Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill
Prayers
9:30 am

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John Spellar (Government Whip (technically Comptroller, HM Household); Warley, Labour)

I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Second Reading

9:49 am
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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is first appropriate for the House to offer its thanks to the Queen for her permission to hold this debate. It clearly indicates that, at my request, the Government have been in discussion with Buckingham palace about this matter. Indeed, the Prime Minister has announced that that was the case. I just hope that the discussions concern more than just seeking permission to hold the debate.

This is a welcome opportunity to debate what most people, if not every right-thinking person, would consider to be the outrageous discrimination in our constitution against Roman Catholics and the equally unfair treatment of women. I come to this not from a religious perspective but from one of recognising that whatever someone's religious views—or their views of the royal family—our constitution should not be based on unjustified discrimination.

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Denis MacShane (Rotherham, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. Before he develops his arguments, may I offer him my congratulations? By introducing this Bill, he has moved the Government. It is said that Parliament is a poodle and achieves nothing, but we have one of our most senior and illustrious Secretaries of State, the Secretary of State for Justice, in his place on a Friday morning, and we have also had the Deputy Leader of the House making massive concessions on the "Today" programme this morning. I therefore congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting this issue before the House and the nation, and I wish him well with his Bill.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support on this and on other important matters, and I recognise his contribution to fundamental issues of human rights and freedoms. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to welcome real progress by the Government on this issue. I look forward to hearing the Government's view to determine whether real progress has been made, because the measure of that will be whether we see action in this term. Some 12 years ago, the Labour party's manifesto said that the Labour Government would end unjustified discrimination wherever it existed, and I strongly supported that. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Justice—I am pleased that he is in his place this morning—or the Minister. However, those words and the sincerity behind them are not in the end sufficient when dealing with such discrimination. We need legislation. That is what we are here for, and that is the true power of Parliament.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

My prediction is that we will need the next Conservative Government to carry this through, but we will listen to the Minister. Those of us who are Christians have a responsibility to bring the denominations together, and this measure would help to do that. To those who would argue that the succession of the crown from father to eldest son is the normal process, I point out that that has not happened since Edward III, and even then his father had not died, so we do have some power to make changes.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am an expert neither in bringing together the Churches nor in history, but I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is interesting to note that the Bill has brought together a coalition—I was going to say an unholy coalition, but that would be wrong. Some people, on behalf of the Church of England, feel that the Church should not countenance the continuation of this discrimination. Some people, on behalf of Roman Catholics—I hope that we will hear from them later and I shall refer to their views—feel it is wrong that this ongoing discrimination is allowed to continue. And some people—I include myself in this category—come from a more secular, liberal angle, and ask how one religion can be singled out and picked on for discrimination in a way that is not appropriate in today's world, or indeed yesterday's world.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

As someone who was brought up in the Anglican tradition, I greatly welcome the Bill. In 1991, I was given leave to propose a ten-minute Bill that would have changed the sexist rules of succession and required the monarch to pay income tax. The following week, the palace announced that the monarch would pay income tax, so my hon. Friend should be encouraged: just by doing this he will have made significant progress, and things could happen very quickly, if the Government are helpful.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

My hon. Friend did indeed propose that Bill in 1991, and part of it was implemented voluntarily. I do not seek to speak for the royal family, but I cannot see that the change would cause them a problem. They cannot opt to make the changes themselves, because it requires legislation. It is specifically a matter for Parliament. It need not be a matter for the Executive if they merely get behind this Bill as a vehicle to achieve it. If it were to require Executive action, I am sure that Parliament would want to provide as much as help as possible, because I think that there is a majority in favour of so doing.

It is appropriate to recognise the significant contributions to this debate that were made before I had the good fortune to come high up in the private Members' Bill ballot. For example, I recognise the work of Mr. Leigh, who on 8 March 2005 introduced the Royal Marriages (Freedom of Religion) Bill. We see eye to eye on very few issues—perhaps this one and fox hunting are the exceptions—but I have great respect for the consistent position that he has taken on this issue, and for the fact that, although he may not be an enthusiast for everything in the Bill, he was willing to recognise its importance and the fact that it was partly inspired by the action he had taken, and to put his name to it as a sponsor. I am grateful to him for being in his place today and for his support as a senior parliamentarian and Catholic.

Mr. Gummer, in February 2007, introduced the succinctly titled Catholics (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill as a ten-minute Bill. Peter Bottomley mentioned the next Conservative Government, but the right hon. Gentleman's Bill showed that even the Conservative party—I do not mean this in a party political way, but one has to remember what the adjective "conservative" can mean—has no problem with this proposal. I believe that we will hear confirmation of that from its Front-Bench spokesman. Indeed, many of the calls for some of the Bill's provisions have come from Conservative Back Benchers, and not necessarily those of a radical persuasion.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

As the hon. Gentleman moves down the roll of honour on this issue, and before he mentions Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, who introduced a Bill on the issue twice, once in 1997 and once in 1998, will he mention Kevin McNamara, a former Member of Parliament for Hull, who introduced the Treason Felony, Act of Settlement and Parliamentary Oath Bill in 2001 and who was, above all, a consistent, clear, precise and logical voice for this move? Over many years, Kevin fought for the same principles of equality that the hon. Gentleman raises today.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions Kevin McNamara. I was going to come on to him next, but the hon. Gentleman has put it far better than I could. I had my disagreements with Kevin McNamara about discrimination in the school system against people who were not of the right religion, but he was clear on this issue and I shall quote him later.

Stephen Pound invites me to refer to Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, and it is appropriate to recognise that he tried twice in the House of Lords to address these issues, especially the unfair treatment of women in the line of succession. That is another example of the opportunities that the Government have had to hear the argument in both Houses and to take action.

The case that I put in my Bill can be found in a book by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is, I am pleased to say, one of my constituents. In "The Monarchy and the Constitution", published in 1995, he says at the end of chapter 2:

"The rules relating to succession, being a product of the religious struggles of the seventeenth century, are now ripe for reform. The statute specifically prohibiting a Roman Catholic or someone married to a Roman Catholic from occupying the throne is deeply offensive to Catholics, not only in Britain, but also in those Commonwealth countries with large Catholic populations such as Canada and Australia. It should be repealed."

I think that we will hear more about the Commonwealth later in the debate. Professor Bogdanor goes on:

"In an era of equality of opportunity, moreover, it will appear increasingly anomalous for male heirs still to take precedence over female. There is at the time of writing a male heir apparent with two sons. Therefore, the succession is unlikely to be affected by any alteration in the law allowing for it to be passed to the eldest child of the sovereign irrespective of gender, as in Sweden. The time is ripe, surely, for such a reform.

Most urgent of all, however, is a reform of the Royal Marriages Act. There are, perhaps, few more absurd pieces of legislation on the statute book. The purpose of the Act, as stated in its preamble, that 'marriages in the Royal Family are of the highest importance to the state', can...easily be achieved without needing to invoke its complicated paraphernalia.

There is no reason why a marriage made in contravention, perhaps unconscious contravention, of its provisions by someone who was unaware of his or her descent from George II"—

I am reminded of a recent television programme which showed that there was a notable descendant of that line in a relatively high office in this country—

"should be void. It would be better simply to deprive the person concerned of the right to succession, as would occur if he or she married a Catholic."

He goes on to say:

"The fundamental weakness of the Act, however, is that it applies to many who are quite remote from the throne and who are never likely to succeed. Conversely, someone who may well succeed—for example, an heir presumptive whose mother has married into a foreign family—would fall outside the provisions of the Act. An obvious reform would be to make provision for the sovereign's approval to be required for the marriages, of the descendants not of George II, but of George VI, or, better still, simply for the first five people in the line of succession."

Professor Bogdanor concludes:

"Any member of the royal family to whom it applied would still, of course, have the right to renounce his or her rights of succession and contract a civil marriage, as Princess Margaret could have done in 1955. The second route provided for in the Royal Marriages Act, the declaration at the age of 25, is otiose and should be removed."

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I support the Bill—and if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall amplify the reasons why I support it and why I wish to amend it—but I think that even he is missing the central, fundamental point that is repugnant. It is not only the spouses of the monarch or the princes who are discriminated against, but the monarch him or herself. It is unacceptable in this day and age that a Head of State has to be an adherent—a communicant—of one particular religious faith. That is what is bonkers and repugnant.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

In fact, the extract from Professor Bogdanor's book that I read out implies that he wants that provision to be changed as well, but let me be clear: my Bill would not affect the requirement that the monarch should be not only a Protestant but in communion with the Church of England—although the exact terms of that provision in relation to the Church of Scotland are not entirely clear. There is nothing in the Bill that would affect the establishment of the Church of England. That is a wholly separate debate, and one that I do not intend my Bill to influence or initiate.

My Bill has no implications for the future of the royal family as our monarchy. I support the monarchy, although I know that that may undermine my credibility in some radical circles. I would not have introduced the Bill if I thought I was wasting my time; there are other causes relating to human rights and discrimination to which I could turn my attention. I have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, therefore, in that my Bill does not go as far as he might like, but I think that politics is often the art of what is possible and practical. This limited measure is possible, it is practical and it could be achieved.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be slightly more ambitious. The practice of politics should be making possible what is right. The measure he is proposing is right for the Churches, right for the royal family and right for the country. When those interests come together, a measure should be supported, without delay.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Of course I accept that. Andrew Mackinlay says that he supports the Bill. However, what is in the Bill is possible and practical, whereas it would be more difficult to go further. I wish him luck in the ballot next time.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman and I hope for his success, but I hope that he will discuss the long title of his Bill, which refers to the law of succession. The Bill is therefore amendable. If, contrary to his better judgment, he asks me to sit on the Committee that scrutinises the Bill, I shall try to amend it at that stage, so that it allows for the point I just raised.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am asked to resist that suggestion. I do not want to get ahead of myself by thinking about the Committee: that is a distant dream at 10 o'clock in the morning on a Friday, discussing a private Member's Bill.

I shall deal first with the discrimination against women. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, whom I have had the pleasure and the privilege to meet, is one of the members of the royal family whom I hold in the highest regard for her work and her sense of duty. She is the second eldest child of the Queen, yet she is tenth in line to the throne. That is not acceptable in this day and age. It does not require her to complain; it is just obvious that that is unacceptable. It is no slight to her younger brothers to say that; it is just wrong that a woman should have to give way.

To encourage the hon. Member for Ealing, North, I shall cite the words of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, in the 1998 House of Lords debate on his Bill. He is, after all, a Member of the House of Lords and the Government have not seen fit to change his status. He said that his Bill, which is equivalent to mine in this respect,

"would have no effect on the present Royal Family, making no difference to the status of the Princess Royal, so it could hardly be described as a revolutionary concept. While I am on the subject of the Princess Royal, I would suggest that had she been the first born, this debate would not be taking place in a half empty House of Lords on a Friday afternoon, but in every household in the country. Although I am delighted by the prospect of King Charles III, I am not fearful of Queen Anne II."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 February 1998; Vol. 586, c. 909.]

That is the point, is it not? It simply seems unfair, especially in the light of the historical contribution made by female monarchs. There is no evidence that the present arrangement is in any way justified. I am surprised that the Government have taken so long to deal with the matter.

I shall deal now with the bar on Catholics marrying into the royal family. That is a specific, singled-out discrimination, and the language of the statute on which it is based is offensive to Catholics—and, indeed, to people who are offended by other people being offensive. It was a product of its time, but it is not a product of this time. The Prime Minister said this morning that he thought that, in the 21st century, people would not expect those provisions to exist. I think that that is an understatement: such provisions would be surprising in the 20th century, or the 19th.

I have my differences with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, but at least no one—although some have tried—could accuse me of being a Vatican stooge in proposing the Bill. I can be cleared ab initio of such a charge.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

There is nothing wrong with being a Vatican stooge.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

That may be so, but sometimes there is something wrong with being seen to be a Vatican stooge. That is the point. In correspondence, after I had announced the title of the Bill, I was surprised to find that, despite understanding the limits of the measure, a small number of people still feel that it would threaten the nature of this country if, in future, the mother—or potentially the father—of the heir to the throne were a Catholic, disseminating in some way loyalty to the Vatican and the Holy See rather than to this country. I just think that that is wild conspiracy of the sort of which the Catholic Church has found itself the victim on more than one occasion in recent times.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said of his Bill:

"That provision, which is discriminatory and applies only to Roman Catholics is wrong and should be removed from our statute law."

In his speech on his ten-minute Bill, he mentioned that Cardinal O'Brien, the Primate of Scotland, had made a public statement as a result of the Bill being brought forward. He quoted the Cardinal as saying that the provision was

"clearly discriminatory and a breach of the human rights of members of the royal family...it should be repealed."

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out that

"Prince William would be barred from the succession if he were to marry a Roman Catholic, but if his bride became a Roman Catholic after the marriage ceremony, he could go on to become the monarch."

The hon. Gentleman went on to say, "That is ridiculous"— [Interruption.]—a statement that is echoed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (David Howarth), and for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), on the Front Bench.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gainsborough for his liberal outlook; I was fascinated to see that he went on to say:

"A male member of the royal family, if he were so inclined, could choose to contract a civil partnership with a Roman Catholic man, under recent legislation" —[ Hansard, 8 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 1392.]

and would not be disqualified. We are talking about an antediluvian measure, and the hon. Gentleman put the matter very well.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I deal with another point from his speech, as he put the argument so clearly. He pointed out that people allege that in the Catholic Church, a couple in what is called a mixed marriage—that is not his phrase—are required to bring up any children as Roman Catholics. He says that that is not the case in any event. I hope that I will get the chance to explain the historical example that he went on to provide.

The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal said how strongly he felt when introducing his private Member's Bill, the Catholics (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill:

"In a civilised society there ought to be no reason to introduce this Bill. If we proposed a Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons that would make it illegal for the heir to the throne to marry a Muslim, a Methodist or a Mormon, that would be intolerable in a free society, yet the heir to the throne is still not allowed to marry a member of what is, on any Sunday, the largest worshipping community in this country. That is an insult to the Catholic community because it suggests that, somehow or other, being a Roman Catholic means being less of a citizen than someone belonging to any other religious denomination.

I admit that I feel ashamed that I did not introduce the Bill before, when I was an Anglican. Since becoming a Catholic, I have recognised what the attitude towards this denomination means. For that reason, I am trying to make up for the history."—[ Hansard, 20 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 154.]

I spoke to the right hon. Gentleman before today's debate, and his view has not changed. He put his point very well. I think it is appropriate, given that I am not a Roman Catholic, to read those testaments, and so to allow Roman Catholics to say how insulting they find the provision. Kevin McNamara

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will get in my quote from Kevin McNamara, who pre-empted me on the issue. He said, in debate on his ten-minute Bill, the Treason Felony, Act of Settlement and Parliamentary Oath Bill:

"the Act of Settlement...is extremely offensive in that regard. It stipulates that those who profess the Popish religion can neither be monarchs nor marry into the royal family."—[ Hansard, 19 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 320.]

He pointed out that Members of the Scottish Parliament unanimously adopted a motion expressing their wish that the discriminatory aspects of the Act be repealed. However, the matter is reserved to the United Kingdom, and to the UK Parliament, as Kevin McNamara pointed out, so it is up to us to address the issue.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he has been most generous in giving way. Before he moves away from that issue, may I point out that, as he will be aware, in 1688 the Bill of Rights was originally intended for the

"effectual preserving the King's person and Government, by disabling Papists from sitting in either House of Parliament"?

As I look around me this morning, I see that there has been some progress. Does he agree that at the root of the provision is fear, and that that fear is now utterly irrelevant?

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

That is a point well made. Of course, we are here primarily as parliamentarians, but those who wish to identify themselves with the religion have the ability to do that. If one considers the psephology, we see there is no sign, even in Scottish seats, that any preference is given to people with a particular religion—or, I trust, a lack of religion—when standing for Parliament.

Wikipedia lists the first 40 individuals in line to the throne, and there are some remarkable omissions. At No. 24 in the list is the Duke of Kent, the son of Prince George, the Duke of Kent. Then it says:

"skipped George Windsor, Earl of St Andrews...(XMP)"

The "XMP" in superscript apparently means "excluded because of marrying a papist". The list continues:

"skipped Edward Windsor, Lord Downpatrick...(XP)"

I think that the "XP" may mean that the person became a Catholic. It continues:

"skipped Lady Marina-Charlotte Windsor...(XP)".

At No. 25, Lady Amelia Windsor—daughter of George Windsor, Earl of St. Andrews—hangs in there, but then the list says:

"skipped Lord Nicholas Windsor...(XP)"

and

"skipped Albert Windsor...(XP)".

