church. That is why I have not put my name to new clause 1, which does at least deal cleverly and constructively with the other question that arose for Members last week, which was: if the heir to the throne were allowed to marry a Catholic, what would happen if a child of that marriage was then a Catholic? That would affect issues around the succession to the throne—it would affect the Protestant ascendancy, as we heard last week—as well as the Church of England.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset has tried to address and reflect on the arguments and concerns that arose on both sides of the issues raised by this Bill. I therefore hope that the Government will respond to this debate by making it clear that they agree that Parliament will have to go further, because to say, “Well, we don’t have any more to do,”—to suggest that the possibility of a Catholic marrying the heir to the throne and their children perhaps being raised as Catholics would not raise any future questions—leaves us with a doubt, which a number of us also expressed last week, about clause 3(1). We are concerned that the power of controlling marriages—which, for the first six people in line to the throne, remains in the hands of the sovereign under this Bill—will in effect be the way to deal with any risk that might arise of someone who has been raised as a Catholic at any point being close in the line of succession to the throne.
There are therefore genuine issues and questions left by the degree to which the Government have legislated to date, as well as the form and limits of the legislation to date. Unless those other issues are addressed—by these amendments or others—the Government will leave us still harbouring the doubt that clause 3(1) is really about ensuring that the issues opened up by clause 2 will never actually arise in practice. I do not believe that is good enough. We as legislators cannot say, “We’re going to put in place flawed legislation that we know gives rise to all these other questions, but we’re content either that it’s not going to happen or that it’s not going to happen soon enough.” As legislators, we have to address things in our time according to what is right, what is fair and what is proper. In the 21st century, we should not be leaving any residual form of discrimination against any person of any one religion.
I must begin by saying that I do not have to declare an interest in the debate today, in that I am not related in any way to any member of the royal family—unlike some Members of the House. Nor am I related to a Welsh saint; I have been assured that, despite my name, there is no connection whatever.
I rise to respond to this excellent debate with some trepidation. I have to express some strong reservations, but I want to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). His speech introducing the new clause was a veritable tour de force, if I may use that language. It was a wonderful speech; it is a long time since we have heard such a wonderfully erudite exposition in the House. It was very much about equality between the members of all religious faiths and none in regard to the ability to hold the position of monarch of this country. That theme was taken up powerfully by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who said that new clause 1 highlighted what many people consider to be a continuing anachronism.
It should be recognised, as several constitutional historians have done, that the monarchy today has a number of symbolic roles attached to it, including the Head of the Commonwealth and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Some might question whether it is correct to describe those roles as symbolic, but the reality is that we live in an increasingly secular society and that many people are now quite rightly questioning the close connection between Church and state.
There is no doubt in my mind that Parliament must have this debate. We should also have a debate on the question of disestablishment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) mentioned the fact that the Church in Wales had been disestablished since 1920. Speaking as a Welshman and a member of that Church, I recognise that that has created a sound constitutional relationship between that Church and the monarch in England. However, that debate and the debate on religious equality in regard to the throne are debates for another time. That is not to say that we must shy away from those debates—quite the opposite, in fact—but we must recognise that this is a limited, narrowly defined Bill.
The Bill has had a long gestation period, starting with the work done by the previous Government and continuing under this Government. Its contents have been agreed by the Heads of Government in the Commonwealth. If the whole issue were to be reopened in the way that has been suggested, we would have to go back to square one and begin the long, convoluted process again. I am sure all Members would accept that that would be neither helpful nor desirable.
It is also important to note, as we have been discussing the international element to the Bill in relation to the Commonwealth, that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands might abdicate in favour of her son. I mention this because the Netherlands is one of the countries that has abolished male primogeniture, and I very much hope that the House will follow that good Dutch example.
It was made clear in our previous debate on the Bill that although the legislation might appear straightforward at first glance, it is in fact extremely complex. The nature of the constitutional relationship between the monarchy and the Government is byzantine, to say the least, and there will inevitably be unintended consequences that will have to be scrutinised in great detail.
I should like to ask for greater clarification on one such detail relating to new clause 1. As I understand it, the hon. Member for North East Somerset believes that the monarch could still be the head of the Church of England if he or she were in communion with the Church, but if that were not the case, he is suggesting that the next in line of succession could fulfil the role. What would happen, however, if that individual were not a member of the Church of England?
The regent would assume the role under the Regency Act 1937, which requires that the regent should meet all the criteria laid down in the Act of Settlement. They would therefore have to be a Protestant, and in communion with the Church of England. The whole point of the new clause is to ensure that the supreme governorship of the Church of England remains with a Protestant.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman might come back with that response. However, the difficulty with the regency legislation is that there is more than one Act. There have been a number of amending Acts. He referred to the 1937 Act, but since then there have been what some people have referred to as ad hoc departures from that legislation. In fact, the Act talks about the best person succeeding to the throne, rather than the next in line. What on earth does that mean? How do we define the “best person”? This underlines the point that the legislation will inevitably have unintended consequences that will have to be looked at in detail, with a cool head, over a reasonable period of time.
