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Magna Carta

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in June 2015.

My Lords, plans to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in June 2015 are being co-ordinated by the Magna Carta Trust, an independent organisation chaired by Sir Robert Worcester. I am keeping in close contact with the trust and I hope that as many people as possible will join in the commemorative activities and events that are being planned for the run-up to 2015 and on the anniversary itself.

I thank the Minister for that reply. There are of course very special reasons to commemorate in this House what happened at Runnymede in June 1215 and, indeed, the evolution of our constitutional arrangements between the Lords and the Commons over many centuries since. Does the noble Lord agree that in addition to weighty documents being published and speeches being made, there could be something of a more popular nature? For example, the pageant that preceded the tournament in 1215 was itself preceded by a ceremonial exchange of hostages between England and Scotland. What does the noble Lord think about a replay of that? Other events might also intrude, such as an inconclusive outcome of the general election. In those circumstances, would one way forward be a series of ceremonial jousts between the parties in which the noble Lord himself might be called upon to participate?

What excellent ideas. It is strange how the same thoughts go through our minds. Just as the noble Lord was speaking, I was looking at the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and thinking what a perfect hostage he would make in the circumstances. Not long ago, I went to a ceremony at Runnymede and pointed out something that may surprise some Members of this House in view of my views about reform—that at Runnymede, the Barons did very well.

My Lords, does my noble friend think that the Barons who look down upon us daily from their plinths above this Chamber would be best pleased if, a month after the next general election, they looked down upon a hybrid Assembly with a group of senators in it?

Indeed. I am sure that the Barons would be as revolutionary in 2015 as they were in 1215, but I defer to my noble friend because, sometimes when listening to him, I think he must have been at Runnymede for the signing.

My Lords, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, played a decisive and formative role in the formulation of Magna Carta, and that was not the first or the last occasion in our history when the Church has, so to speak, helped to keep the feet of the powers-that-be to the fire in matters of constitutional freedoms. Will the Minister take the opportunity to acknowledge the continuing contribution that people of faith are still making today in defending human dignity that transcends temporary political arrangements, and will he further let us know whether he is prepared to advise the independent commission to which he referred to invite the Church of England to play a particular role in the 2015 celebrations?

I would certainly hope so. As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, Archbishop Langton played an important part at that time. I shall draw the idea to Sir Bob Worcester’s attention. I believe that this is an opportunity for us to celebrate a significant part of our history. I know that historical purists will cavil at the importance of the Magna Carta, but I always remember Eleanor Roosevelt, when she published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that it was a Magna Carta for all mankind. Nobody needed to translate what she meant by that. Magna Carta carries a resonance that has come down to us through the ages.

My Lords, may I invite the Minister graciously to disabuse himself and all others who fall prey to the misconception that Magna Carta was ever signed? It never was. As a charter, and as the name implies, it was sealed by the royal seal of King John, as the facsimile mounted in the Contents Lobby makes very clear. May I apologise for making such a pettifogging legal point?

Not at all. I have long considered the noble Lord a master of the pettifogging legal point, but his question gives me the opportunity to put on the record, for noble Lords who want to get involved in the build-up to the Magna Carta celebrations, that my honourable friend Eleanor Laing in the other place is chairing an All-Party Magna Carta Group. I am sure that it would benefit from membership from this House.

Thank you, my Lords. A favourite expression often used by British citizens is, “It’s a free country”. Thankfully, so it is, but many are not aware that our freedoms are the greatest legacy of the Magna Carta. What are the Government doing to ensure that children and young people use and appreciate this precious gift of freedom with respect and responsibility? Perhaps they could do so by establishing an annual Magna Carta day to raise awareness and celebrating on the underused Parliament Square, as suggested by the Hansard Society.

Again, I am delighted by the enthusiasm with which the House is approaching this and I shall feed that idea back to Sir Robert.

Will the Minister confirm that Clause 29 of Magna Carta, which enshrines the right to due process, remains part of the law of England and Wales, but that it is under attack by the Government? Would it not be seemly if the Government were to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta by withdrawing Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which removes legal aid from people on low incomes who are in dispute about their benefits entitlement or with their employer or with their landlord? If the Government should be less than gracious about this, will it not still be for the Barons to insist on the ancient constitutional principle that:

“To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay right or justice”?