And so it goes on. So even in the literature, we can see that the rules have a current effect, even if not a practical effect.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I would be reluctant to use the expression "hangs in there" in the context of this debate. Can the hon. Gentleman say where, on that list, the Speaker of the House of Commons appears?

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I did not realise that this was a quiz. I say to my tutor that my list only goes up to No. 40, and that is the Earl of Harewood. I think that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to expand on his point—but not at too great a length, I hope—later.

On public opinion, fortuitously—it is amazing how much interest has been shown on the issue just today—this morning the BBC conducted an opinion poll, asking what the public thought about the matter. I am usually very severe on loaded questions, but I thought that these questions were very balanced. The BBC asked whether William should be allowed to succeed to the throne if he married a Roman Catholic. Some 81 per cent. of people thought he should, while 15 per cent. thought that would be wrong. When asked whether a woman should yield in precedence to younger brothers, 89 per cent. thought not, with a handful thinking that she should. I do not know of any political policy—not even among those in the Liberal Democrat manifesto—that has anything like two-thirds support, let alone more than 80 per cent. support, in the country.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I do not think that even a referendum on the EU treaty would have 89 per cent. support, unless the Daily Mail or, say, the Shipley Post, conducted a phone-in poll of a selected sample. I say that in all seriousness, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point. The figures are significant. We are talking about a huge proportion. It is not as though there were a significant number of people who felt strongly that the current rules should be maintained. Indeed, in the same poll, only—I say "only"—76 per cent. of people said that they supported the monarchy, so more people support fairness in the monarchy than support the monarchy. The monarchy would be even more popular, I would argue, if it dealt with those problems, because then they would not be seen as a barrier to supporting the monarchy. The changes are therefore in the interests of the monarchy, and I do not believe—I have no information that makes me certain of this—that the monarchy cannot see that.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Does my hon. Friend accept that, as my hon. Friend David Howarth and I were just discussing, public opinion may also have been affected by the fact that, if we look back over the history of Britain, we see that when woman have been given power, they have done extremely well? Almost without exception, our female monarchs have been fantastic, and we have had a woman Prime Minister who, whatever one thought of her policies, was highly regarded as a holder of that post. The reality is that the public want more women to take high office; that must be a conclusion.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I would encourage hon. Members to focus on the topic at hand. The Bill provides enough key issues.

There is clearly support across the House for such measures from Members who have given up opportunities to introduce private Members' Bills to propose them, on both sides of the House and in both Houses. There is also public support. I do not believe there is any opposition from Opposition Front-Benchers. Indeed, I look forward to hearing unanimous support for the Bill from them. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge is bound by party policy to support the measure, but I think he would have supported it anyway, as he was probably responsible for the party policy in the first place.

It is important to turn to the Government's position, particularly as the Secretary of State is still with us in the Chamber. As I noted, the Government said 12 years ago that they were keen to get rid of unjustified discrimination wherever it existed, and I hope they will accept—

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The Government did indeed say that we would get rid of unjustified discrimination wherever it existed, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we have a record second to none in that respect. We had the Lawrence inquiry. We introduced the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which is now widely recognised as some of the best anti-discrimination legislation in respect of race anywhere in the world. It was we who ensured that we got rid of the hated and fantastically discriminatory section 28. It was I as Home Secretary who sponsored the equalisation of the age of consent. We have done a huge amount in respect of anti-discrimination against women and to equalise people's chances and respect for different faiths and religions. The hon. Gentleman will also know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I am reluctant to stop the right hon. Gentleman, but he appears to be embarking on a speech. Is he about to pose a question to Dr. Harris?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House is about to introduce a very comprehensive equality Bill?

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. The Government do not need to be defensive about their record, and I am not saying that he is. I, and my hon. Friends, voted for every one of those measures and, on occasion, urged the Government to go further. There is no difference between us on those proposals. Clearly, their record is better than that of the previous Government, so when he says their record is second to none, I certainly accept that it is better than that of the previous Government and previous Governments, except the Government that included Roy Jenkins. For their time, that Government were possibly more radical. They did not wait for public approval—I am not saying that the present Government did—but that Government did not legislate at a time when public opinion was liberal on homosexuality.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

The Justice Secretary said in an aside, "Come on Andrew," because he saw my body language indicating dissent. I remind him, and the House, that when he became Home Secretary, I tabled a parliamentary question asking the Government at the earliest legislative opportunity to alter the law preventing an ordained Catholic man from becoming a Member of Parliament. The parliamentary reply, which is on the record, was no. Then the Labour party selected such a man for the constituency of Greenock and Port Glasgow, and we did the right thing for the wrong reason.

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is falling into the same trap as the Secretary of State. I believe he is seeking to catch my eye later, and if successful, he will be able to make those points.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Member for Thurrock will indeed have a chance, as I am on the last part of my speech, in which I shall look at the Government's position and pose some questions to the Minister. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is present—I recognise that he is a busy man—and that the Deputy Leader of the House has stayed for the debate.

I gave the Deputy Leader of the House notice that I intended to quote from his excellent work on constitutional reform. He produced a pamphlet relatively recently called "Powers to the People", in which he identified things that could be improved. I shall quote from it as I know the hon. Gentleman is sincere in his view that these things need to happen. He wrote in that document:

"The succession to the crown is presently determined by the Act of Settlement 1701, which stipulates that the throne shall pass to the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant descendants according to the principle of male preference primogeniture. This means that the crown passes to the eldest son and his descendants before it would pass to a daughter or her line. Even if the eldest child were a daughter, she would not accede to the throne unless the male line had been exhausted."

Indeed, we know that daughters are not heirs apparent. They are heirs presumptive, in case there is male issue later.

The pamphlet continues:

"Clearly this is unfair—and most other European monarchies—

Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway are cited, which I would say have a record second to none, compared to our country—

"have already changed their equivalent acts of succession to provide for absolute primogeniture, so that men and women are guaranteed equality.

Whilst the UK could only proceed with reform in this with the agreement of other Commonwealth nations who share the monarch, there is a strong argument for reform now, before Prince William or Prince Harry has children. If William's first child were to be a girl and his second a boy, it would be inconceivable that the daughter should not inherit the crown. For that very reason, in Sweden the succession was changed when there was already a male presumptive heir who was replaced in favour of his elder sister."

The hon. Gentleman goes on to say:

"The Act of Settlement also requires that any descendant who is or becomes a Roman Catholic, or who marries a Roman Catholic, is barred from the succession."

He goes on to cite the example of Prince Michael of Kent, and he points out—this was written in 2008—that:

"In May of this year, Princess Anne's son Peter Philips ... married his Canadian fiancé Autumn Kelly—only after she had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism in order to secure his place in the pecking order for the succession."

Even the most proselytising evangelical Protestant would not see that as a particularly efficient way of picking up converts.

The document continues:

"The Act also stipulates that the sovereign must be in communion with the Church of England, must swear to preserve the church, and to uphold the Protestant line of succession."

The hon. Gentleman goes further than my Bill when he states:

"The government has tended to oppose such moves on the grounds that if there were no bar to a Catholic taking the throne the monarch's role as Governor of the Church of England would be in question. However, several senior members of the Church of England, including the former Archbishop of York, have argued for the repeal of these provisions, at least so as to allow the monarch or heir to the throne to marry a Catholic."

So we come back to the limited measures in the Bill.

I cannot understand, which is why I asked the Minister, why the Government have not made more progress on the issue. The Bill states that it is for this Parliament to do so. There is a provision specifying that there must be consultation with the Commonwealth before the measure can have effect. I accept that the wording of the provision may be too wide because it refers to consulting

"the government of every Commonwealth country",

whereas only 15 Commonwealth countries need to be consulted. I am prepared to accept that there is an obligation on the Executive to consult those Governments, but I do not think there would be opposition, and there is no veto.

The Government could use the Bill, and the time that has been reserved for it, to introduce it at the same time as consulting. I do not understand why the Government said overnight that they did not support the Bill, even though they supported the principle behind it and the contents of it. I do not see how they can bring in their own Bill in time. Quaint though our constitution is, it specifies a five-year term for a Government, and that term will end, at least for this Parliament, next June. There is a Report stage day ready and waiting for this Bill. I am not selfish about it. The Government can take it, call it their own, and amend it as required, so that it would not come into force until

"such day as the Secretary of State may by order appoint",

in order to ensure that everything is done right by the Commonwealth.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

No Commonwealth country would object. That would be ridiculous. Consultation could be done with a phone call, and it could be completed within weeks.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

In answer to a question on constitutional renewal, the Secretary of State said:

"Let me say to my hon. Friend that I speak on behalf of the Prime Minister: because of the position that Her Majesty occupies as Head of the Anglican Church, this is a rather more complicated matter than might be anticipated. We are certainly ready to consider it, and I fully understand that my hon. Friend, many on both sides of the House and thousands outside it, see that provision as antiquated."—[ Hansard, 25 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 27.]

According to a report, however, two days later, at the No. 10 morning press briefing, the Prime Minister's spokesman seemed to dismiss the idea that any kind of reform was possible, given that

"to bring about changes to the law on succession would be a very complex undertaking; it would involve the amendment or appeal"—

sic—

"of a number of items of related legislation, but it would also require the consent of legislators of member nations of the Commonwealth."

None of those things is a barrier, and I do not understand how the Government can say that it would be a complex piece of legislation; after all, the Secretary of State himself kindly set out in an answer of March 2008 what legislation would need to be reviewed to ensure that the Bill was accurate. There were nine such pieces of legislation. My judgment, and that of constitutional experts, is that the only repeals and amendments required are in the Bill. However, if the Secretary of State thinks I have missed one out or that one is unnecessary, I urge him to table amendments. If those amendments were reasonable and justified, I cannot conceive of circumstances in which I or any other Member who supports the Bill would object.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

To help the hon. Gentleman on that point, I shall cite Lord Falconer. When speaking about the Bill, he said that the legislation affected would be the Bill of Rights 1688, the Coronation Oath Act 1688, the Union with Scotland Act 1707, the Princess Sophia's Precedence Act 1711, the Royal Marriages Act 1772, the Union with Ireland Act 1800, the Accession Declaration Act 1910 and the Regency Act 1937.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Exactly. Hon. Members have been dealing with the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill through the night. The list of repeals and amendments in that, and in the Coroners and Justice Bill, is massive compared with what is, in angling terms, a tiddler of a Bill—even though its amendments are very important.

The case is clear. The Bill is a competent vehicle to make the changes and it is the Government's last opportunity in this parliamentary term to achieve what they say they want to do. They have not shown me any barrier to doing it, and I would like to make the Secretary of State an offer. I will have a wager with him: if he is able to make the changes, even without the Bill, in this parliamentary term, I will provide a week's MP's salary to a charity of his choice in Blackburn—and, indeed, to a charity in Dewsbury.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Let me finish outlining the terms of the wager. If the Secretary of State does not make the changes, he can delegate one of his Ministers—they can argue among themselves—to give a week's MP's salary to a charity of my choice in Oxford, West and Abingdon. Those are two-to-one odds; surely the right hon. Gentleman will take the bet.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I have to make two points. First, that is completely contrary to the ministerial code. Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is also contrary to the new Bribery Bill, which I published on Wednesday?

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I understand that that is another overdue piece of legislation, but I suspect that it will become law before the commitment that the Government appeared to give—that they would solve the problems that I have been discussing—is met. Given the opinion polls, the mood of the House and the long-standing insult to women and Roman Catholics, we cannot allow the opportunity given by the Bill to pass us by. I do not claim that it is perfect, but it is the best shot that we have. I urge the Government to support the Bill—and, if they feel that a private Member's Bill is the wrong vehicle to go to Royal Assent, to take it over. Let us solve this problem once and for all.

10:33 am
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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I congratulate Dr. Harris on introducing the Bill, and I support wholeheartedly his comments in favour of it. However, despite what will be said in the Chamber later and what the Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House said on Radio 4, I am absolutely certain that there is no prospect of the Bill's advancing unless it gets a Second Reading today. The Second Reading will transform it.

Why do I say that there is no chance that the Government will pursue the Bill's intent with vigour? I shall explain why. I do not doubt that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister—and, indeed, everyone on the Treasury Bench—recognises that the law needs to be addressed at some stage. But they have no intention of doing that yet. Other hon. Members have said today that surely the current monarch is not opposed to the Bill, and I imagine that in principle she is not. Somebody else raised the issue of whether other countries whose Head of State is the Queen would object, and of course they would not.

However, the matter will not be as simple as that unless the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor demonstrate real political will and enthusiasm. Frankly, their track record on the matter has not been very good. For the record, and to buttress my point—I hope that the Lord Chancellor will seek to prove me wrong—I should say that after the Labour Government were elected, I asked for action on a small, archaic area of discrimination. It prevented somebody ordained in the Catholic Church who had become laicised from being elected to the House of Commons. In canon law and United Kingdom law, a Catholic priest is always a Catholic priest—once a priest, always a priest. However, the person would have stepped down from those offices. I wanted to lift the impediment that prevented such a person from being elected to the House of Commons. I asked the Government to do that at the earliest legislative opportunity, and the reply was no. My party then selected a man who had been a Roman Catholic priest to be the candidate in Greenock and Port Glasgow. A Bill was then swiftly enacted to enable that, so we did the right thing for the wrong reasons. However, the tale demonstrates the deep conservatism of Government Ministers, including the Lord Chancellor, on these issues.

Those listening carefully to what the Prime Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House said on Radio 4 this morning will have noticed that they betrayed the fact that they had not really researched the issue. Their terminology was all wrong. They said that they would have to talk to members of the Commonwealth. Actually, that is constitutionally incorrect; they need to talk with and get agreement from states whose Head of State is the Queen and that are by coincidence members of the Commonwealth. The overwhelming majority of the 56 or so countries in the Commonwealth are republics. The issue could very well be dealt with at the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference—that occasion could be a good vehicle, but the issue is not within the competence of the Commonwealth Heads of State as such. I relate that story because it demonstrates that the Prime Minister had not been adequately briefed or had not understood the point at issue. Of course, he needs to understand that to begin to address the matter.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is the architect of the Bill, but even his approach is slightly flawed. I wish to amend the Bill in Committee. Clause 4(2) is about consulting the Commonwealth; again I say that consultation should take place not with the Commonwealth, but with countries where the Queen is Head of State. Furthermore, the matter is not one of consultation; there has to be simultaneous agreement. The Bill would need to be amended to say that it would come into force after there had been agreement with the Governments and legislatures where the Queen is Head of State. Why do I say that? We have to understand the Statute of Westminster 1931, which was a benchmark in our constitutional development and then that of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and what was then known as the Irish Free State. In its preamble, the Statute of Westminster says that

"united by a common allegiance to the Crown, it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members...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".

In my view, the Bill should proceed on to the British statute book, amended so that it empowers us to trigger the changes once there is agreement with the legislatures and Governments of these other countries.

This is not an academic issue. One has to understand the events of December 1936, when—I have read the debates many times—Archibald Sinclair, Clement Attlee and Stanley Baldwin managed to get through this House, under the provisions of the Statute of Westminster, the abdication Act of 1936, which was a one-clause Act that permitted Edward VIII to abdicate, by an instrument, on the following day. It was done under the Statute of Westminster because the then Dominion Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa exercised their rights under the Statute of Westminster by asking what was then called the Imperial Parliament to enact on their behalf, as they saw a need for dispatch in this matter. The abdication Act was passed here, but then triggered the law in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. That could not happen today because the constitutions of Canada and Australia, in particular, have moved on, and that would prevent them from derogating to this place a law altering their Head of State legislation. I expect that it would also be politically offensive and unacceptable in all those other states. There needs to be simultaneous agreement, which I think would be forthcoming.

I referred to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but another Dominion was involved—what was then called the Irish Free State. It was not a republic, but part of the realms of Edward VIII. The then Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, Eamon de Valera, said, "Hang on a minute. You're not going to pass at Westminster legislation affecting my country's Head of State—I'll pass my own and exercise my right under the provisions of the Statute of Westminster." Then he introduced into the Parliament of the Irish Free State a law ending the title and office of Governor-General—the representative of the King—and creating the office of President of the Irish Free State. He did not move to a republic, but he altered by some degree the constitutional arrangements. There are two significant elements to that, the first of which is an interesting anomaly: Edward VIII was King of Ireland for one day longer than he was King of the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Furthermore, under the precedent created by Eamon de Valera, as we consulted all the 16 other states about changing the law, that would raise domestically in their jurisdictions issues relating to moving to a republic, or if not going that far—I intervened on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon about this earlier—the question of the Head of State not having to be the follower of a particular faith, because many people, especially in Australia and Canada, would find that offensive. It would open up a can of worms.