Nevertheless, we have had an excellent debate this afternoon. We have focused on the tightly defined legislation before us, but Members have also rightly taken the opportunity to extend the debate. We have now begun to open the new chapter of constitutional debate that we need to have in this country. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for North East Somerset will not press the new clause to a vote.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken today for their erudite and comprehensive contributions. I join the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) in being a fan of middle English and old English; if he would like to join me in the Tea Room some time, I am sure that we could discuss that.
Through amendments 1 and 2, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is seeking to ensure that a child of the Roman Catholic faith may later convert to the Protestant faith and succeed to the throne. Let me first deal with the Government’s understanding of the Act of Settlement, which we share with him. The law in this area is certainly not easy, but on balance, we agree with his interpretation of the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights as meaning that a Roman Catholic may not convert to the Protestant faith and then succeed to the throne. This is, however, an aspect of our constitution that we do not think has ever been tested. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) noted that such circumstances would be unlikely to arise within our lifetimes. The bar appears to be on anyone who has ever “professed” the Roman Catholic faith, or held communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Once disqualified, they are excluded for ever from succeeding to the throne.
I should like to make a few points on amendments 1 and 2 before I turn to new clause 1. My first point relates to scope. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said, the scope of the Bill is narrow. I appreciate that there are reasons to criticise the law as it stands, but the amendments stray into new territory and go beyond the limited aims of the Bill. In passing, I must thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). We missed him in the earlier debates last week, but he enlivened us today when he came as close as anyone has done in the debate to asking, “Is the Pope a Catholic?”
I have no intention of disputing your ruling, Mr Deputy Speaker, and that was not the intention of my comments. I merely wanted to say that this Bill has never had the intention of addressing the religion of the monarch or indeed of those in the line of succession.
As was said repeatedly in last week’s debate, changing the law in this area would require consultation and we would need to seek the agreement of the Commonwealth realms. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset and all hon. Members will be aware, that would take time, and we are anxious to ensure that the important changes the Bill is designed to make are carried through. I note that, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, years of work have gone into the Bill as it stands.
Although I am sympathetic to the aims of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) in tabling the new clause and amendments, I believe that the most powerful argument for not accepting them is the one that the Minister has just set out: we should not seek to jeopardise the Bill’s moves towards equality by amending it beyond the agreement that has already been reached. I hope, however, that she and the Government will continue to have discussions with the other realms so that if further equalities can be reached, we do not abandon the possibility of having them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in this particular case, what my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has just shown is that what has been completely settled and without question can now be open to challenge? Does she believe that this is a sensible way to proceed when overturning 1,000 years of British history?
I deeply respect my right hon. Friend’s intervention and, indeed, his contributions to the debates on this topic. Many aspects of the law relevant to this area are not changed by the Bill, however, and I would like to answer my right hon. Friend’s intervention by saying that, to the extent that there are difficulties, they already exist. I stated clearly last week that key elements of the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights stay standing, and I reiterate that today. I do not see this Bill as creating further constitutional crises than could be wrought out of the existing law.
For the record, before moving on to my second argument about the two amendments, let me state again that the Government are absolutely committed to the Church of England as the established Church, with the sovereign as its Supreme Governor. We consider that the relationship between Church and state in England is an important part of the constitutional framework. It has evolved over centuries and the Government have no intention of legislating to disestablish the Church of England. It is important to state that. The Government’s view is that allowing a person of the Roman Catholic faith to accede to the throne would clearly be incompatible with the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England.
Let me move on to my second argument and address the substance of the two amendments. I suggest that, if they were made, they would add greater uncertainty to the line of succession. For example, let us consider someone who is brought up as the heir to the throne and is clearly in preparation for that vocation over their lifetime. In the Government’s view, it would make that person’s position, and the position of their immediate family, very difficult, if they could be superseded at any stage by someone who converted from Roman Catholicism to the Protestant faith. By extension, that could also raise the prospect of the reigning monarch being subsequently supplanted by someone who was theoretically higher in the line of succession on that latter person’s converting from Catholicism and joining in communion with the Church of England.
I see that as a major technical problem with the two amendments. I view it as adding uncertainty and I could envisage it leading, in the words of many who have contributed to the debate, to a “constitutional crisis” which I do not see the core Bill providing for.
I understand the Minister’s argument, but it does not address the fact that, throughout the discussion, it has been clear that we are talking about children who are going to be brought up in mixed marriages. It is likely that, in those circumstances, before the child is of the age to decide whether they want to succeed to the throne, they will have experienced both Churches and could make a perfectly free choice—unconnected with the throne—for one or the other. That choice would determine their eligibility long before they were 18 or 19.
I recognise the measured point that my right hon. Friend makes. The difficulty or tension here that we do not have the time or scope to go into with regard to this Bill, or indeed as mere parliamentarians as opposed to theologians, is the nature of free will, and the free will of the child. I want to return us to the point that the Bill does not seek to change the entirety of the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights, for reasons that we went through at some length last week and a little earlier today,. I put the Government’s point: the Bill is narrow in scope and does not seek to enter into the theology of the faiths in question; it seeks instead to amend a unique form of discrimination that is particularly narrow.
I do not understand the Minister’s point—that if the two amendments were passed, it could result in a constitutional crisis or somebody supplanting somebody else. If she does not mind my saying so, this seems like an argument invented by civil servants. It is over-complicating the situation, when the fact remains that under this Bill the eldest daughter or son, whoever comes first, is going to succeed. All my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is doing through the amendments is to prevent them from being disbarred from the throne because of something that might have happened in their childhood. That is what he is saying: it is very clear; it is not very complicated.
As I understand the amendments tabled by our hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, they would technically open the opportunity for a person to convert and provide for that person not to be “for ever” barred. I think it is possible for that to allow confusion over the very same point, including after the moment of succession. I can see that possibility arising through my hon. Friend’s amendments. I regret that that is the case, but I see it as a problem, and I humbly make that argument to the House.
I am trying to describe a situation where an older child—the Bill affects nothing to do with the age of succession—could, due to their faith, initially be out of the line of succession but later change their faith, as envisaged by the amendments, thereby changing the realities of the succession.
If the Minister will forgive me for saying it, this is now sounding a little like “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza”! She is relying on the fact that an older brother or sister might be debarred because of their faith, but the point of the amendments is to end the situation of someone being debarred because they happen to be of a particular faith at any stage in their lives.
During this debate many hon. Members have asked the Government to take account of unintended consequences, and I humbly suggest that I am pointing out an unintended consequence of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset.
We have heard several mentions in the debate of the support afforded to the Bill by the Archbishop of Westminster, who welcomed
“the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to give heirs to the throne the freedom to marry a Catholic”.
Importantly, he also recognised the importance of the position of the established Church in protecting and fostering the role of faith in our society. I balance that against the Church of England’s comments, which are likewise supportive. Given that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have been extremely supportive of the changes, I believe that we have found an appropriate balance in the Bill. I do not think there is an appetite in the country at large to change or damage the position of the established Church in this country.
Will the Minister accept the reality of change in this extremely complex constitutional area? Whatever the moral arguments in favour of change, they must nevertheless be matched to the practicalities of constitutional change and achieving the necessary consensus to bring about that change.
I welcome the comments of the hon. Gentleman, who brings me back to the point that I do not believe there is a consensus among the public for any radical divergence from the traditional arrangements for the established Church in this country.
In new clause 1, my hon. Friend proposes a perhaps rather ingenious solution: splitting the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England from the role of sovereign, in a method akin to a regency. Such a split would represent a fundamental change to the role of the monarch in English society in relation to the established Church, and could not be considered without extensive consultation. I am delighted that the House had sufficient time to debate all the matters that were in scope last week, but new clause 1 suggests a more radical diversion from the traditional role of the monarchy. There is not public support for the proposed change, which opens up a series of extremely difficult questions about what the relationship would be between the sovereign and the Supreme Governor, and whether such arrangements could continue to support the established place of the Church of England. My right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) raised a question about how the coronation and accession oaths could be made to work in such an instance.
The Government have no intention of going further than the limited scope of the Bill as presented. The amendments and the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset would introduce instability and uncertainty of a type that is not welcome in the institution we are discussing, which has served the country well for generations in its temporal role and in its spiritual role as articulated. As there is neither public support for the admirably comprehensive arguments that have been made, nor appropriate space for consultation on them considering that the legislation must be taken through many other realms, I invite my hon. Friend to seek leave to withdraw his amendments.
I begin my reply by thanking the Lord President of the Council for saying:
“The Bill does three specific things.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 208.]
Three is important, because if the scope is only two things, it is narrow, but three widens it, which has helped me in tabling my amendments. No doubt the Minister will convey my gratitude to the Lord President of the Council.
I am grateful to those Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), who have spoken broadly in support of my position. It is a particular pleasure, however, to have the support of some Opposition Members with whom I am normally in a high state of disagreement: the hon. Members for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I also received support for my amendments from my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). As I spoke at considerable length on a private member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, it is noble of him not to have held that against me.
I will not press my amendments to a vote, with the caveat that the argument put against them was of a high degree of sophistry—I cannot believe that the Minister wrote the words herself, given the sophistical nature that they display. I will, however, test the will of the House on new clause 1, on the succession. I am basically asking Members whether they are in favour of tolerance, equality and religious freedom.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
Succession to the Crown not to depend on gender
I beg to move amendment 3, page 1, line 2, leave out
‘born after 28 October 2011’
and insert ‘whenever born’.