I believe that, if I may use the phrase, the palace is not unsympathetic to the issue raised by the Bill, but it is concerned that it will open a Pandora's box, not just here in the United Kingdom—perhaps least of all here—but in all the other countries—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that the House should hear his opinions on these matters, but I am not sure that he should go quite so far as to start to give the opinions of other people?

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

What I wanted to show is that there is no lack of will on this issue; everyone agrees that the current position is wrong. The people who could make the proposal more likely to be enacted are like rabbits trapped in the headlights of a car, because if they move on this, they will open up a whole range of issues. Certainly, the former Conservative Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, a very enthusiastic monarchist, did not want these issues raised because that would detract from his enthusiasm for having the monarchy in Australia. There are problems about how this is dealt with. However, the Prime Minister needs to prove me wrong. I hope that on the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting he will raise it with these states, and in the meantime support the Bill. We can have this legislation in place to be triggered if and when there is agreement among the Governments and legislatures of the other countries.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a view that if these clearly discriminatory provisions go, that makes the case for keeping a monarchy in all the countries in question, as well as our own, stronger rather than weaker, because some of the objections will have disappeared?

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Probably, yes; there is some logic in what the hon. Gentleman says.

I will have to refer to the Statute of Westminster and the circumstances of '36 again, but I want to move on to the issue of discrimination against women. I invite the House to consider this: if the late King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, whom we came to know as the Queen Mother, had had a third child, a son, the world would not have heard of Queen Elizabeth II. The present monarch has an approval rating that no democratically elected Head of State or Government could even match. Whatever one's views about the monarchical institution, the present Queen is acknowledged as having given enormous, great public service in the United Kingdom, in the countries where she is Head of State, in the Commonwealth, where she is Head of the Commonwealth, and worldwide. Her breadth of experience and knowledge is beyond reproach. I say that as somebody who has some reservations about our Head of State institutions. Her personal capabilities are fully acknowledged. However, this lady's qualities would never have been tested—she would never have become Head of State—had there been a younger brother. But for that fact, she would—I do not say this in any frivolous way—at most be the Duchess of Edinburgh, Lady Elizabeth Mountbatten. That demonstrates the absurdity and unfairness of the situation, and it needs to be reflected on.

Having looked at the long title of the Bill, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman deals with the business of the succession. I find discrimination on the grounds of religious faith repugnant, and I think that that alone should be the rocket motor for the Government to enact this legislation, which could and should be done with some dispatch. I have already referred to how the primogeniture rule would have discriminated against our current Head of State and what a loss it would have been had she not become so. The succession is not an issue in the immediate term, because I feel confident that the present Queen will have the privilege of having the option of sending herself a telegram on her centenary. I think that that is highly possible; indeed, I am confident that it will be achieved, and we want it to happen.

However, we have to look to the future. The succession would be a problem if there were some immediate crisis in the monarchy. We cannot be confident that there might not be somebody who is next in line to the throne and is either unacceptable to a lot of people or is not all that keen on succeeding. The latter is a strong possibility: somebody might say, "I really don't want to be the Head of State." The problem is that there is no statutory provision for a person to abdicate. When the Bill goes into Committee, I would like to amend it to provide for that. It would be very unfair for somebody who did not want to succeed to have to do so, and it would be unfair to this country and to the other countries involved if somebody who was about to succeed was unacceptable. A prudent, sensible constitution should provide for an abdication, and that needs to be considered. The abdication Act 1936 was a one-off. As I have already demonstrated to the House, there is no existing provision.

There are sensible, good precedents for a change. In the royal succession in the Netherlands, Queen Wilhelmina served a long reign and abdicated in favour of Queen Juliana, who then abdicated in favour of Beatrix. In the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg in 1918 and 1919, the Grand Duchess, after the traumas of the occupation, decided that she wanted to abdicate, and went into a convent. Her sister, Grand Duchess Charlotte, succeeded her, and after a long reign she abdicated in the late 1960s in favour of Grand Duke Jean. In their constitutions, they had the facility and capacity to do that; we do not, which is why the matter should be looked at.

The other issue that requires amendment is the question of morganatic marriages. When I have raised this question in the House before, people have asked me what on earth a morganatic marriage is. It is extremely important concept, and it was what Sir Archibald Sinclair, Clement Attlee, Stanley Baldwin and the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Irish Free State refused Edward VIII in 1936. They created a constitutional precedent or convention. The matter needs to be looked at again because anybody who is the spouse of the Head of State, or of anybody in line to become Head of State, should have the opportunity to say, "I do not want to become the Queen." They may have a profession, not want to do it, or wish to lead a very private life.

That question needs to be addressed, and it has some relevance. The comments I have made before now relate to long in the future, but I have pursued this particular matter in the House of Commons before. When it was announced that His Royal Highness Prince Charles was marrying Camilla Parker Bowles, Sir Michael Peat of his office put around the idea that if Prince Charles succeeded to the throne, the Duchess would not become Queen. They knew, and I knew, that that was rubbish, because the wife of the King, ipso facto, becomes Queen at the moment of his succession. If they want a morganatic marriage—and that was the spin—we ought to provide for one. If the intention is that she does become Queen, as I suspect she will, they should be up front and say so. They should not try to play games. The statutory position is that there is no provision for a morganatic marriage, and that should be addressed because it would be a modern innovation.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Not for the first time, the House has been educated by his erudition, and I am reluctant to stand in the way of his unstoppable flow. Before he moves off his point about the putative Duchess of Edinburgh, he talks about a possible third child—a son—who might have been King, and is praying in aid, as all people would, the idea that the advantage of the present monarch being Her Majesty is so great that no one would wish to oppose that. Is he not missing the rather obvious point that we do not know who that son would have been? He could have been as good as her. Is it not more important that we speak of the principle rather than the personalities?

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

May I just agree with the last point that was just made? We are also straying into the subject of abdication, which is not strictly what the Bill is about. Can we try to stick to principles, rather than get too much into the detail of the people involved?

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in my defence, may I point out that the long title of the Bill demonstrably relates to succession, so it is possible to deal with abdication—and I see some acknowledgment of the fact that I am on firm ground. Secondly, I want to make abundantly clear my unreserved respect for the present monarch. It would be difficult for someone to have a higher approval rating than hers, for the reasons that I have set out. She is demonstrably outstanding. Had there been a younger brother, we would have been deprived of those extraordinary talents. I apologise if that point is discourteous, but the reverse was my intention.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

The whole House recognises the fantastic service and qualities of the Queen, and whatever people's views, they must say that. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that although these are proper matters in the context of succession, my hon. Friend Dr. Harris is trying to persuade the House that there are two succinct ring-fenced matters, which could be dealt with now, in a manner compatible with Government policy, and the task is to get this Bill through and look separately at the broader set of constitutional issues that quite properly need to be addressed?

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I accept that because, if the Bill of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, which I support, were given a fair wind by the Government, a number of things would follow from it. There would need to be a mechanism to talk to the Prime Ministers of other countries. And this is not new ground. I asked John Major and Tony Blair, during a number of Parliaments, whether there was some dialogue—and if not, whether it could be initiated—between the Heads of Government in those states where the Queen was Head of State, and both of them said no. That is why I come back to my frustration on these matters. No doubt the Justice Secretary will feel aggrieved, but the track record on this matter is poor. I give him full marks on the constitutional changes that bear his fingerprints, but legislators either treat this sensitive area with some levity—

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

No, I didn't.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Or they are frightened. My right hon. Friend did not treat it with levity, but some do.

It is important that we get our legislation correct, and we must deal with the matter with some dispatch. First, it is discriminatory on ground of faith; secondly, it is discriminatory on grounds of gender; and thirdly, if we do not begin to address it, one day this Parliament will face a substantial embarrassment, which, far from advancing or maintaining the monarchical institution, will put it in peril. The points I introduced were not a red herring or an attempt to create a diversion. The issues that should be raised are morganatic marriage, which is a current issue for the reasons I gave—the spin of Sir Michael Peat and others—and the question of abdication. Long may she reign, and she will do so, but there might be a stage down the road where a person does not wish to succeed, and there is no facility to allow them to fulfil that wish. And we would still have to discuss the matter with the other states, which will lead to paralysis. I am just being sensible and prudent in saying that we should address the matter now.

In conclusion, the Bill should be amended, even if we keep it narrow. It should reach the statute book, but remain in hibernation until there is simultaneous and comparable legislation and agreement is made with the other legislatures where the Queen is Head of State. I wish that those from the Prime Minister downwards would get their terminology correct and not refer to the Commonwealth. It is a broader matter, which affects those countries where the Queen is Head of State which by coincidence are members of the Commonwealth. If we do not do this, what happened here and in the Irish Free State in 1936 will be multiplied and create chaos in the countries where the Queen is Head of State that pepper the globe. I support the Bill.

10:58 am
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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

It is a great pleasure to be here today to support Dr. Harris in introducing this Bill. It has been a long time coming, and we have waited a long time for a complete day on the matter on the Floor of the House of Commons, as opposed to a 10-minute Bill, with a real chance of getting legislation on to the statute book. I do not think that I need to declare a personal interest in this matter, even though my son, Benedict, is 640th in line to the throne. I think that I shall be fairly safe—we will not manage to kill off the preceding 639.

It is said that Catholics are easy-going people and, in fact, one of our bishops was quoted yesterday as saying that this issue is not high up the list of our priorities, and that we know that, in reality, there is no discrimination in this country. However, the matter is still lurking. I remember that when I took my Gainsborough seat, my wonderful predecessor said two things to me. First, he said, "Edward, I am handing you Gainsborough, a virgin bailiwick. Don't spoil it by doing anything." The second thing that he said was, "I understand you're Catholic—don't mention that to anybody around here." I am sure he was joking.

We are very easy-going, and there is an element of a pre-emptive cringe in the Catholic population in this country after hundreds of years of lying low. We do not want to make a big fuss about succession, but just imagine if the Bill of Rights contained the same provisions against Jews or Muslims as against Catholics. There was a Statute of Jewry that expelled Jewish people from this country in 1290—an outrageous measure long since got rid of—but imagine if we had the sort of language about Jews or Muslims that is in the Bill of Rights about Catholics. It states:

"And whereas it hath beene found by Experience that it is inconsistent with the Safety and Welfaire of this Protestant Kingdome to be governed by a Popish Prince or by any King or Queene marrying a Papist the said Lords Spirituall and Temporall and Commons doe further pray that it may be enacted That all and every person and persons that is are or shall be reconciled to or shall hold Communion with the See or Church of Rome or shall professe the Popish Religion or shall marry a Papist shall be excluded and be for ever uncapeable to inherit possesse or enjoy the Crowne and Government of this Realm."

That is in the Bill of Rights—it is part of our law. Imagine if there were something in the Bill of Rights making a similar provision against Jewish or Muslim people. There would be outrage, and it would not last five minutes. It would be got rid of. The Government would not say, "Oh, it's all rather complex, and we've got to consult the Commonwealth, and nobody really cares about it very much either." The provision is discriminatory, it is on the statute book and it should be got rid of straight away.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the only theological objection to the Roman Catholic Church in the Bill of Rights is a reference to transubstantiation. Does he agree that that proves that it was an entirely political provision, not a theological one? It was the politics of then, which today we should turn our back on.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

Yes, we all know that it was about the politics of then and about James II, and there is no possible justification for leaving the provision on the statute book. I do not need to labour the point, but the situation is ludicrous, particularly in the Royal Marriages Act 1772. The cardinal archbishop was at a meeting in the House yesterday and put it quite well, although in a rather politically incorrect way. He said how absurd it was that Prince William could marry anybody that he liked, a Muslim or a Hottentot—perhaps a bit unfair to Hottentots, whoever they are—but not a Roman Catholic, which is ridiculous. As I have said before, Prince William could have a civil partnership with a Roman Catholic man if he wanted. Out of the great galaxy of eligible young women in the whole of Europe and the world, the only person he cannot marry is a Roman Catholic woman. That discriminates not just against us but, as Andrew Mackinlay said, against Prince William. He might want to marry a Roman Catholic woman.

It is said to us, "Oh, this is not going to apply," but it has applied. For instance, in 1978 Prince Michael of Kent married a Catholic and was automatically barred from the succession to the throne, so it applies at this moment. It is not a theoretical matter, and the hon. Gentleman read out a list of people who have been disbarred. Would it not be ludicrous if Prince William were barred from the throne because he chose to fall in love with a Roman Catholic? Of course, the Government hint that they would then immediately rush through legislation, but why do that? It would make us look absurd. Why not do it now?

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Before we move away from the question of marriages and how unfair the situation could be to the monarch, the Prince of Wales or one of the royal princes, it is interesting to note that the second marriage of Her Royal Highness Princess Anne was conducted in the Church of Scotland. It is beyond doubt that that was in line with both the constitution and matrimonial law. But in respect of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, many constitutionalists argue that the wedding had to be conducted in the Church of England, which of course it was not. There was a blessing, which is quite a different matter from a matrimonial service. Such grey areas have to be visited, because whether what happened in the Windsor registry office is in line with the constitution is a matter of serious debate.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is obviously an expert on this, and perhaps we need to find out about and debate such matters. The absurdity is shown by the fact that everybody is prepared to be very liberal and broad-minded, and say that nobody was going to prevent the Duchess of Cornwall from becoming the wife of the Prince of Wales if he wanted to marry her for whatever reason. It is all rather ludicrous. Lord Forsyth put it quite well in the other place when said that this is the constitution's "grubby little secret". It is, and we should get rid of it. It is wrong because it perpetuates the notion that Catholics are somehow disloyal. They were considered disloyal in the 17th and perhaps even the 18th century. I agree that we did have a slight problem with the gunpowder plot, for which I do apologise. I should like now to set history straight and declare a formal apology to the House of Commons, but I say in our defence that that was 400 years ago.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Even though I do not approve of it, the fact that effigies are burned every year makes the point. The hon. Gentleman does not have to apologise. It is the perpetuation of a libel—we would not tolerate it for any other religion and we should not tolerate it for Catholicism.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

No, we should not, and that is a point that I made earlier. Muslim and Jewish people are quite rightly very sensitive about discrimination, and we have to make the point that if there were a similar provision on the statute book affecting them, it would not last five minutes. The situation is tolerated only because the 4 million Catholic people in this country are so easy-going that they are almost horizontal, as I am for much of the time about many political issues. We do not make a fuss about it, but the Government should not prey on our good and easy-going nature and leave the provision permanently on the statute book.

If anybody thinks that all this is ancient history, they might not know that the last Catholic relief legislation was passed only in 1927, in the lifetime of many of our parents. Before then, if a Jesuit or a Dominican priest entered the country, they had to register with the Home Office as a suspected disloyal person who might subvert the constitution. We should not think that this is somehow ancient history; it goes right into the modern age.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

More recently, the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend, the late Viscount Hailsham, had to enact a provision to allow the option for the then Conservative Member for Epsom and Ewell, Peter Rawlinson, to become Lord Chancellor. The situation is much more recent. In fact, it is ongoing—I keep returning to the question of my hon. Friend David Cairns.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

We need to deal with the problem; it is ongoing.

Let us examine some of the objections to a change. They are red herrings, but we need to get to the bottom of them to find out exactly what is going on. First, there is the suggestion that the proposal has to be put to the Commonwealth. The hon. Gentleman read out part of the Statute of Westminster, but as I asked earlier, does anybody seriously think that the 15 members of the Commonwealth that have the Queen as their Head of State would object for a minute to the proposed changes? The consultation could be done in a phone call. I therefore do not accept that objection at all.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, because as a result of the Bill, for the first time ever the Prime Minister actually started talking seriously about the matter last night, perhaps because he has other problems that he wants to divert interest from. It is on the front page of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph today, and apparently the Prime Minister intends to raise it in the margins of the Commonwealth conference. But the fact is that the change could be made easily, and everybody knows that that is not the real reason for objections.

Ah, but is there another reason that we are not being told about? Are people actually worried about opening Pandora's box? I think that hints may have been dropped, particularly by our friends in Australia. They may have said that there is a lot of republican sentiment there, and that if a motion went in front of the Australian Parliament, it might provide an opportunity for republicans to come forward. I know the way in which the establishment works—I am part of it. A little hint dropped here—I know how such things work. Would it result in Australia becoming a republic? No. A referendum has already been held there. It is a huge issue—if it wants another referendum, it will have one. Simply moving a motion on the Floor of the Australian Parliament to get rid of some ancient discrimination will not suddenly propel Australia into becoming a republic.

I know that there are various rules—we cannot attribute opinions to the Queen, but we love her and worship her, and, if there is any sensitivity there, we understand it. I know how the establishment works, so I will say no more. However, if there has to be some delay or sensitivity—people have put that to me—I quite understand. The Government can still make their intention absolutely clear. Nobody wants to embarrass our current monarch—we hold her in the highest regard and respect—and we all know that she had to take a particular coronation oath. All those matters are understood, but the Government today could convey a firm message that they intended to get rid of the discrimination.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I would never presume to correct such a senior member of my faith. However, whereas I entirely agree with his first comment about Her Majesty, is "worship" the appropriate word, given the subject that we are debating?