I shall be much briefer than I was when we debated the previous amendments. From where I sit in the House, I noticed the conversations that Members were having as they went in to vote and I think that many who opposed the previous measure will be very surprised to see, when they read the papers tomorrow, what exactly they voted against.
Amendment 3 is a brief and helpful proposal to remove the specified date. Lord Armstrong has recently reminded us of how atrocious we, sadly, are in this Parliament at legislating. When we legislate in haste we often legislate in error, and what Lord Armstrong has said, having gone through the Bills passed in the 13 years of the previous Government, is that 75 went through all stages in this House and the other House, received Royal Assent and then were never implemented—they made no difference.
We have now reached the position where this Bill may well be judged as an atrocious piece of legislation, because there is no need to limit us to a date. We are dealing with a situation where the child is likely to be born—this is referred to in the Bill—in the summer, but there is no need to make a decision now. We can give ourselves time to improve the Bill and avoid the unintended consequences it contains.
I cannot see why we should not apply this provision now. If this is such a good idea—there is an almost universal approval in the House for the main proposition of getting rid of discrimination against women—why not do it immediately? Why should it apply in 40 or 60 years’ time? Why should it not apply immediately? The effect of that might be nothing at all, because those in the line of succession in the foreseeable future are predominantly male, barring problems that might occur with premature deaths, accidents and so on. However, it is conceivable, although unlikely, that there could be a female in direct line to the throne. Are we going to wait until the child that is going to be born in July reaches maturity for this beneficial legislation to come into force? If it is worth doing, it is worth doing now.
I will be equally as brief as the hon. Gentleman. I, too, understand that the effect of his amendment would be to make the gender of any person in the line of succession irrelevant when determining succession to the throne. I put it to him that the Government did not make an omission; the way we set out the Bill was a deliberate choice. His amendment would change the current line of succession. Specifically—I suspect he has this in mind—their Royal Highnesses Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, and their descendants, would move below Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and her descendants. The Government do not believe it is fair or reasonable to alter the legitimate expectations of those currently in line to the throne. The hon. Gentleman’s amendment is a retrospective provision and there would need to be good reason for it.
Commonwealth leaders have agreed to remove the male bias in succession to the Crown for the future. For reasons we have already discussed at length, the Government view that agreement as being important to maintain, and it does not envisage the current order of succession being disturbed. Rather, when new members of the royal family are born they will enter the line of succession without there being any preference for males over females, and I know that the hon. Gentleman shares that latter principle with me.
Does the Minister agree that not only would it be intrinsically unfair to adopt an ex post facto aspect to the Bill by applying it retrospectively to those who have lived in the current order of succession for many years—their adult lives—but it would breach the principle of avoiding retrospective legislation in this House?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I note that the different clauses of this Bill do carry slightly different connotations of retrospectivity. I would be happy to explain that, but we did cover some of those issues in detail in Committee. He is right to say that what is relevant in clause 1 is the legitimate expectations of those currently close to the throne in the line of succession. We do face a question about what is fair and reasonable to them. Clause 1 strikes a fair balance by providing that gender is irrelevant in this regard for persons born after the date of the agreement reached by the Commonwealth realms on 28 October 2011. That element of retrospection is justifiable.
An important practical element and effect of the measure is that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a daughter and then a son, the daughter would precede the son in the line of succession. I believe that all hon. Members know that that is an example of the point behind clause 1. It is also clear that that deals with a future occurrence, as opposed to altering the legitimate expectations of those currently in line to the throne. For that reason, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
I am disappointed at the limit to the reforming zeal of this Government, who seem to be saying, “God, make me gender neutral—but not yet.” I know that the Minister was disappointed that I did not move my amendment in middle English, but in the spirit of what she said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I want to thank the House for the gripping debate that took place last Tuesday and for the scrutiny that has been provided. I was very glad to see that Members had sufficient time in Committee to consider all the amendments that were selected. I particularly want to thank various participants, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who brought such a deep understanding of our complex and colourful constitutional settlement to the Floor of the House. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who cruelly described my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset as the Member for the middle ages but then went on to refer to the Roman era—so presumably he is the Member representing the Roman occupation in today’s debate.
I also wish to thank the royal household for its engagement and should mention the tireless work of Governments from across the Commonwealth, ably marshalled by Rebecca Kitteridge the New Zealand Cabinet Secretary. It has been a remarkable achievement to ensure that the changes we are discussing can be effected across the realms of the Commonwealth for which Her Majesty is Head of State.
I should like to make a point of clarification on an issue discussed in Committee. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) asked whether, under the Statute of Westminster 1931, individual Parliaments in the respective states of the Commonwealth need to give their assent. The relevant part of the Statute of Westminster is the preamble, which includes the following:
“And whereas it is meet and proper to set out by way of preamble to this Act that, inasmuch as the Crown is the symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and as they are united by a common allegiance to the Crown, it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members of the Commonwealth in relation to one another that any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom”.