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

Perhaps that is going too far—a bit of hyperbole. With the royals, we have to lay flattery on with a trowel, as Disraeli famously said.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

We cannot presume the Queen's opinion or state what we think it might be, but although she cannot comment—she has been very good about that—there is no need for it to be a problem. The Government are, through Parliament, in charge of the matter. I do not believe that there is any question of its being an embarrassment to Her Majesty.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

In reality, it would not be an embarrassment. There has not been a royal veto since Queen Anne in 1708—and there would be no veto. We all know that the argument is ridiculous. The Commonwealth argument does not, therefore, hold.

What about complexity? We are constantly told about it, but it is absurd. Professor Blackburn, who is an expert, has not yet been quoted. His comments are included in our parliamentary brief from the Library, and they are worth reading. He says that

"this complication would hardly bother the government's legislative draftsmen, known as 'parliamentary counsel'. As a constitutional measure, the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, transforming the office of Lord Chancellor and position of the Law Lords, was far more complex. The annual Finance Acts, dealing with the inter-woven minutiae of mind-boggling taxation details, are arguably much worse in terms of detail and comprehension."

The complexity argument is therefore a red herring.

One wants to know what the Government are playing at. I put the question to Tony Blair at the Liaison Committee when he was Prime Minister. He almost laughed in my face and said that he had got far more important things to do. First, the Government use that argument, then they claim that it does not make any difference and then they use the complexity argument, which, we all know, is nonsense. They introduce tens of thousands of lines of legislation every year, without difficulty. We also know that the Commonwealth argument does not stand up.

Is the final objection the position of the Church of England? Let me make it clear that, although I do not trust the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon in every respect, I certainly do not believe that he wants to affect the position of the established Church. To disestablish the Church would send the wrong message. We already have the problem of secularisation. The fact that we have an established Church should be a matter of great pride to us.

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Angus Robertson (Parliamentary Leader (Westminster Group), Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Europe; Foreign Affairs; Defence); Moray, Scottish National Party)

In England.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I apologise. We have an established Church in England and we also have the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

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Angus Robertson (Parliamentary Leader (Westminster Group), Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government; Europe; Foreign Affairs; Defence); Moray, Scottish National Party)

It is not established.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

One should not venture into other countries because one's knowledge starts getting feeble. I will leave Scotland to one side.

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Jim McGovern (Dundee West, Labour)

I am happy to profess that I am a Roman Catholic. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows of John F. Kennedy's comment, "My religion may come from Rome, but my politics come from home." Is he aware that Glasgow Rangers dropped Sir Alex Ferguson because he married a Catholic? Glasgow Rangers has now seen fit to adopt a non-sectarian policy. Why cannot the monarchy do the same?

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I take that point, but I will not comment on Celtic and Rangers in case I put my foot in it.

The Bill will not affect the position of the established Church. I am very ecumenical. I sit on the Cathedral Council of Lincoln cathedral, I think that the Anglican Church does a superb job and I want it to remain the established Church. I want the monarch to remain the head of the established Church as Supreme Head of the Church of England. I have no difficulty with that. However, colleagues have put it to me darkly, "Well, of course it's discriminatory, Edward, but there's a bit of a problem here, because if one of them marries a Catholic, their children will inevitably become Catholics." That is a red herring, too. My children are not baptised Catholic. My wife is Russian Orthodox and my children were therefore baptised Russian Orthodox. Although I referred to my son Benedict earlier, I think he would be entitled to inherit the throne because he was not baptised a "papist." The notion that all Catholics insist on their children being brought up Catholic is wrong—that is no longer part of our rules. Of course, as with any other religion, one should use one's best endeavours to bring them up in the faith, but if that is not possible, so be it. If such a measure were passed, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England could make it plain that, if the heir to the throne married a Catholic, it would be relaxed about the children being brought up as Anglicans. There is no difficulty with that.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Of course, the problem would exist if the heir to the throne married a Jewish woman. Under Jewish law, those children are automatically Jewish, and they could not therefore succeed to the throne. It is not a problem that is particular to Catholics—I guess that the same would apply to Muslims. The test is whether the monarch at the time of taking the oath is in communion with the Church of England or the equivalent in Scotland. The problem is not unique to Catholic parents who have married in.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

Absolutely. Let us bury the idea straight away and give any reassurance necessary that there is no Catholic plot somehow to ensure that the kings and queens of England are Catholic for evermore. I am not sure if anyone has ever made the point that I am about to make: would it be possible for the Supreme Head of the Church of England not to be a Protestant? The Supreme Head has little practical role in the Church of England—it is a ceremonial role. I think we get too worried about such matters.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is worth bearing in mind that the Church of England diocesan bishops are appointed through the Prime Minister's office. Clearly, a Prime Minister can be a Catholic, and many have not been communicants in the Anglican Church. I agree that the established Church is not a problem. It already works with people who are not Anglican communicants, but who facilitate the existence and works of the established Church.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

Exactly.

Let me deal with primogeniture. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon will understand that, as a traditionalist, I may slightly veer away from him. However, I am relaxed about the matter. If the House of Commons wants to vote on the matter, with us all piling in on a busy day, we should have the opportunity to do that. The Government could take over the Bill. They could conduct a big vote in prime time on a Wednesday afternoon—it would excite much interest. We could all have a free vote about whether we wanted a girl to succeed straight away if she was born first. As a traditionalist, I might vote against—I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying that. The monarchy is not entirely a logical institution.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

If we were entirely motivated by logic, perhaps we would not have a monarchy at all. However, we know that the monarchy is tied up with our history and tradition. We know that the Queen does a good job and we do not want someone like Richard Branson becoming president of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said that he is not proud, and that if there are any problems with the Bill, he will hand it over to the Government.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I totally accept the hon. Gentleman's position and he was clear with me from the outset. However, it is worth pointing out that the comedian David Mitchell made a joke about a Bill. I argued that it would diminish discrimination in the country, which he took to mean discrimination in the monarchy. He said that to try to make the monarchy less discriminatory by such a measure would be like throwing a pebble into the Grand Canyon to make it less of a grand canyon, because the nature of the monarchy is that it discriminates by choosing a particular family. The Bill is not about the monarchy; it is about the message that we send to the people in the country, the monarch's subjects and citizens.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

That is a good moment to end. The Bill is about the message that we send to the people of this country. We will no longer tolerate any kind of discrimination against any religious group on any bit of our statute. That is all that we ask from the Government and that is what we now demand from the Bill.

11:20 am
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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I would like first to refer to some of the interventions that have been made, particularly that of my hon. Friend Mr. McGovern. There is one self-denying ordinance to which we should all subscribe, which is that we shall not start talking about Celtic and Rangers. However, I seem to remember that when Mo Johnston went from Celtic to a team in France and then on to Rangers, there was a great deal of graffiti in Glasgow that said, "Bless me father, for I have signed." I hope that we have moved on from that.

It is a great honour to follow Mr. Leigh. The thought of a Russian Orthodox heir to the throne would probably excite some interest in former President Putin's inner coterie—it may be part of some diabolical plot, although I am not aware of that. I should declare that my quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that, whereas the hon. Gentleman's son Benedict is in somewhat close proximity to the throne, my son Pelham is about 63,000,480th in line to the throne, but I love him all the same.

I congratulate Dr. Harris. He is a man with whom I do not always agree, but occasionally he has that marvellous quality of stepping where others fear to tread. There are times when he espouses causes that make me fear that the full moon has exerted too powerful a tug upon him. However, in this case he has done a signal service. The way he has constructed and presented the Bill, as well as the generous honour—not to mention the meaty backhander—that he offered my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, has taken us into an area that is long overdue for discussion.

In considering the matter, we must take into account two rather interesting factors. First, virtually everybody says that the measure is a long overdue corrective and that the current position is indefensible. However, it is only when we go to the next step and say, "Well, why haven't we corrected it? Why are we defending it?" that we come to the meat of the matter. Sir Patrick Cormack posited one of the most logical and conservative suggestions when he said that it would be inappropriate to the change the system, because it had worked fairly well as it was and because things were far too complicated.

That is the pure conservative argument, which was, sadly, shared by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor when he said:

"The Government have always stood firmly against discrimination in all its forms, including against Roman Catholics, and we will continue to do so,"

but that

"To bring about changes to the law on succession would be a complex undertaking involving amendment or repeal of a number of items of related legislation, as well as requiring the consent of legislatures of member nations of the Commonwealth. We are examining this complex area although there are no immediate plans to legislate."—[ Hansard, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 513W.]

So the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has somehow advanced no immediate plans, despite a widespread discussion in the press and the media today. The hon. Member for Gainsborough prayed in aid the professor of constitutional law at University college London, Robert Blackburn, and his point is exactly right. A House that can see a Finance Bill through could certainly see this Bill through.

If there is no real argument against the Bill, if the complexity argument is pretty thoroughly destroyed and if there is no real objection under the Statute of Westminster 1931, is there a theological argument against the Bill? Is there perhaps some subliminal fear, still today, that Roman Catholics are fit to be ruled, but are not fit to be rulers? Is there still some visceral fear that there is an inherent disloyalty in Roman Catholics? My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West rightly quoted former President Kennedy. I would not remotely mention myself in the same breath, but I, too, received postcards on being elected saying that I would listen to the Vatican before I would listen to Northolt.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

If the hon. Gentleman saw my postbag, which I would be happy to share with him, as I proposed the Bill, he would see that there is still, in a very small number of people, that visceral, irrational and unjustified fear. That is one of the reasons why we should pass the Bill, because doing so is the sort of thing that we need to do to neutralise that fear, rather than wait for it to flow away. The whole point of the Bill is to tackle that head on, because part of the Bill is about tackling prejudice wherever it exists, as well as eliminating unjustified discrimination wherever it exists.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. My mind goes back to 19 December 2001, when he and I were in the same Lobby supporting the Bill that was introduced by Kevin McNamara. That Bill was slightly wider than the hon. Gentleman's Bill and aimed to amend section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1948 and, inter alia, abolish the crime, punishable under treason legislation, for even suggesting that a republic might be a reasonable option or for criticising the monarchy in any way, shape or form. In fact, under the wording of the 1848 Act, it was treason to

"compass, imagine, invent, devise, or intend to deprive or depose",

which is a pretty wide net.

When the hon. Gentleman and I voted on that occasion, the Tellers for the Noes were Mr. Howarth and Rev. Ian Paisley. The right hon. Gentleman has, it cannot be denied, mellowed—indeed, he has mellowed almost beyond all recognition. However, on 19 December 2001 he was still in the process of approaching mellowing. He decided that he would oppose Kevin McNamara's Bill on a number of grounds, one of which was that whatever we did in this country was not nearly as bad as what the Catholics did in Spain.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

It is an interesting argument, although I am not entirely sure that it appeals to me. Apparently, in Spain there is a requirement that members of the royal family be members of a particular house, and that house is predominantly Roman Catholic.

The right hon. Member for North Antrim also referred to the Williamite revolution settlement that has served the nation so well, although I would perhaps resile from uncritically approving the Williamite revolution settlement. He then said, in effect, that were the succession aspects of Kevin McNamara's Bill to be passed, they would cause chaos and crises in the great houses of Europe. No other conversation would be had, from the grand duchies to Luxembourg—I think that even San Marino was prayed in aid.

The number of people supporting the right hon. Gentleman in the Lobby that day was 32. The number of people in the other Lobby, opposing him and supporting Kevin McNamara, was 170. Incidentally, it is a great shame, reading the list of the Ayes, to see that some 30 or 40 former right hon. and hon. Members who voted are no longer in this House, for various reasons—some of them, sadly, are in the House of Lords.

A great discussion took place on that occasion. One fundamental point that we returned to over and over again—often in coded language, although sometimes in less than coded language—was whether a Roman Catholic owes fealty, duty or loyalty to the Holy Father or to the head of our country, the monarch, Her Majesty. As with I would hope, every other loyal Roman Catholic, there would be no question about that for me. I recognise, respect and have massive admiration for Her Majesty as the leader of our country. There is absolutely no question about that, yet the point was raised over and over again, as if we were some devious, black-clad, neo-Jesuitical fifth column that was infiltrating the body politic, waiting for the very moment when we could leap from behind the arras and say, "Queen Mary is back! Light the bonfires!"

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am listening intently to my hon. Friend and neighbour, and I do not wish to drop him in it, but while I was looking up this matter on the BBC website today, the following story came up:

"Stephen Pound MP, one of several Labour backbenchers who support the aims of Republic, told the BBC News website"

that although

"the Queen had 'played a blinder'...'When the present Queen, God bless her, dies I think the Royal Family will implode in on itself anyway'".

There seem to be some intimations of the gunpowder plot.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Fortunately—I associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Gainsborough—we have apologised for the gunpowder plot. People must realise that the origins of the gunpowder plot were not in the Roman Catholic Church in Rome or in this country, but that it was all the fault of the war in the Netherlands at that time. Guido Fawkes would have been called a freedom fighter in other times.

It would be impossible for me to claim the normal defence for what I said all those years ago, which is that I was but a callow youth—I was certainly shallow. Perhaps I have moved on a bit, and perhaps the discussion has, too.

There have been so many occasions in our nation's history when the fear of Catholicism has manifested itself not just in genteel debate and discussion but in blood and death on the streets. We will not go back beyond the papal bull of 1570, which is in many ways the starting point, but let us think of the popish plot, as it was then called. Titus Oates, a figure who is often not mentioned in history—his name is well known, even if he is not often discussed in detail—was born in 1649, the year of the execution of Charles I, or Charles the Martyr. As we know, Titus Oates was responsible for a double perjury that led to the execution of some 15 Catholics, including the Archbishop of Armagh.

Oates was a man, incidentally, with a rather extraordinary past. He started off as an Anglican priest and, after an unfortunate incident involving accusations of sodomy in Hastings, he was appointed as chaplain to the good ship Adventurer, where sadly there was a further accusation of sodomy—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I trust that the hon. Gentleman is about to tell the House how that relates to the Bill.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Despite those two accusations, Titus Oates was employed by the Duke of Norfolk as an Anglican chaplain. As we know, he subsequently went to Valladolid where he retrained as a Jesuit. He returned to this country and uttered the most foul libels and lies that led to the death and execution of innocent Catholics.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

On the subject of innocent Catholics, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

That story is relevant because Titus Oates was a Government stooge—a bit like a Government Whip—was he not? He was doing the dirty work of the Government.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

To imply that a Government Whip is in any way a Government stooge is outrageous. The scale of remuneration is entirely different. We should not forget that Titus Oates received an annual allowance of £1,200. Perhaps Government Whips get that much—I do not know. That stipend was removed when James II—the great King James—came to the throne. When King James sadly left these lands, it was reinstated. We should not forget that King James, under the noble, generous and warm-hearted Judge Jeffreys, ordered Titus Oates to be pilloried and whipped, not once but annually, immediately outside this building in New Palace Yard, where he was also to be pelted with eggs and to carry a sign saying that he was a shame to mankind.

My point is that someone who was so demonstrably and risibly a perjurer, with such an extraordinary background in Hastings and the Royal Navy, managed—in the company of a man called Israel Tonge, who was an equally inflammatory pamphleteer—to persuade the nation to execute Catholics on the grounds that they might possibly represent a threat to the nation.

If Titus Oates managed to kill some 15 Catholics, Lord George Gordon, at the time of the Gordon riots in the late 18th century—well known to everybody who has read "Barnaby Rudge"—was responsible for the death of about 450 people. That brings us fairly up to date. Although Lord George Gordon sat in the upper House—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We have heard about Titus Oates at some length; we do not want to hear too much about Lord George Gordon [ Laughter. ] Seriously, the hon. Gentleman ought to come more directly to the content of the Bill.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

You are entirely correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make is that I detect in the discussion about this Bill a visceral fear. Even though the Gordon riots were in the 1780s, they still resulted in people's death. Although, as we all know, he converted to Judaism and went to live in Birmingham, people still died as a result of his actions.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

A few moments ago, my hon. Friend referred to a Duke of Norfolk, but the current Duke of Norfolk is the Earl Marshal of England and the principal master of ceremonies for the coronation and so on. Of course, he is a hereditary Catholic. Again, it comes back to the point made by Mr. Leigh, which was that Catholics are facilitating all the rubrics, traditions and ceremonies of the monarchy and the Church of England. The Earl Marshal of England—the Duke of Norfolk—is a Catholic and carries out all his functions. He even instructs the Lord Chancellor on how to move backwards when he hands the speech to the throne.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Again, I am grateful. Anyone who can inform the House of the precise details of the reverse perambulation of the Earl Marshal—

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am sorry. Anyone who can inform the House of the precise details of the reverse perambulation of the Earl Marshal accompanied by the Lord Chancellor deserves credit.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I acknowledge my right hon. Friend's sedentary intervention.

Let me bring the matter more up to date. John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who might soon be canonised, famously stood trial in this country in the Achilli trial. The judge directed the jury not to believe a word that the then Father Newman said, on grounds that, as a Roman Catholic priest, he was incapable of telling the truth. The jury followed the direction of the learned judge and found the then Father Newman guilty. A very large fine was imposed, which was then paid by public subscription, which enabled him to buy the Birmingham oratory. That is another story.

I am trying to say that there is still a visceral fear. I have talked about the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In our own century, there have been such examples. One remembers Pastor Jack Glass, who is no longer with us. He was a man of the most appallingly inflammatory views and was utterly convinced that there was a papist conspiracy to somehow gnaw away at the foundations of our democracy and our monarchy. Above all, if there is one thing that loyal Catholics can say today, it is that by seeking to correct this injustice and to rebalance the world in which we live, we are not in any way seeking to criticise Her Majesty or any institution of the monarchy.

The various debates on this subject have been educational. For me, one of the most interesting was on 14 January 2005, when Lord Dubs introduced his Succession to the Crown Bill to the upper House. The extraordinary thing about that Bill, which was described by Lord Dubs as a very modest Bill, was that it was not supported by the then Lord Chancellor, as has been mentioned, but was supported by the then Bishop of Worcester, who is no longer in post and who said that there would be no problem whatsoever with the supreme governor of the Church of England not being a communicant Anglican. There was something of a spat between various bishops, including on the rather knotty question of why the wives of bishops who sat in the House of Lords were not recognised in their roles and whether there should be some title for them. A long discussion was held on whether such a Bill should be a private Member's Bill or a Bill dealt with in Government time.

Interestingly, however, no real argument was sustained in that place. The Earl of Mar and Kellie—I do not think that he had been present in 1701, but certainly one of his kinsmen had—explained precisely the background to the legislation, why it was as it was, why it was no longer applicable or relevant, and why it no longer had a purpose in a modern democracy.

My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay may have trespassed on your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by imagining for the benefit of the House that he knew the intentions of Her Royal Majesty. I would not begin to do so, but I do find it a shame that we are not able to get some indication from the royal house of its attitude to this matter. In the absence of such an indication, however, I think that we can give the information regarding the emotions of this House in the matter. I do not think there can be anyone in the House today who does not feel that this is both the time and the place for change.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

According to the House of Commons Library paper, during the debate on Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare's Succession to the Crown Bill, Lord Williams, who I think was then the Lord Chancellor, told the House that the Queen had herself been consulted about the provisions, and that on the gender issue she had indicated no objection. He said:

"I should make it clear straight away that before reaching a view the Government of course consulted the Queen. Her Majesty had no objection to the Government's view that in determining the line of succession to the throne daughters and sons should be treated in the same way. There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 27 February 1998; Vol. 586, c. 916.]

We have heard what Prince Charles himself has said, on the record, about wanting to be the defender of faith, not the faith. That suggests a relatively relaxed attitude to some of the issues.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am still reluctant to enter too much into interpretation. I appreciate that Lord Williams of Mostyn made those comments at the time, but it was a while ago, and I have no way of knowing whether that is the current view. The hon. Gentleman's point about His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, however, is absolutely correct. His Royal Highness has indeed said that he wishes to be defender of faiths rather than fidei defensor, and I think that that is an indication. However, I am not entirely sure that we can contemplate legislating on the basis of how we assume that someone else may or may not be thinking, although I recognise that an indication was given and that it was read out in the upper House.

During the debate on Lord Dubs's Bill, it was noted that the present succession legislation had been described as

"an outdated piece of religious bigotry".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 499.]

Lord Dubs rather hoped that by introducing his Bill he could repeal what he considered an outdated piece of religious bigotry. It certainly was religious bigotry—there can be no doubt about that—and we can understand why. We can understand what the threat was perceived to be in 1688. We can understand why the Act of Settlement produced the consequences that it did, just as we can understand why the treaty of Limerick in 1690 had its effects. What we cannot do—and no one can make a valid, coherent or logical case for it—is continue that piece of religious bigotry in today's world.

I entirely accept that the 17th century, like the 16th century, was a time of febrile imaginings, with spies and counter-spies and plots and counter-plots. There was a spirit of danger, fear and indeed war everywhere. Even Samuel Pepys could be identified as a secret papist by—oddly enough—Titus Oates, although Samuel Pepys escaped. I can understand why, at that particular time, when the nation was in danger, when there was a fear of a foreign power which happened to be Roman Catholic, Roman Catholicism represented a threat to the nation. However, I can think of no Catholic nation that is currently seeking to take arms against us. I see no massed armies beneath the blue flag of Our Lady, massing on the other side of the channel. Possibly in Gainsborough, but certainly not on the other side of the channel.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I hope that my hon. Friend will not take this unkindly, but may I ask him a question?

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Of course I am not. I am a strong supporter of this Bill. If I were to criticise it in any way, I would do so merely from the point of view that I would have preferred it to come from my own Front Bench.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I make absolutely no secret of that. I am certainly not trying to talk the Bill out, and in view of my hon. Friend's strictures, I will shortly bring my comments to a conclusion.

If Members read the report of the House of Lords debate back in January 2005, they will see that virtually every question that a person could ask about the relevance of this Bill is answered, from the theological to the practical to the constitutional to the legal. All are answered. So we find ourselves left with an extraordinary conundrum: why on earth we do not have a piece of amended legislation with which we could all be comfortable? Why on earth do we still have a residual piece of legislation that reflects the bigotry of a bygone age, and why is it still the case today, although Roman Catholics may be as relaxed as the hon. Member for Gainsborough suggested—I think he used the word "horizontal" to describe some of them—that many of us are deeply and bitterly aggrieved by what we still see as a profoundly blatant form of discrimination?

I have no particular desire for my young daughter to marry any of the royal princes, and I do not think that she has any matching desire, but the fact remains that for Roman Catholics to be told not only that they cannot become the monarch of this country but that they would negate the right of any legitimate heir to the throne to become the monarch is a double discrimination that is totally unacceptable. Surely, if there is one thing that we can all say with one voice, it is that it is utterly impossible to justify such a situation in this day and age.

That is not the sole aim of the Bill, however. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon also refers to primogeniture. During the debate in the House of Lords, a concept was mentioned that was entirely new to me: something called ultimogeniture. I had never heard of it, but apparently it is the principle whereby the younger son remains at home and looks after the parents. Eventually he, rather than the elder son, inherits the title. According to this principle, the elder sons and daughters go out and make their fortune. What happens if another son is born I do not know. The fact remains, however, that as we heard from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, the present principle of primogeniture has given us the system whereby Princess Anne is 10th in the line of succession when, according to my calculation, she would otherwise be fourth. That is still a long way above the hon. Member for Gainsborough's son Benedict, but it is certainly far, far closer to the throne. Can we really justify—on the basis of the fact that we have a marvellous monarch, widely admired and widely respected, who happens to be female—a system that prevents the Crown from passing to the eldest child, regardless of whether that child is a boy or a girl? That cannot be defended, which another reason why I support the Bill.

Some Members may feel that I have been, if not chippy, then a bit over-sensitive about the issue of Roman Catholics and their place in our civic life. Especially in this building, which was designed by a Roman Catholic who was opposed by many people in this country for being a Roman Catholic, we have to recognise that Catholic emancipation is a fairly recent issue, whose relevant dates are not just 1828 and 1832, but, as we have heard, as recent as this century. It is an issue for us today and, as has been widely said, this country will not be a good place for any of us to live in until it is a good place for all of us to live in.

I do not say that the disbarment of Roman Catholics from the line of succession somehow impacts so negatively on Roman Catholicism in this country that we cannot thrive, as we do, and we cannot expand, as we do, and we cannot express the confidence in our faith that we do, but it is still there as a mark and indication that, no matter how good we may be or how loyal we may be, and no matter how much we may now fight for and serve our country, and no matter how much we may sit here as Members of the legislature of our country, there is one key area from which we are barred, and that happens to be the very apex of the constitution that we serve and in whose Parliament we sit. That is the point that riles; that niggles; and that affects even the relaxed, laidback Roman Catholics of this country, and it is a point that worries me deeply.

I recall the accusation of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, and I realise that a number of other Members wish to speak, so although I could say more, I will draw my remarks to a close by repeating what I said at the beginning: Catholics are good enough to be ruled; we should be good enough to be rulers. I wish the Bill a fair wind and Godspeed. It is overdue, it is timely and it is the right Bill for this House to consider.

11:51 am
Photo of Henry Bellingham

Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I congratulate Dr. Harris on his success with the Bill, and I would also like to declare an interest: I do not have a child who is anywhere in the line of royal succession, but I am the Member for North-West Norfolk and one of my leading residents—my leading resident—is Her Majesty, who has a home at Sandringham.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he was very pleased that Her Majesty had consented to place her prerogative and interest at the disposal of Parliament for the purpose of this Bill, but I urge him not to get too carried away, because Erskine May says:

"The government's usual practice is to advise the granting of consent even to bills of which it disapproves. The understanding is that the grant of consent does not imply approval by the Crown or its advisers, but only that the Crown does not intend that, for lack of its consent, Parliament should be debarred from debating such provisions. It is possible for consent to be granted by the Monarch but for Royal Assent to be withheld. The consent of the Monarch does not necessarily reflect the Monarch's own personal view."

Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to get too carried away when he says—as he has done twice—that Her Majesty consents to the Bill. Obviously, what is needed is a long period of consultation.

The hon. Gentleman must be quite frustrated and angry with Her Majesty's Government—but, on the other hand, he might not be. He might be quite chuffed that his Bill has received such an extraordinary amount of publicity over the last 24 hours. I welcome the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to his place and apologise for the absence of my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve, but we were told earlier this week that today's business would be handled by the very capable Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr. Malik. However, something has happened in the meantime. The Prime Minister's visit to south America has gone badly wrong; there has also been horrendous news regarding the shortfall in the Government's recent gilt sale; and now there is every likelihood that next week's G20 summit could end up as an embarrassing shambles. Therefore, I suggest that some spotty, swivel-eyed spin doctor in No. 10—in the bunker—has come up with a brainwave to provide some diversionary headlines and his great idea was to hijack the good doctor's Bill. He has certainly succeeded, because as my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh pointed out, there are headlines in every single paper: "Revolution at the Palace" in the Daily Mail, and "Royals could marry Catholics" in The Daily Telegraph.

The Government have therefore certainly succeeded in diverting headlines, but what a way to run a Government. Surely we could have had a proper statement from the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State. After all, he was in the House earlier this week making a pretty lightweight statement on the Green Paper, "Rights and Responsibilities". I cannot, in fact, remember whether it was a Green Paper or a White Paper, but it was certainly not a big deal, so he could easily have used that occasion to make a statement on this matter. Such a serious issue should not be dealt with by the Government with a knee-jerk response on the back of an envelope, and I almost feel for the Lord Chancellor, who has been treated by the Government as a bit of a poodle.

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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not long ago I referred the case of Lady Louise and her brother to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the order of succession having been reversed when the younger brother was born? That, too, was put to the Government and it made the front page of The Sunday Times, on which basis they said, "Of course we agree; it will happen, possibly in a fourth term." Two weeks later, they published the exact opposite and resiled from that position.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that episode. The whole debate on this issue has been characterised by the Government looking for quick headlines. I would far rather they looked to have a proper consultation process, with a view to introducing a Government Bill at some stage in the future.

The Opposition broadly support much of the Bill's content; indeed, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and his predecessor, my hon. Friend Nick Herbert, have both said that the Opposition want to work with the Government on an all-party basis to find a way forward. However, we feel strongly that what is needed is a consensual approach involving all interested organisations and, indeed, countries.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon pointed out that 15 Commonwealth countries have the Queen as Head of State, but what he did not tell the House was that 16 overseas territories have the Queen as the Head of State—they are overseas territories of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—as do the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the devolved Administrations of the countries of the kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh said, it is most likely that all their Prime Ministers and Governments would consent to this, but would it not be grossly discourteous not to consult them properly as part of a much more wide-ranging exercise?

On clause 2, we agree that the time has come for Roman Catholic consorts to be able to marry heirs to the throne.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong about the overseas territories and the overseas dependencies, because they are precisely that—territories and dependencies of this United Kingdom Parliament. Scotland is a separate kingdom and there is a powerful case for its legislature and Executive to be consulted. It might be seen as dancing on the head of a pin, but we need to get our constitutional definitions correct. It is a matter for here and the countries where the Queen is Head of State, and it could be argued that it is also a matter for, exclusively, the Parliament of Scotland, because Scotland is the kingdom of Scotland.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who made an interesting speech and is, without doubt, an expert on this subject. In the world of realpolitik, it would be inconceivable that the Government of Bermuda, the Government of the Falkland Islands or the Government of Gibraltar would not be properly consulted; that would be a gross discourtesy. If we are serious about looking after those overseas territories and cherishing the role that they play, we should certainly consult them properly and with due consideration.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough pointed out, it is ridiculous that the heir to the throne can marry a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Muslim with impunity but there is an historical bar to any heir to the throne marrying a Catholic. That provision should not stay on the statute book and the time has come to amend the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the other legislation that goes with it. I also feel that the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which, after all, is the Act requiring the descendents of George I to seek the consent of the monarch before marrying, is outmoded and out of date. As Andrew Mackinlay pointed out, it was the cause of the serious problems in 1936, because it precipitated the requirement for a separate one-clause Act—His Majesty's Declaration of Abdication Act 1936—which disapplied the 1772 Act to the heirs of King Edward VIII; he then became Duke of Windsor. It is logical to repeal that Act, and we are very content for that to happen.

Clause 1 allows for female succession. I share what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said about the Princess Royal; she is a tireless worker, who sets a truly remarkable example to the rest of the royal family, and we should be incredibly proud of her. However, I do not think that the issue is quite as simple as he pointed out. There would be other—perhaps unintended—consequences that we need to consider.

For example, consider the UK peerage. Hon. Members may sneer and look aghast, but I remind them that there are still 92 Members of the House of Lords who are hereditary peers, as a consequence of the Cranborne compromise. The Government said that those peers would stay there until stage two of House of Lords reform. Well, we have been waiting 10 years for stage two and there is no sign of it on the horizon. It is unlikely to happen before the next election, so there is every possibility that those 92 peers will remain in the House of Lords for the time being.

Some UK peerages were created with a special female remainder. Some were for one generation, probably because the new peer only had daughters, but some of the Scottish peerages have a special female remainder in perpetuity. Then we have baronetcies, which by statute are always inherited by the eldest son. Clause 1 makes sense, and we support the spirit of it, but many consequences that would flow from it need to be considered very carefully.

Clause 1 obviously has no immediate relevance, but it could be relevant when Prince William or Prince Harry gets married. It is therefore important that the monarch and her family are properly consulted on the contents of clause 1, in the context of a much broader process.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

This is an important point, because an awful lot of angst and irritation was caused in Sweden—apparently the King of Sweden was very aggravated—when the Parliament retrospectively altered the law. That is why the hon. Gentleman is right: we need to make the changes now, rather than when Prince William perhaps has a daughter followed by a son. In Sweden, it was done after the children existed.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is getting a bit carried away. I am not suggesting that we do it right away, but if we do it, it should not be retrospective. It should also be in the context of a much wider consultation process, into which the monarch is properly drawn.

I am pleased that the Bill in no way impacts on the establishment of the Anglican Church. Call me an old-fashioned Anglican or a traditionalist, but I feel strongly that the established Church is one of the foundations of our constitution. It is one of the key building blocks. [ Interruption. ] I shall overlook the sedentary remarks by Stephen Pound who cast aspersions on one of my less infamous ancestors— [ Interruption. ] Well, there were others who were infamous, but the one in question was a criminal—

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

As the forebear to whom the hon. Gentleman refers murdered a Prime Minister, could he explain how, relatively speaking, his other forebears did worse things?

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Perhaps I can save the hon. Gentleman embarrassment about his family by suggesting that we come back to the Bill.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I had a ready reply, but I will take your strictures into account, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and resist giving the House the details.