To put it another way, our opinion is that the Statute of Westminster 1931 is politically rather than legally binding. A statement in a preamble is different from a section in an Act. Bearing that in mind, the Government have consulted the 15 other Commonwealth realms in order to reach agreement as to how the laws on succession to the throne should be changed. We have secured confirmation from Heads of Government and Cabinet Secretaries that each realm is in a position to take the steps necessary to bring the changes into effect. We consider that the appropriate steps are a matter for each respective realm in their particular context. Although some realms will not find it necessary to involve their Parliaments, others will.
The Bill is about equality. The Prime Ministers of the 16 Commonwealth nations of which Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State agreed during their meeting in Perth in 2011 to work together towards a common approach to amending the rules of succession to their respective Crowns. All those countries wish to see change in two areas: first, to end the system of male-preference primogeniture, under which a younger son can displace an elder daughter in the line of succession; and, secondly, to remove the bar on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic. One effect of the proposed change is that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a daughter and then a son, the daughter would precede the son in the line of succession. I am proud that the Bill will remove two long-standing pieces of discrimination and modernise and affirm the place of our constitutional monarchy.
On that issue—my right hon. Friend uses the example of a daughter and a younger son—has he managed to provide clarification on the points raised last week on what would happen to titles such as the Duke of Rothesay that specify a male heir in their deeds or patents provident?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way but I believe he might not understand me. The monarch is the fount of honour and can create a title, but most titles are not the privilege of the monarch once they are created—most titles are in fact a matter for Parliament. It takes an Act of Parliament to change or abolish a title except those deemed, under the doctrine of merger, to resort back to the Crown. In that case, will he tell us what will happen to those titles not under the doctrine of merger?
On the titles to which my hon. Friend refers, the following might be helpful. The Scottish titles currently held by the Prince of Wales—Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Lord of the Isles and Baron of Renfrew—can pass automatically to a female heir apparent. Those titles have always hung together. The removal of the male bias in the line of succession could therefore not result in the detachment of the titles from the Crown. We have consulted the Court of the Lord Lyon, the official heraldry office for Scotland, on that. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.
As we look forward to the birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s first child, we can also celebrate the fact that a baby boy or girl will have an equal claim to the throne.
We have had a good debate today, and there were excellent debates last week on Second Reading and in Committee. I am glad the Government made the right decision to allow sufficient time for a proper and full debate in the House.
As I have said before, although the Bill is small in size, it is constitutionally and practically significant. A number of hon. Members have made the point that we should not tamper with our constitution, and particularly the monarch’s role within it, unless we are very sure about the changes we are making. Moreover, it is important that there is a large measure of consensus that transcends usual political divisions. In that respect, I thank the Minister for the co-operation with Opposition Front Benchers. I, too, associate myself with his remarks on wishing the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge all the best for the birth of their first child. For the first time, we can be sure that we have established equality between the sexes.
Mixed marriage—so-called—was raised on a number of occasions during our debates. I accept that it is a theological discussion, but clear reassurances have been provided by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.
We discussed the resources of the Duchy of Cornwall last week. I am assured that money will go to the Treasury, and that, under the provisions of the Sovereign Grant Act 2011, exactly the same money that would normally go to a male heir apparent will go to a female heir apparent via the Treasury. There is also the possibility that a female heir apparent could be the chair of the duchy, which is to be welcomed.
A number of hon. Members have been exercised because some people allege that there is a contradiction in clause 2(1) and clause 3(1). It is important to recognise that there is no contradiction—the clauses sit well together. The Government of the day will have a clear role and express a clear opinion to the monarch if the monarch’s right to deny the royal succession as it would normally take place is exercised. It is important to explain that the monarch is not a detached institution—we have a constitutional monarchy. That important point needs to be stressed time and again, but these are complicated and emotive issues. Will the Government consider providing additional explanation in the explanatory notes when the Bill goes to the other place, so that they provide further clarity?
That leads me on to the decision of the monarch regarding the six in line to succession. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister specifically stated that the figure of six was seized on for pragmatic reasons, but the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), has said that the succession after Queen Victoria—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) was extremely helpful on this point—set a useful precedent. Six is a reasonable figure that the Opposition can easily accept.
In conclusion, I am content with the reassurances that Ministers have provided and I look forward, once we have concluded our deliberations, to hearing the views that will be coherently expressed in the other place. The Bill is indeed an important piece of legislation. The roots of the monarchy as an institution are firmly embedded in our history—there is no doubt about that—but today the constitutional monarchy is a form of government that places the Head of State beyond political competition. That is surely to be welcomed. The sovereign, as well as being Head of State, is head of our nation. As one of our most distinguished constitutional experts has argued, the monarchy alone is in a position to interpret the nation to itself—that is its central function, its essential justification and its rationale. The Bill will help our constitutional monarchy fulfil that role even more effectively today and well into the future.
I wish to speak very briefly. First, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), for her courtesy and kindness in dealing with the queries that have rained down on her in the course of the debates. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who has brought to this debate an inquiring mind, which is necessary when dealing with such matters, and a profound knowledge of history and tradition and everything that goes with them. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), whose contributions are always worth listening to and whom I salute across the House even though I profoundly disagree with him. I always think it must be pretty hard going to be a republican at the time of the diamond jubilee, but he has stuck to his guns nevertheless, as he always does, and it is a pleasure to speak in the same debate as him.
I want only to say that I regret that a Bill that was pretty miserable in the first place has not been improved by its passage through this House, introduced, as it was, by the Deputy Prime Minister as a messy amalgam of political correctness and a desire to interfere. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, these are extremely complicated, complex and difficult matters that have served this country very well down the generations. Our old friend the unintended consequence rears its ugly head, I am afraid, very substantially during this debate so we look to their lordships to deal with those matters.
I fear that the word “consultation” has been grossly overused. I would be interested to know the full extent of the detailed consultation that went on in the preparation of this Bill. I believe that consultation with the institutions concerned has been very minimal indeed and it is therefore in my view disrespectful to the institution of the Crown.
The Government are playing fast and loose with the hereditary principle and I look to their lordships to deal robustly with this matter in the other place.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) and I want to start my speech on a note of agreement, as he is absolutely right that the contributions made by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) added to the debate. It has been very worth while and will be followed, although at times it got complicated. I thought I knew everything about the Catholic Church and a bit about the history of this country, but I have learned so much from so many colleagues and I appreciate what they have said.
I pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Deputy Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), for the way in which they conducted the discussions preceding and following the introduction of the Bill in this House. In particular, the hon. Lady went out of her way to ask Members for their views. In all the years I have been in this House, I have not often been invited to meetings with Ministers to discuss my views on impending legislation. That took place in a formal meeting at which many right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House were present. We had a fruitful discussion and she certainly seemed to have listened to the points that were made, as demonstrated by her speeches.
The difficult task was that of the Deputy Prime Minister. He has had to go to other members of the Commonwealth and persuade them to agree. He has done that diligently—I do not think that people automatically agree when he rings up and says that he wants to alter the law of the land. Of course, there has been careful thought. I know that, because when I introduced my ten-minute rule Bill on 18 January 2011, two years ago, I wrote to all 16 Commonwealth Heads of Government. Obviously, I do not know the royal family and Heads of State as well as the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) does, but I do my little bit in royal circles. The response I received was quite depressing, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, went so far as to issue a statement saying he did not think that this issue was a priority—the Canadian people were facing other issues—and that he was not absolutely supportive of the proposal. He has changed his mind, and I am sure that that was because of the Government’s persuasion.
In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to Terry and Janet Herbert, two constituents of mine who live in Northfields and came to my surgery to say that it was quite wrong for us not to have equality in our succession laws. They pointed out that at least six European countries have changed their succession laws to ensure equality, as we have heard in our numerous discussions on this matter. We have heard them all: the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and others. If it was good enough for them, my constituents asked, why were we not doing the same? They started a petition that was circulated around Leicester and put on websites, which many thousands of people have signed since. I pay tribute to Terry and Janet. I know that they are not solely responsible for this massive change in the law, but I am grateful to them for coming to me and making suggestions. They are great royalists and supporters of the monarchy and they love the Queen, as we all do—we all like her as a person even though we do not all support the monarchy.
We have now brought the monarchy into the 21st century and we can all be very proud of that.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am a member of that Committee and I venture to suggest that there is no more important person to the home affairs of this country than our sovereign lady the Queen.
The unwritten constitution of this great country is rather like the roof over the temple of Solomon, and the monarchy is the central pillar holding up that roof. Other pillars include this House, the other place, the judiciary and the law courts. Perhaps even the press are a pillar of the constitution—although rather a stunted pillar so perhaps more of a balustrade. Nevertheless, one might argue that a number of pillars hold up the roof of our constitution. It is a multi-pillared structure—one might almost say a Parthenon—and one must be cautious before one chips away at those pillars. The consequence of such actions can be a structural collapse, and we all know that those who are beneath the structure chipping away at it can be the victims of such a calamity. I would exercise all due diligence and all due caution before instituting any changes, such as those that are envisaged.
However, I support the Bill. On balance, 300 years is about the right period of time—it is not overly hurried—for the provisions being changed by the Bill to be looked at afresh. Some aspects of the Bill are appropriate because they renew the ageing—one might even say decrepit—parts of the constitution and the ancient structure that I mentioned. It is always right to consider that this country of ours and the monarchy that heads it has always changed with the times. The monarchy has always tended to adapt to changing times. Recently, Queen Victoria, by her character and temperament—[Interruption.] Recently, in constitutional terms. When Queen Victoria came to the throne she represented a considerable change from the Georgian sovereigns who went before her. Her conduct, her decorum and the manner in which she reigned were lessons to her descendants.
There is no doubt that there is unacceptable prejudice currently written into the constitution of this country by such Acts of Parliament as the Act of Settlement 1701.