If we remove one of the building blocks haphazardly, all sorts of unexpected consequences could result. In any case, the Church of England is in no fit state to take on this debate, because morale is low, congregations are falling, churches are crumbling, and a lot of money needs to be raised to pay for the repair and maintenance of cathedrals. One of the reasons why Church morale is low is the fact that leadership is distinctly lacking.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Before the hon. Gentleman further talks down the Church of England—

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Indeed, and the hon. Gentleman therefore has every right to talk it down, but I urge him to consider that the Church would grasp with both hands the opportunity afforded by the Bill to deal with what would happen if Prince William were to marry a Catholic, given the problems that that would cause in the future if there were a marriage to a divorcee or even a civil partnership. The Church of England should grasp the idea of expanding the range of acceptable spouses or partners for someone who is to be their supreme ruler. I do not see why that should be any bar to the Church of England accepting this Bill.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I said that it was a good thing that the Bill would not precipitate the disestablishment of the Church.

I wish the bishops in this country would stand up and put a stronger case for Anglicanism. All too often, they take the easy way out and, rather than stand up for hard-pressed individuals who are being persecuted by the state, they walk by on the other side. As for speaking up for basic Christian beliefs, all too often, all we hear is a deafening silence. It seems to me that too many bishops are overcome by political correctness and a feeling of guilt about saying anything that might remotely cause offence to minority religions, and they are obsessed with multiculturalism.

There are honourable exceptions, however—two quite remarkable bishops. I pay tribute to the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and to the Bishop of Rochester, Bishop Nazir-Ali. Those two great men have consistently stood up and publicly supported individuals who are being persecuted by the public sector.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I am straining to understand where the hon. Gentleman's comments are taking us. When I addressed the House, I stayed within the confines and the footprint of the long title of the Bill. No reference is made and no construction can be put on the Bill to suggest that it would alter the establishment of the Church of England. With respect, I say to him that that is irrelevant to the Bill, as is succession to peerages and baronetcies. Arguably, that should be addressed, but such matters are not on the face of the Bill and the Bill could not be amended to include them. What I suggested is possible within the constraints of the long title.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent bid for the deputy speakership. Mr. Deputy Speaker decided not to call me out of order—

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I shall make no more remarks about the bishops, other than to say that the two truly remarkable men I mentioned have done so much for the Church and set such a formidable and extraordinary example that I hope and pray that other bishops will follow in their footsteps. I hope also that the Church will take courage from their work and build up its self-confidence, so that when we discuss those issues, it will be more decisive and show more determination and clear-headedness in its approach.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

My hon. Friend mentions the Bishop of Rochester. I hope that he will buy a book that is to be published next week, "The Nation that Forgot God", to which I am a contributor, with the Bishop of Rochester—

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We do not want to move into the realm of commercials, either.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

I shall certainly go out and buy a copy with great alacrity, because the Bishop of Rochester is a remarkable man.

To conclude my remarks on this part of the Bill, given the Church of England's present state, it requires new leadership and a new sense of purpose. With those things, I suggest it will be able to meet the vital challenges that will come before us in the future.

There is much to be recommended in the Bill and there is no question but that there are powerful arguments in its favour, but I have to ask the House: is a private Member's Bill the best vehicle to bring about a fundamental constitutional reform? There has been a lot of talk about how the Bill is only a few clauses long, but it deals with fundamental constitutional issues. I think what is needed is for the Government to publish a Green Paper setting out all the arguments in favour and explaining exactly how the comprehensive consultation process will work. We need to know how the Commonwealth countries and overseas territories will be brought into the loop, and how the monarch herself will be properly consulted.

My final concern is about priorities. Our country faces a really appalling recession. Some economists say that it is the worst for a generation. Other economists say that it is the worst since the 1930s. Last week, one economist said that it could be the worst recession ever. Our constituents face a torrid time in which unemployment, house repossessions, small business failures and violent crime go up. Debt levels are at an all-time high. The Government should be using all their energy, time and resources to combat the current crisis. I have every confidence that in a year's time, my party will have to sort out those challenges. In the meantime, this Government have to put their energy and effort into sorting out the current crisis. I do not want them to be distracted by arcane constitutional issues, however important they might be.

That is why I urge the Government to concentrate on trying to sort out the problems facing this country, and to get their priorities right. We will support them in this debate in future, and in the consultation process. We want to be involved on a consensual basis, and we obviously want resolution of the issues. However, I submit to the House that there are other priorities at the moment. I am quite certain that Her Majesty would expect nothing less.

12:11 pm
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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I came to the debate this morning with no settled intention of speaking, but having heard the eloquent testimony on the radio this morning of Dr. Harris and the Deputy Leader of the House, I found myself in a genuine dilemma. I thought that I would, very unfashionably, come to listen to the debate, as we all have the liberty to do. I will make some brief comments on that. I am still not entirely resolved whether to support the Bill, for the following reasons. It is clear that some of the statute that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wishes to repeal is a piece of pure prejudice against women and, particularly, Roman Catholics.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Mr. Bellingham, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, referred to the Bill as an arcane piece of legislation. Does my hon. Friend concur with that description?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I would, but I will come on to that subject in a moment. I wish to make some comments about the Bill and the legislation that it is intended to repeal. Prima facie, the cause is a noble one, and this is a straightforward Bill that seeks to remedy a piece of unjustifiable prejudice. I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, and have supported many of the causes that have earned him the nickname "Dr. Death" in the Catholic press. On matters such as animal experimentation, embryology and abortion law reform, I am firmly with him; I suspect that a number of Members who have spoken today are not, but that is a debate for another day. So why do I have doubts about the Bill?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I regard my right hon. Friend Mr. Spellar as a source of great certainty in this world, and he provides great clarity on all matters. The Bill seeks to make changes that are no doubt worthy, but that will have an infinitesimally minor effect, and are of infinitesimally minor concern.

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Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green, Liberal Democrat)

I find that quite offensive. It sends out a message, from the highest place in this land, that women are not equal with men. We in this Parliament should refute that absolutely.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I was referring specifically to the provisions that deal with the repeal of the Act of Settlement and other matters. I will read to the hon. Lady the quotation that I had in mind:

"His position"—

I shall say who he is in a moment—

"is that it is an anomaly he is sure will be repealed in the future.

It's not something that is top of our agenda. There's a lot of other legislation going through that would have far more impact on how the Catholic church operates in this country, such as the assisted dying bill and the human fertilisation and embryology bill.

While it is 'strange' that it applies only to Catholics, not to any other faith, that is more indicative of Britain's history than any kind of discrimination",

said the spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. I quote that not intending to be offensive or disparaging, but to show that the concern caused by the provisions that the Bill seeks to amend or repeal is not of the highest priority, even for those who would seem to be most affected by them.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. Primate Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who is head of the hierarchy of Scotland, is much more strident on the issue. However, it does not matter what the prelates say. We who are Roman Catholics find it deeply offensive that we are discriminated against in this way. That is deeply offensive, and my anger is not synthetic. I am angry about that. It would not be tolerated by anybody else.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

My hon. Friend puts his case passionately, but the cardinal is entitled to his opinion as well.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I agree with my hon. Friend that there has been a difference in reaction from different parts of different Churches and from different countries within the United Kingdom over time. Nevertheless, I have received only one piece of correspondence on the matter in the four years for which I have been a Member of Parliament. It is not the subject of café society debate in Shepherd's Bush or in Ealing.

I hear what hon. Members who feel strongly about the matter say, but in the passion of their arguments they have underestimated the difficulty of unravelling the constitution. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State replies, I expect he will deal with the issue in more detail, so I shall not spend a great deal of time on it. It is not simply a Government excuse or a way of doing nothing.

I shall read the House a quotation from Nick Herbert, who said:

"Other countries where the Queen is head of state will be affected by these proposals, and lifting the prohibition on heirs to the throne from marrying Catholics is not straightforward as it raises broader issues relating to the established Church.

The government should publish a consultation document so that these matters can be debated properly and the Anglican Church and others can be consulted."

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is honourable and he is my friend. I know little of the café society of Shepherd's Bush, but I am not a woman, so I cannot feel the pain that women feel as a result of the existing legislation. He is not a Roman Catholic and, with respect, I do not think he understands the pain that is felt. The fact that it is very often expressed as a bruised acquiescence rather than a surging anger does not make it any less real.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It has been made by other hon. Members and hon. Friends. I began my remarks by saying clearly that the matter needs to be addressed at some point. The fact that there is near unanimity on that speaks eloquently. Also—this item led the news this morning—the fact that the Prime Minister has indicated it is the subject of ongoing discussions between the royal family, his office and the authorities means that this will happen—

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

In due course. However, I share the view expressed from the Opposition Front Bench that the change must be made properly.

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Andrew Mackinlay has had ample opportunity this morning to put his case. It would be very helpful if he could stop chirruping from a sedentary position.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Unlike my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), I do not claim to be a great historian—

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Well I do, yes. However, my period ends with the restoration. In a spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I prefer the settlement of 1649 to that of 1688. My cards are now on the table. I do not wish to spend a great deal of time on the history, and I would be stopped if I did, but it is important, and for this reason: it shows the distance that we have covered and the journey that we have made over the past three centuries and more.

I shall read out a brief paragraph about the Act of Settlement from the "Oxford History of England". Discussing the passage of the Act that we now seek to repeal or amend, it says:

"Despite the hopes of Jacobites and republicans, settling the succession upon the House of Hanover encountered remarkably little public opposition; indeed, in the Commons only one MP spoke against it. Further, Catholics were once again explicitly debarred from the throne. The Bill passed both Houses without division, and as in 1689 urgency was again the order of the day. Nothing could more clearly show the continued commitment of parliamentarians to the Protestant succession and their willingness to break with strict hereditary rights. As in 1689, a foreign, Protestant King was deemed preferable to a Catholic one: 'it is better to have a prince from Germany than one from France.' It was not, however, altogether such plain sailing."

It goes on to mention that as a consequence of the passage of the Act of Settlement, and given that the legislature covered only England, Ireland and Wales at that time, Scotland, which still had its own independent legislature, resisted the matter

"as yet another example of English presumption, arrogance indeed imperialism. The call of Scottish independence was soon heard loud and clear."

So some things do not change all that much over the years. The net effect of that rebellion in Edinburgh was the Act of Union in 1707 and the loss of Scottish political independence—a decisive moment in the creation of a unitary state in Britain.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

My hon. Friend will have noticed that King James II, a Roman Catholic, was supreme governor of the Church of England at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why the voice of Catholicism was so quiet in the House of Commons was that Catholics were not allowed in?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

As always, my hon. Friend has a point and makes it well. What I do not know is who the one MP who objected was; more research will be needed to dig that up. Lest my hon. Friend impugn my motives, I should say that this all shows how far we have moved. This is a piece of pure history, and many of the statutes to which we have referred today are matters of pure history. I do not want to quote too much of the language; it has already been quoted this morning, and it is highly offensive. If it were used about any minority group, religion or race in statutes today, it would be considered beyond the pale—to use a slightly unfortunate allusion. However, it was the language of the time. However much we may want to carry on the Government's admirable history of opposing discrimination and legislating to do so, we cannot on a Friday morning unravel the whole of British constitutional history.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

When Thomas Arne wrote the national anthem in 1745, he wrote three verses that are seldom sung; one of them rhymes "Catholics" with "knavish tricks". Some of it is extremely offensive. Those verses are not sung now—they have fallen into desuetude—but they should be removed from our national anthem. The fact that they are not observed does not make them any less real. Does my hon. Friend not feel that we need to tidy up this whole area, and that—

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am all in favour of replacing the national anthem with "Jerusalem".

I am not as concerned about the number of statutes that would be amended or repealed as about their centrality. We are talking about the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Act of Union. Without proper constitutional consideration, we trespass on those at our peril. Despite the excellent steps that the Government have taken on constitutional reform, these have not been without difficulty—one need only look at the problems that have arisen in ridding the House of Lords of hereditary peers.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Clause 2(2) would amend the Bill of Rights, which the hon. Gentleman feels is an example of something that would bring down the constitutional house. It says:

"in the paragraph starting, 'Upon which their said Majestyes did accept the crowne', omit the words 'or shall marry a papist' and 'or marrying'."

He says that those words are offensive, but they would not bring down any constitutional house but merely take out the offensive bits of the existing legislation. His point about its being a radical excision is not justified.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Let me make two points in response to that. First, there is much in the Act of Settlement—I will refer to that rather than to the Bill of Rights—that we would now find either otiose or offensive. Some years ago, The Guardian launched its own campaign to bring an action under the Human Rights Act to deal with this and other points. It highlighted the fact that the Act of Settlement says, in addition to the point to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention, that:

"All future monarchs must join in communion with the Church of England...The sovereign must promise to uphold the Protestant succession...The monarch must not involve the country in wars to defend the territory of foreign monarchs...No judges should be appointed by the monarch...Impeachment by the House of Commons is not subject to pardon under the Great Seal of England."

As soon as one begins to tinker with the constitutional framework—

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

On the Act of Settlement, the only proposal in the Bill is to take out the words,

"or shall marry a papist".

None of the other things that the hon. Gentleman is talking about are in the Bill, so there is no basis for him to argue that it has the wider implications he states. There may be another Bill out there that would do that, but it is not this one. He should save that argument for when another Bill comes forward.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is being slightly naive in saying that he can put forward this proposal without any ramifications or consequences. Yes, it is true that one can take an approach whereby one picks off one by one the offensive elements of Bills that one does not like, but surely it is far better, as the Prime Minister has indicated, to do it in a comprehensive and constitutional way.

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David Howarth (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)

Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what specific ramifications could result from taking out the words that my hon. Friend referred to?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I will come to that in a moment, but let my finish my point. Another provision in the Act of Settlement—that the monarch must not leave the country without the permission of Parliament—has been repealed, without any consequences. Last time the monarch declared war on Parliament, it was done from Nottingham—so that may not resolve the problem at hand. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is possible to take such steps; I am merely urging caution because the Bill would amend a number of fundamental Acts that are important to the constitutional integrity of this country.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Just before my hon. Friend entered this House, we amended the provisions of the Bill of Rights of 1689 to accommodate the then hon. Member for Tatton, in order that he could pursue litigation in the courts that would otherwise have been subject to article 9 of the Bill of Rights. It is nonsense to suggest that we cannot tweak these things, because we have done so very recently in that respect.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

If my hon. Friend has been listening, he will know that I am not saying that such things are impossible. This House can repeal whatever it wishes. I am urging caution because one may end up with unintended consequences if one takes such a piecemeal approach.

Actually, has this Bill not effectively already achieved its objective? Mr. Bellingham, rather uncharitably, referred to the Prime Minister's trip to South America. The hon. Gentleman may wish to reconsider that, and reflect on the fact that the Prime Minister's spending so much time among Catholic Heads of State has brought this matter to the fore. I saw the Prime Minister being given what I can only describe as a cuddle by President Lula of Brazil in the newspaper this morning.

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Michael Lord (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I have difficulty seeing how that relates to the Bill. Could the hon. Gentleman concentrate on the contents of the Bill before the House?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Thank you for bringing me back to the second point that I was going to make in response to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon.

I feel strongly that, for the best of motives, hon. Members have glossed over what may be unintended consequences of the Bill, and there are three. I have already effectively dealt with the first by referring to a number of pieces of legislation that are important and fundamental. Although they are perhaps in need of comprehensive assessment and possibly repeal, they are nevertheless the building blocks of a constitution that is robust in its execution, but fragile in its construction, and which came about because of a series of historical events some 300 to 400 years ago. To go back to the words of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that I quoted earlier, there are implications of this Bill that go beyond the United Kingdom, which cannot be glossed over. Despite the fact that this is denied by the supporters of the Bill, there are also implications for the position of the Church of England.

We heard quotations from Professor Blackburn, who largely supports the line taken by the supporters of the Bill, and who would pooh-pooh the arguments about complexity. He is entitled to that view, and we should respect his opinion, but with regard to the possible effects on the legislative status of the Church of England and the monarch as head of that institution, he says:

"There is no doubt that at the crux of the whole debate about reforming the Act of Settlement is whether the country, and the political elite of the country, wishes to maintain the established Church of England. These two issues—reform of the Act of Settlement and disestablishment of the Church of England—are in truth, two sides of the same coin. Reform of the Act of Settlement and its related statutes would set in train an inevitable momentum towards disestablishment; and disestablishing the Church of England would automatically remove the rationale for the religious provisions binding succession to the Crown."