I accept everything that the hon. Gentleman has said so far, but does he agree with me and other Members of the House that there is unfinished business in respect of modernisation—for example, the succession to baronetcies? These are issues that we should return to in the future.
For my part, I prefer to leave the structures alone if we can possibly do so. I think there is something to be said for the ancient customs, traditions and privileges of this country, and we should be very cautious about making changes willy-nilly because of their unintended consequences.
We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). He said, I believe, in a debate last Tuesday from which I was absent but which I have read in the Official Report, that he does not take offence at the terms of the Act of Settlement because it is the history of this country. I admire that and I wish more people would take such a mature view of such things. All too often people are quick to find offence where none should be taken. There is an inbuilt prejudice against other religions, my own included. Because those religions may not be in communion with the Church of England, their adherents cannot be eligible to be sovereign of this country, but I for one take no offence at that because it is part of the noble history of this country and it seems to me that there are reasons why we should retain that. Principal among them is the establishment of the Church of England.
The prejudices that exist are based not on current thinking but on historical reasons, and have been left unchanged only because Members of this House in recent generations have taken the view, presumably, that they have more important things to do than change them or because changing them involves great complexity. For that reason, as well as for many others, I admire my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for being the one who brought these measures before the House. Whereas others have spoken of them and made supportive noises about them for many years, the Deputy Prime Minister has done it, and I congratulate him on that.
With reference to male primogeniture, one has only to look at the long and noble history of this country to see that we have been very fortunate with our female sovereigns. There should certainly be no reason why we should deny or make it more difficult for females to succeed to the Crown. We have the example of our current Queen and of Queen Victoria, and I dare say of those queens who were not queens regnant but queens consort. I am thinking of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Her late Majesty Queen Mary, who also were exemplars of duty, service to their country, and spirit. I have no problem with removing the male primogeniture aspect, as the Bill does.
However, I would not go as far as others and seek to defenestrate completely those parts of the constitution which in some way can be said to be prejudicial to some group or other. For example, one could argue that the law that says that the oldest person, whether male or female, should take precedence over young siblings is also biased. It is also prejudicial because it is ageist in that it favours older over younger. One could go on ad absurdum. I suggest that we try not to get too concerned about removing all aspects of the legal fictions that the law has had to develop over the years.
For example, when, for the purpose of inheritance, both the father and the eldest son die in the same instance, such as in a road traffic accident, the law assumes that the older died before the younger, even if it is transparent that they both died instantly in an accident. That is because the law has to develop types of legal regulation—legal fiction, one might call it—in order to make sense. I use this as an example to indicate with caution that attractive though it is in principle to remove all types of bias, there will always be some type of bias within the system, but the Bill goes some way towards rectifying the most egregious examples.
The Bill also deals with the Royal Marriages Act 1772. The Act has become redundant in as much as it is difficult to operate effectively.
I do not go so far as to say it is a ridiculous piece of legislation because there is a good reason why the sovereign should have a right over those closest to him or her in their marriage arrangements. The hon. Gentleman must also agree with that principle, because he said he agreed with the principle that the number should be reduced to six. So whether it be the heirs of Electress Sophia or whether it be six people, the principle remains the same. The sovereign has special rights and responsibilities. Of course it is true that in ordinary families no head of the family would have such a say, but it is nonsense to suggest that the royal family should be in that position. It is right that some demarcation be made so that the sovereign can exercise control. My understanding is that in other constitutional monarchies similar provisions apply, whereby restrictions are placed on the marriage rights of those closest in line.
I support the Bill. I commend it to the House. Although I emphasise that I would exercise extreme caution when chipping away at the pillars of our constitution, in my submission the Bill should have the support of the House.
I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). When he talked about the temple of Solomon, I was somewhat concerned about the number of pillars he was adding to the established archaeology of the building. The fact that it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar many centuries ago also made me worry about quite what direction the hon. Gentleman was going in, let alone whether we were going to start talking about how many wives and concubines Solomon had under the provisions of his own royal marriages Act.
I support the two main thrusts of what the Bill is trying to do, but I think that we will end up ruing its passage. That is not because I disagree with the principle of abolishing male-preference primogeniture so that women can inherit equally with men, nor because of the minor adjustment to the provision on those who marry Roman Catholics being allowed to continue in the succession. My problem with the Bill is that it does something very significant that I do not think the Government intend it to do. The Royal Marriages Act 1772 provided that an individual who was in line to the throne had to get consent from the monarch at the time of marriage. If the monarch refused to provide that consent, or the individual refused to ask for it, their marriage would simply become null and void. I do not think that any of us believes that anybody should be able to declare anybody else’s marriage null and void.
The new legislation that we are seeking to agree will have no effect on the validity of the marriage, but it means that the person will be removed from the succession. That matters because throughout the whole history of English Parliaments, Scottish Parliaments and Irish Parliaments, the succession has always been determined by Parliament, not the monarch. Parliament decided what should happen at the deposition of Edward II. In the case of Richard II, the decision was made by the shortest Parliament in our history—a one-day Parliament in Westminster Hall gathered by Henry Bolingbroke. One could argue that it was not a proper Parliament because Richard II was not present, but none the less the Commons, the Lords and the Church, gathered together, made the decision on who should be the new monarch.
That is not in the Bill. Indeed, the Government have said that it is entirely a matter for the Crown, in the double sense of the monarch and the monarch’s Ministers, who might have a role in advising the monarch.
Incidentally, I would not want to be a monarch apart from Elizabeth with a “II” in my title, but when James II was removed, Parliament decided, through the Bill of Rights and then the Act of Settlement, to hand over a joint monarchy to William and Mary rather than to anybody else. Then, when the Stuart line was going to end with Queen Anne, Parliament decided how the succession should proceed. Again, when Edward VIII tried to abdicate in 1936, the abdication could be allowed only because there was a statute of Parliament the next day.
That is absolutely right. It is interesting that we had gone through three Succession Acts, but again Parliament decided the process. Incidentally, exactly the same situation applied in Scotland. The calling of the first Scottish Parliament was prompted by a contested succession in Scotland on who the next monarch should be.
For the first time in our history, the monarch himself or herself will be allowed to decide whether somebody is barred from the succession by refusing to provide consent, without any reason given, at the moment that that person chooses to marry. We do not have a capricious monarch at the moment, but we have had plenty of capricious monarchs in the past, and I suspect that we will have a capricious monarch in future. At that point, we will rue the day that we passed the legislation in this form. I desperately hope that a good Bill is made better by their lordships. This is the kind of moment when one wants to vote both Aye and No, because it is a good Bill in principle but a bad Bill in its detail.
I had no intention of contributing to this thin Bill’s passage through the House of Commons. In fact, it was only last week, one lunchtime, that I looked at it and decided to do so because I could see a problem with it. Of course, it was also because I wanted to help my coalition partner, the Deputy Prime Minister, and to give him the same easy time that he gives us, by making sure that the Government were given some helpful hints on the Bill during its passage. I agree with the principle of what we are trying to achieve and totally support the Government’s policy on this. However, experience from my previous life, and, I suppose, from my current life—I should declare that I am a member of the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland—means that I recognise that there are many foibles in modern and historical changes to the constitution. Making changes is easier said than done.
Wanting to be helpful in last week’s debate, I raised some concerns about the other titles and assets that accompany the sovereign. It is easy to talk about changing the succession without realising that our monarchs are more than that—they have other titles, such as the Duke of Rothesay, the Earl of Carrick, the Duke of Lancaster and the Duke of Cornwall. Some are merely titles without asset, while some are titles with asset, but they are all very important. They are regulated by more people than just one Government lawyer. I am surprised by the lack of consultation with key people such as the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland and the Garter Principal King of Arms in England. These people monitor and, in effect, register letters patent to make sure that the power and extent of a title is upheld. This is not as easy as saying that we can change the succession and everything else will fall into line. I am therefore hoping for clarification from the Government.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) gave the example of one or two Scottish titles that can follow through the female line. That is absolutely correct, as in the case of titles such as the Countess of Mar—one of the oldest titles in Britain. However, my right hon. Friend missed out the fact that that takes place only when there is no male heir as a sibling; when there is, they will get the title under the rule of primogeniture. We have heard the example of what would happen if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had a son and an older daughter, and I assume that the son would be likely to continue to inherit the other titles.
The Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall are titles that come with asset, and they have a very significant impact. I understand the Government’s line, and I accept that it is likely—almost certain—that the monarch will continue to enjoy the incomes from those assets, but not necessarily the assets themselves and control over them. A situation could arise whereby the Duchy of Lancaster’s assets, which are considerable— the latest valuation is over £400 million—reside with the son, but the income is diverted to the monarch. That is fine the first time round, but the second time round, when the son of the son has the asset, the asset will get further away from the title, as will the control that may go with it, and the process will continue.
We need to know that the Government—I urge the other House to make sure that this is the case—have consulted the deeds patent under which these titles are issued, and the duchy chronicles and charters of the 15th and 16th centuries that set out what conditions are attached to the Crown. If we do not get this right, it could come back to haunt us at a later date. I urge the Government to make sure that clarity is provided to the other place by the time the Bill arrives there.
I have no objection at all—the Minister can say it again if she likes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned how the six people nearest in line to the throne could lose their place if the Queen did not consent to their marriage. It is important to say on the record that the explanatory notes state clearly that that would be the case; in fact, it says so in the summary on the front page. I do not think, therefore, that it is fair to say that the issue has not been referred to properly in the House—it has been referred to in the documents and in last week’s debate.
It is also important to remember that we are talking about a constitutional monarchy that has a close relationship with the Government of the day. I am sure that a monarch would not take any action if they believed that, in doing so, they would be acting incorrectly in the background.