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I do not want to accuse my hon. Friend of being disestablishmentarian, or even antidisestablishmentarian, but is he implying that Dr. Harris is introducing the Bill not as a measure of Catholic relief and equality for women, but as some cunning stalking horse, or Trojan horse, for the disestablishment of the Church of England?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I would never ascribe base or hidden motives to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, although I notice that he is currently secularist of the year.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

It is only fair to Professor Blackburn to point out that the link he made concerned a provision that affected the Protestant succession and disestablishment, not the religion of the spouse of the monarch. If my Bill talked about allowing Catholics to be on the throne, as it were, as the monarch, that might be a point for academic discourse. The Bill would not do that, however, so it does not follow that even a debate on disestablishment would be started by its provisions. They fall far short of that, and the hon. Gentleman should not quote an academic in support of an argument that I am not making, and that the academic has not made.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I know what the hon. Gentleman is doing—he is trying to get his Bill through, as he is entitled to do. He has tried to draw it up in such a way that it curves a path between rocks that would otherwise lure it to its end, but I fear that he has had difficulty in doing so. He has made a good effort, and as I have said, I support the principles of what he is trying to do about not only religious discrimination but sex discrimination. I have voted for every measure against that that has come before the House, which my constituents welcome. The argument is about proportionality and the suitability of using the process of the Bill to achieve that end, and I am perfectly entitled to make my points about that.

However, I am not decided, and sometimes in the course of making such decisions we find out whom we are in bed with and who supports and opposes a Bill. There have been eloquent and passionate arguments in support of the Bill and few against it, and I am not arguing against it on its merits.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

My hon. Friend is making the entirely valid point that there may be unintended consequences and an unanticipated read-across. Heaven forfend that we have to grapple with the Princess Sophia's Precedence Act 1711. Surely we employ some of the greatest brains in the nation in the form of parliamentary counsel, and surely they, if no other, are more than capable of advising and assisting on the eventual form of a Bill such as this in order to avoid any disastrous unintended consequence.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I understand the frustration that has brought this Bill and previous Bills to the House. I have been a Member for only a few short years, and I am sure that there are Members present who have been trying to make similar changes to legislation for a longer period. This is not the first time that the Government have said that they support such changes, and there appears to be unanimity among the three Front-Bench teams that those changes are necessary. I hoped that if it was not possible to deal with the matter in this Parliament, it would be sufficient for the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the Bill had engendered publicity and received support and interest from the Prime Minister downwards, but it is clearly not sufficient.

I shall try to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort by saying that in my admittedly brief search for opponents of the Bill—this may be one of the faults of internet searching—I came up with a rather eclectic group of people including the Bishop of Winchester, Miss Widdecombe, the comedian David Mitchell, who has been referred to, and last but not least the editor of the Catholic Herald. That is perhaps an unusual coalition of forces, and I should perhaps explain my rationale slightly further. It is only reasonable that the arguments against the Bill are expressed as we give it a fair hearing, because on merit I think that they are so shallow that they will end up helping to support the endeavours of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Could my hon. Friend help those of us who seem to be hearing in his words a new extension being built into the constitutional architecture, whereby legislation is no longer necessarily passed through this House but suggested here and echoed outside, and our role is simply to initiate it and stand back while forces outside carry it forward?

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I think that our role this morning in this House is to discuss the Bill before us.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I shall have to reply outside the Chamber to my hon. Friend's very interesting, almost theological point.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Indeed, in the café society of Shepherd's Bush, where I can often be found.

I do not know whether the Bill's promoter has read the previous debates on the matter, including that in the other place when Lord Dubs introduced such a measure. If the hon. Gentleman has done so, he will know that, unlike what is happening in this Chamber, some rather trenchant objections were made, including by the Bishop of Winchester, who claimed that it would separate the state from the Church of England and the Christian faith. I will not develop the bishop's argument because I do not agree with it, but it is nevertheless interesting that the prelate could advance that argument despite being a substantial advocate of closer co-operation between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.

I mentioned the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who is not in her place, but she was quoted in the National Catholic Register last month as saying that the Bill is

"an attempt to impose secularization on the country... And it's a direct attack on the Church of England. I won't be supporting it, and neither will a lot of other Catholic MPs I know."

An observation was made that the opposition may have more to with the Bill's promoter than its content. However, I will not put words into the right hon. Lady's mouth.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon misquoted David Mitchell when he referred to him earlier. I shall correct the quote for the record. Perhaps the article in question, which appeared in The Observer in January, when the Bill was presented, is slightly less than serious. Mr. Mitchell said:

"The royal family, while nominally our betters, are in fact our captives and an interesting and profitable focus for media attention. It's as unfair as life; the royals can't escape and if you want to become royal, you basically can't. It's a more or less functional arrangement that no one would ever have had the wit to devise deliberately.

Which is why Liberal Democrat MP"—

he names the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon—

"Evan Harris's attempt to fiddle with it is so enervating. He wants to change the Act of Settlement whereby Catholics can't marry the sovereign and end the discrimination against female heirs to the throne. He thinks this will make the monarchy more fair. I suppose it will, in the same way that throwing some bread into the Grand Canyon will make it more a sandwich."

That is the quote.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I did not misquote David Mitchell because I did not quote him—I paraphrased his argument. I do not know who was present earlier, but my point was not about making the monarchy fair, but about making our constitution fairer because that affects the people. I thought that the article was funny, but I believe that the argument was not strong, and the arguments of Miss Widdecombe are so weak that she is not even here to present them. There is a poor group of arguments against the Bill and I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to support it.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I get closer with each of the hon. Gentleman's interventions. Who knows—in a few short minutes, I may be completely on board. I am closer than I was half an hour ago.

However, Mr. Mitchell is entitled to his view. He has a column in The Observer and therefore a greater platform than us—I doubt whether more than half a dozen people are listening to us today. Mr. Mitchell's point is:

"The monarchy is overwhelmingly, gloriously, intentionally unfair—that's the point. The defining unfairness is that you have to be a member of that family to be king or queen; fringe unfairnesses like their not being able to marry Catholics or men having priority in the line of succession are irrelevant in that context. And what's so fair about primogeniture, which Harris is not planning to touch, or the sovereign having to be Anglican, which is also apparently fine? He wants to spend parliamentary time, mid-credit crunch, on a law aimed primarily at helping Princesses Anne and Michael of Kent. When will people get the message? If you want a fair system, have a republic, elect a president and live with"—

he makes a disparaging comment about Mr. Cameron, which I will not repeat—

"giving a speech every Christmas Day afternoon, bitter in the knowledge that you asked for it. Otherwise, we should stick with what we've got, rather than trying to tinker. No abdicating, no skipping Charles, no changing weird ancient laws. We get who we get because we'd rather live with the inadequacies of a random ancient structure than the inadequacies of one designed by"

the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

I suspect that that view, although light-hearted, is one that many people in this country would accept, because they tend to accept the constitution, warts and all. I say that without in any way defending the scurrilous language in the various Acts; indeed, I wish it to be amended properly in due course.

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Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument and would like to try to help him support the Bill. The quotation that he used earlier was about the use of the word "random", but the point about the Bill is that it seeks to remove something that is not random. The Act of Settlement writes into our constitution that the monarch cannot marry a Catholic. That is not random; it is deliberately written in. Although only a small number of people may be directly affected, the important thing is the message that the Bill would send to the country today, which is that discrimination against Catholics has no part in modern society.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Let me repeat—if the hon. Gentleman has been listening to my speech, he will have heard this—that nobody disagrees with that point. Nobody disagrees that we will move in the near future not simply towards the measures in the Bill, but—to use 17th-century terminology—to a more root-and-branch reform of the constitution. The evidence of the past 10 years is that even with a great reforming Government, as the Labour Government since 1997 have been, problems are thrown up. We tinker with such things at our peril, even if we do so for the best of motives.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is no longer in his place, which is perhaps opportune, because the last opponent of the Bill whom I want to quote is one whom I do not really think he should bother with. The editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald said, in the most disparaging terms—I will explain why I am reading this in a moment—that the hon. Gentleman,

"the Lib Dem MP nicknamed 'Dr. Death' for his creepy determination to make late-term abortions and euthanasia more widely available, now has a new cause: he wants to remove the ban on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic.

You know something? Catholics don't want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the 'procedure' can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me. He is wrong about nearly everything, and wrong in a particularly nauseating fashion, too".

However, I do not want to continue reading that, because it is simple abuse.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

As a Catholic, I have to say that if Dr. Harris found me prostrate on the floor of Members' Lobby with blood spouting from an artery in great gouts, I would be grateful for his assistance and I would think about his rather extreme views afterwards. Surely we should not be damning the messenger in this case, when the message appeals to us all. Let me also say that not all Roman Catholics have such an utterly dismissive view of the hon. Gentleman.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention because it allows me to say again what an enormous fan I am of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. The reason why I read that passage was simply to show that bigotry is not dead in this country. I hope that the editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald would not miss the irony that although he is attacking the Bill for purely bigoted reasons—that is, because it comes from the hon. Gentleman—he would no doubt support the measures, even if, as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has said, they are not high up the shopping list.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. May I once again ask the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks not to the personalities, but to the principles of the Bill that is before us?

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

You have pulled me up short at exactly the right moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that I can draw my thoughts together and drive myself to a conclusion. I am now 80 or 85 per cent. on board with the Bill, but I like to be 100 per cent. on board or to have three lines under a Bill before I know exactly how I am going to vote. It is always nice to make a joke that the Whips get.

In conclusion, it is absolutely right that this private Member's Bill has engendered a huge amount of publicity. It is on the front pages. I know that those on the Opposition Front Bench suspect that there are motives for its being on the front pages, but I think that it is front-page news because it is a subject of genuine interest. That has achieved the Bill's aim by bringing the measure not only to this House but to public attention. Inevitably, when such issues are brought to one's attention, one reflects on the monarchy and its role, which widens the debate.

I see nothing wrong with that. It is not a matter for us this morning, but it would be churlish of us to seek to restrict the debate outside the House. As a republican, I have to say in all candid honesty that the Queen is a popular monarch and that the monarchy as an institution remains popular in this country. It is perhaps not as popular as is often reported in the popular press. As a consequence of this Bill, polls are showing that more than three quarters of the British public want the monarchy to continue, but when that question was asked only three or four years ago, while the overall majority fully supported the current monarch, less than 50 per cent. wanted to see the monarchy continue.

I suspect that despite some of the comments made this morning, the one thing that would ensure that the monarchy always continues is that all the proposed alternatives are less attractive. Sadly, but realistically, the proportion of the public who support a republican alternative stays stubbornly around the 20 per cent. mark. I do not think that the Bill will change that materially, as has been suggested by some of its advocates. I do not believe that most people's support for or opposition to the monarchy as an institution is based on whether we repeal or amend the Act of Settlement.

I tend to the pragmatic view that the House interferes with the institution of monarchy at its peril. That is certainly usually the view of the Government and the official Opposition. It is not—there is a slight irony here—typically the view of the Liberal Democrats, who used to be famous for their debates at conference about the abolition of the monarchy along with many other "rice and sandals" issues.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. This Bill is not about the abolition of the monarchy. I once again remind the hon. Gentleman to confine his remarks to the Bill before the House.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was a concluding peroration before I finally make my mind up about what to do. I did it only so that I could mention the fact that the previous Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, relatively recently called for a "bicycling monarchy" and

"said it was 'time to start again' on the constitutional position of the Queen."

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has had some liberty. I ask him now either to conclude his remarks or to confine them to the content of the Bill.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I am grateful for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I shall conclude simply by saying that I realise that I am speaking from a minority position as I believe that this country has a future of a non-monarchical nature and that we should not necessarily drive the Bill through today. However, along with those who have spoken from all parties, I agree that the issue raised by the Bill is important.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend agree that when Michael English promoted one of the first succession Bills in 1981, he had virtually no support in this House? There has been some movement and some progress. I realise that interventions are bringing my hon. Friend on to the side of the godly, and I hope that he will accept this one as one more step along the way.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

Indeed I do. I think that that, along with the publicity and the overwhelming support for the Bill, in contrast to the eccentric opposition to it, should be the comfort that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon takes from this process. However, one of the facts that we have to live with is that constitutional change takes a long time in this country. That may not be for bad reasons. It may be that careful consideration, repeated debates, the building up of a groundswell of support, the engagement of those on Government and Opposition Front Benches, and a move towards what is perhaps a more comprehensive reform of discriminatory and obsolete legislation is the better way to go.

I will support the Bill with my heart, but I do not feel that I can support it with my head.

12:55 pm
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David Howarth (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)

It is one of the unwritten rules of Fridays that the more one supports a Bill the less one should say. I shall therefore speak briefly, because I strongly support the Bill.

The only thing that I shall say about the speech that we have just heard from Mr. Slaughter is that it seemed to combine, in a very unstable way, the argument that this measure should be opposed because it might block the way for more radical reform later and the argument that it sets a dangerous precedent and might actually lead to that reform itself, thus producing an overall argument of breathtaking incoherence.

The main point of the speech of Mr. Bellingham was that he felt that the Government should do more about the economy, rather than thinking about a measure of this sort. In fact, experience seems to show that the more the Government do, the worse the economic crisis becomes, so I think that, rather than doing any more to make things worse, it would be better for them to concentrate on measures of this kind.

The Bill contains three proposals, all of which I strongly support. The first is to end sex discrimination in the order of succession; the second is to end the disabilities that are attached to members of the royal family who marry Catholics; and the third is entirely to repeal the absurd Royal Marriages Act 1772. No substantive reasons have been given for not doing any of those things. The sex discrimination in the order of succession makes no sense whatsoever, given that we abolished feudalism three or four centuries ago, and if there is a lesson of history to be learned from the monarchs that we have had in recent centuries, it is that, on average, the public seem to be served much better by our queens than by our kings.

The only objection to the measure that has been advanced is a procedural one to do with the idea that the 15 Commonwealth member states that share our Head of State might block it. I do not see how that could happen. Many of the countries concerned are far more progressive than we are on the matter of sex equality. That is historically the case as well: I believe that New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, so it hardly seems likely that it would block the measure.

As for the Pandora's box idea that was mentioned by Andrew Mackinlay, the notion that opponents of the monarchy in the Australian Parliament would stand up to block its assent to the measure on the grounds that they did not want to see equality for women is too bizarre to contemplate. First, they will not do it. Secondly, they probably cannot do it, because the Statute of Westminster probably does not have the legal force that has been claimed for it. It is a treaty obligation, but it is not a domestic legal obligation in this country.

There are various ways in which other countries could respond. They could say, "You get on with it: we do not care what you do." They could also say, "You get on with it: we will agree with what you do." Those varieties of response are dealt with in my hon. Friend's Bill, which states simply that Ministers should consult with the relevant countries and then decide what to do on the basis of what they discover. I therefore see no reason not to support the part of the Bill that removes discrimination in the order of succession.

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Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the important messages that the Bill would send out to the whole country is that discrimination both on the grounds of sex and against Catholics is not permissible in modern society? It is not just about the small number of people who would be directly affected.

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David Howarth (Cambridge, Liberal Democrat)

The idea behind the Bill is that those principles of non-discrimination are universal and that they do not apply only to particular parts of our society.

My hon. Friend mentions the discrimination against Catholics. There is absolutely no reason for that to continue. Given that Conrad Earl Russell used to be of the belief that our own party—the Whig party, and then the Liberal party—started as a consequence of the exclusion crisis of 1679 and therefore was founded as a party aiming at excluding James II from the throne, I should, perhaps, join in the apologies that we have heard today about the gunpowder plot and other events, and perhaps even apologise for Titus Oates as well.

Stephen Pound made a serious point—perhaps the only serious point in his speech. In the 16th and 17th centuries Protestantism became part of the national identity, especially of England. That led to extreme forms of discrimination against Catholics. He is right to say that that was originally based largely on ideas of foreign threat—of threat from the French, the Spanish and so forth. It has taken us a long time to get back from the effects of that part of our history. It has had a profound effect on the way people in this country see themselves. Catholic emancipation, which started in the early 19th century, has still not finished, although it should be mentioned that bringing about the Catholic emancipation Act required the efforts of perhaps the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen, to paraphrase Gladstone: Daniel O'Connell.

The massive changes that were brought about in the 19th century are still not yet quite complete. The hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned examples of discrimination against Catholics in the 20th century that are still going on. It has to be said that there is a residual feeling in some Europhobic circles—perhaps I should mention Mr. Ashley Mote, who was originally elected to the European Parliament as a member of the UK Independence party—that somehow the whole European Union is a Popish plot. This is happening now, in our day and age. There are still residual feelings of anti-Catholicism and we should recognise that, and take the step that this Bill proposes precisely because it challenges that.

The only argument made against that step, apart from the Commonwealth argument, which I do not think works, is the notion that it will somehow lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England. I should be open about the fact that my party supports the disestablishment of the Church of England, but this Bill does not get anywhere near achieving that, or even starting to do so. First, it is only about the spouses of monarchs, and not the monarchs themselves, and even if it were about the monarchs themselves, it is not clear that that is a problem because there would be other ways around the supreme governorship issue, including the idea that another senior member of the Royal family might take over the supreme governorship for the period in question. I do not think this is an issue at all; it is simply a red herring.

The third proposal is the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, an Act that is plainly ridiculous, and has been so for a long time. It was passed in first place only because of the misbehaviour of the brothers of George III, not to mention the later misbehaviour of his son, George IV. It is clear that we need to move on. It is not entirely clear whether this even applies now, because arguably both Queen Victoria and our own current Queen married into a foreign family and that is effectively the end of the Act itself. This is therefore a nonsensical historical survival, and we should simply repeal it.

I have no more to say other than that I thoroughly approve of the Bill. I hope that the House will pass it today, and I hope that, rather than the Government using it as an excuse to do nothing, they will actually do something.

1:05 pm
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Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Harris on his Bill, which has my complete support. It seeks to remove discrimination on the grounds of sex and religion, because those discriminations are relics of the past and should have no place in modern society. Effectively what these ancient laws still say is that women and Catholics are second-class citizens, and I want all references to sex and religious discrimination removed from the constitution, as does he. That is probably beyond the scope of a private Member's Bill, so what he has included in this Bill is something that can realistically be achieved.

One of the few arguments being put against the Bill today is that it is all too complex and difficult, but my hon. Friend has focused on aspects of the constitution that can be quickly and easily amended. I do not think that the complexity argument has any weight in respect of the discriminations that he seeks to remove. Clause 1 would remove a sex discrimination provision that is clearly absurd; the Queen has had a distinguished reign of nearly 60 years, and there have been many distinguished queens in the past. It is absurd to say that removing sex discrimination from the monarchy would, in any way, have knock-on effects or cause damage to the constitution.

Clause 2 would remove religious discrimination and thus allow the monarch to marry a Catholic. The present constitution is, in this respect, patently absurd: the monarch or any heir to the throne can marry anyone of any religion or of none, other than a Catholic. That provision is clearly a relic of the 17th century and it should be removed. The message that it sends out is that a Catholic is a lesser being than someone of any other religion or someone of no religion, and that appalling sectarian message should have no place in modern society.

This Government, to their credit, have passed a great deal of legislation that removes discrimination from the country and implements a great deal of constitutional reform. They have set up a Parliament in Scotland, and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, and they have reformed the voting system for the European Parliament. They have removed discrimination in many walks of life, and I urge them to go one step further by removing the sectarian legislation that dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. It is obvious that the Government do not believe in discriminating against Catholics—that is self-evident—so why should they not simply demonstrate that today by giving this Bill a Second Reading and removing 300 years of discrimination against Catholics?

Step by step, over the past 200 years, the anti-Catholic legislation of the 17th century has been removed from our constitution. The only part remaining is discrimination against Catholics' succeeding to the throne and against heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. The Government obviously do not believe in that discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has put forward a simple Bill that does not involve any complex issues such as the supreme governorship of the Church of England. This simple measure would send out an important signal to everyone in this country. I urge the Government to support the Bill today and give it a Second Reading.

1:09 pm
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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Reid, who clearly feels strongly about this issue. He put his case very well, and with typical verve. I congratulate Dr. Harris on introducing this Bill; whatever happens today, he has clearly achieved an awful lot in a short time, given the headline in today's Daily Mail and the Government's seizing on his Bill as a way of diverting attention from all the other difficulties in which the Prime Minister finds himself at the moment. I am sure that he did not design it with the aim of saving the Prime Minister's skin, but it has taken us a fair way down the road to doing so.

The debate has been fascinating and informative. I have learned a lot, and it has been equally entertaining. We have heard some of the finest speakers in the House today. I do not wish to single out anybody in particular, but the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) are two of our finest orators, and it was a pleasure to witness their performances today. My hon. Friend Mr. Leigh also made a good speech. Indeed, it has been very interesting to watch the unholy alliance—if I may call it that—between my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. It would be fair to say that, on 99.9 per cent. of Bills, they vehemently disagree with each other, but they have found common cause on this matter. It was also interesting to watch my hon. Friend struggle with the tragic conflict of loyalty between his understandable desire to end discrimination against Catholics and his long-standing support for tradition, in the face of this Bill, which is a challenge on both those fronts.

In many respects, this Bill is self-evidently sensible. I spend much of my time in this place trying to argue against gender discrimination, especially positive discrimination. It was music to my ears to hear people's opposition to gender discrimination. It has been said that we should take it as read that nobody should believe in any form of gender discrimination. My enthusiasm and delight at hearing that were slightly tempered by the thought that many of those people who were saying that we should take it as read that we do not believe in gender discrimination are those who support all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection. If only we could take it as read that we are against gender discrimination, I would be far happier.

The Secretary of State said earlier that he had a proud record of standing against all forms of discrimination, and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that the Government had passed many measures to tackle discrimination in many walks of life. However, the Government's track record in ending gender discrimination is not perfect, and if they really did believe in it they would end all-women shortlists.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could now concentrate his remarks on the Bill.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I shall certainly do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was simply making the point that we cannot take it as read that gender discrimination—

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. I still think that he should now move on and discuss the contents of the Bill.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I certainly intend to do so. The point has been well made during the debate that we have seen fine examples of women leading the country, whether it be Betty Boothroyd as Speaker, Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, or indeed the present Queen. In the debate in the House of Lords in 2005 on this issue, Lord Strathclyde made the point especially well when he said:

"After all, I have not lived all my life in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II to hold some antiquated view that a woman cannot rule equally well. Indeed, I suspect that there is not a single Englishman who has held that view since the time of the first Elizabeth—surely one of England's greatest monarchs".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 506.]

He went on to point out that the present system had given us Queens for 117 of the past 168 years. One might conclude that the Bill is therefore a solution looking for a problem.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

I am waiting with bated breath to hear whether the hon. Gentleman is for the Bill or against it. He has concentrated on the question of women who have demonstrated tremendous service and success in public life, and he referred to Her Majesty the Queen. Does he understand the point I made earlier that if George VI had had a younger son, the world would never have heard of, nor been able to enjoy the wonderful stewardship, counsel and leadership of Her Majesty the Queen? She would have been the Duchess of Edinburgh and no more.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

That is self-evidently true. There are a lot of ifs in British history, and I am sure that you do not want me to explore every one of them, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are where we are, as Mr. Slaughter said. Had we been starting from scratch, we probably would not have chosen to start from here, but here is where we are.

I often quote my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth at such times. He always says, in words that resonate with me, that to a conservative, if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Today's argument, to me, is about whether it is necessary to change. To make the proposed change, the case for it has to be set out and we have to be wholly persuaded that it is needed. To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Thurrock, I am not yet convinced of the need for the Bill. I understand the motivations behind it, but I am not sure that we have explored fully all its implications.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon say that he supports the monarchy and that the Bill is in no way intended to threaten the monarchy. His point appears to be that it is entirely wrong that the eldest child, because of the accident of having been born female, should not be allowed to become England's monarch. That is a perfectly logical point, but from it, perfectly logically, flows the argument that a person should not be able to become king or queen just because of the accident of their birth into the royal family. The thrust of his argument therefore undermines the monarchy as an institution.

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Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, but surely if discrimination on grounds of sex and religion were removed, succession to the Crown would become purely random, in that the first-born child of the previous monarch would succeed. Previous legislation has removed the randomness, so surely his argument, if he wants the succession to remain random, is that the Bill should be passed.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the thrust of my argument is that, in many respects, the Bill could be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. Once the argument over the Bill was won, those who, perfectly honourably, hold republican views would then move on the next argument: they might say that, having declared that this aspect of discrimination on the ground of accident of birth is unacceptable, we should turn to the wider issue of accident of birth into the royal family.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I really disagree with him. If the changes proposed in the Bill were made, I believe the general view would be that the case for a monarchy had been strengthened, and we would have shown that we can sensibly and intelligently discuss how to make the monarchy suitable and fit for the next generation. I support disestablishment, but I have not heard anyone suggesting that the Bill is a Trojan horse for disestablishment.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I understand the point. Time will tell, I guess, but one of my fears is that the Bill advances that agenda.

I understand the argument that, if we are to do this, now is a good time. Simon Hughes made that very point when introducing a similar Bill. He said that his Bill would not affect the succession for the next two generations and so had no implications for any individual—no one would be blocked and it would not be perceived to be an attack on any individual. None the less, I fear the implications.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I understand—and indeed agree with the hon. Gentleman on—the points about complexity and unintended consequences, but he seems to be conflating them with the question of whether the measure is good in itself. I would welcome clarification on that. Does he, as a true Conservative, simply believe that all change is bad? Does he believe that the measures in question will not be necessary at any point? I would disagree with that.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

As a true Conservative, I believe that all unnecessary change is bad. As I said earlier in reply to the hon. Member for Thurrock, I absolutely agree on the points about not wishing to discriminate against women and others. I understand those points. However, I am not entirely convinced that the Bill in its entirety is the right mechanism to take us forward. I am not sure that we have explored all the potential implications of the Bill; that is my fear.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his earlier extraordinarily generous comments, of which I am extremely unworthy. He is making an interesting journey from an angry young man to something of a statesman; I hope that he will not be too insulted by that. Surely he meant to say "all unnecessary change is bad", rather than what he actually said, which was that all necessary change is bad. I am sure that he would like the opportunity to correct the record.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I am sure that our friends in Hansard will be able to correct us on this point, but I fear that the hon. Gentleman misheard what I said. I did say that all unnecessary change was bad. I thank him, too, for his incredibly generous remarks, of which I am certainly not worthy, either.

The issue about Catholics particularly affects my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, who made his point very well. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon quoted my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, who also pointed out particularly well how ridiculous the bar on Catholics is. I perfectly understand the arguments. However, I am not wholly sure whether the change is entirely necessary. I am not sure how many cases there have been in which the provision has needed to be invoked, or in which there was a problem. I think that such cases are few and far between. I am not sure that it is at the top of the issues raised by the man on the Clapham omnibus at the moment. I certainly share the views of my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham: surely the Government have far better things to be doing with their time, particularly at the moment, than to go down that route.

The arguments for the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772 are perfectly logical. Vernon Bogdanor described it as the most absurd piece of legislation on the statute book. We have all heard about how it originated; it was, in effect, passed in a fit of pique, and that is hardly how legislation should be passed. In the 2005 debate, Lord Falconer, arguing why it should be repealed, made the point that the longer the current provisions remain on the statute book, the more couples there will be who are covered by the Act. I perfectly understand all those arguments.

I certainly have a problem with the vehicle that is being used to make the changes—a private Member's Bill. I do not think that that is the right vehicle to take the matters forward. Despite what has been said, we are talking about a major constitutional matter. The Government should introduce the changes themselves, if they feel so inclined, and that should really be done with consent and common support. When considering whether to support the Bill today, one has to ask whether the measures should be introduced through a private Member's Bill. I do not believe that they should be. In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, I can say that if there were a Division on the Bill, I would not vote for it. I would either abstain or vote against it, because I do not think that it is the right vehicle for such a constitutional change.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

I have one last very short point to make. If we look back over the past 100 years, we see that many initiatives of a constitutional nature have been taken up by Back Benchers, and were then picked up by Governments and legislated for, such as devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Private Members' Bills are often the way to get things going. That use of private Members' Bills should be encouraged; the Government often do not move otherwise.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I would say in response that that seems already to have happened. As a result of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon tabling the Bill, it appears—if we believe what we read in the Daily Mail, which I always do because it is a fine paper—that the Government will do as the Bill proposes. In that sense, the job that Simon Hughes mentioned has been done. The Government have, it seems, moved.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman is very wise and therefore, although he may agree with everything that is written in the Daily Mail, he might not agree with everything that is spun out of Government. It is my view, though we have yet to hear from the Secretary of State, that the Government's position has not changed. They want to see the changes happen but have no specific proposal to bring them about. The hon. Gentleman said that a private Member's Bill is not the way to do that. He may be right, but he also said that the matter should not be a priority for the Government, so he must clarify whether there is some third way of achieving legislation in this place, other than through Government legislation or private Members' Bills.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but he misses my point. I do not think a private Member's Bill is the right way forward for the legislation, and if the Government wish to move matters forward—I am not saying that they do—they should do so by consent, with a proper debate of the whole House and a vote of the whole House. Whether the Government are serious about it, time will tell.

The hon. Gentleman may well be right. I am a new boy in this place, but even I have been here long enough to know that the Government do not always deliver on what they say they will deliver. Their position may be a delaying tactic to get some cheap headlines today, and the matter will then be kicked into the long grass. I suspect that may well be true.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I have not seen today's Daily Mail because I have been busy chairing a Committee all night—

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman is going to make an appropriate intervention on the Bill.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

So do I, Madam Deputy Speaker. It would set a very bad example if, as a member of the Chairmen's Panel, having been sitting in a Committee since 4 pm on Thursday, I did not set an example that I would follow myself. In my intervention on my hon. Friend, I want to ask him to comment on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Prime Minister commenting on the subject from south America, and whether he thinks that that is a diversion from the unravelling of the G20 summit agenda.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

I will protect Philip Davies from straying from the content of the Bill. The Bill before us is very clear. We would prefer the hon. Gentleman to confine his comments accordingly.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I totally accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, so however tempted I am, I will not go down the path that my hon. Friend is trying to lead me down.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I will certainly not tempt the hon. Gentleman down any forbidden byways or pathways. He makes the sound constitutional point about the primacy of legislation over private Members' Bills, but does he agree that one of the most momentous pieces of legislation this country has ever seen was the Abortion Act 1967, which was introduced by the mechanism of a private Member's Bill?

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point and he makes it, typically, very well. My contention is that a constitutional change such as that proposed by the Bill is best delivered by the Government, rather than through a private Member's Bill.

We have heard today the view that the change is mere tinkering and that it could all be done via a telephone call or in five minutes flat. I am not sure I accept that. The Bill deals with major constitutional stuff, and we would be disingenuous to pretend that that could all be unravelled in five minutes flat.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

If the hon. Gentleman believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail, no doubt he believes everything said on the BBC, which is a far more anti-Government organisation than the Daily Mail. The BBC's take on the issue this morning was:

"Absurd though these antique rules may seem, the task of correcting them would be an inordinately complicated one, requiring not merely legislation at Westminster, but in the 15 other countries of which the British monarch is also head of state."

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that? Will he withdraw his rather churlish comments about the Government's not taking action? Actually, they are being prudent in addressing the matter sensibly.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, although I do not always believe everything I hear on the BBC. My point is that the Government do not always do what they say they will do. I am perfectly content, however, to accept for the time being that on this occasion they will. Time will tell; one of us will be proved right, and we do not know who.

This is major constitutional stuff, as Lord Falconer made particularly clear in the House of Lords debate. He said:

"To bring about changes to the law would be a complex and controversial undertaking, raising major constitutional issues which would involve the amendment or repeal of a number of pieces of related legislation."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 510.]

In an intervention, I mentioned the legislation that Lord Falconer claimed would need to be amended.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman may speak disparagingly about a former Cabinet Minister in his Government, but on this occasion I tend to accept that Lord Falconer was making a valid point and that this matter is rather complicated and will involve the repeal—or certainly the amendment—of much legislation. That is why, if the Government do want to come forward with something, they should take their time and consider all the implications, which we would not have the chance to consider in a private Member's Bill.

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Christopher Chope (Christchurch, Conservative)

Does my hon. Friend accept that if there were ever a subject that should have pre-legislative scrutiny, it is what is in this Bill?

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I agree. Generally, we should tread carefully when we seek to make major constitutional changes. It may well be that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is on the money and doing the right thing and that it all makes perfect sense. I am just not convinced that we have considered all the implications or sufficiently understood how complicated it could all be to deliver. We should tread more carefully and not rush headlong into giving the issue further consideration in Committee. If the Government are true in coming forward with their own proposals, they can take their time.

The Bishop of Winchester was trenchant in his views about the impact that the measures would have on the constitution; he even questioned whether the position of the Crown as the head of the established Church might be affected. In his contribution to the debate, he quoted Lord Campbell of Alloway, who pointed out:

"There is the need, approached in part in the Statute of Westminster Act 1931, to maintain a uniform succession to the throne by ensuring that precisely the same rules govern that succession in each of the independent monarchies of which Her Majesty is Queen...any change in those rules would have to be precisely replicated in the law of each of...the...other Commonwealth countries". —[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 501.]

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman and the other people who excuse themselves for not advancing the Bill that if our fellow legislators in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the other states take their own initiative, as they can under the Statute of Westminster, there will be a breach with uniformity? They would in their own legislation have enacted the ending of primogeniture and the discrimination against Catholics, and there would then be a problem when the next succession came. I hope that they do it.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is again tempting me down a line of ifs and hypotheticals. I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you would not want me to go through such a list again.

I wonder how important the change is that we are discussing. We have been given the idea, partly from what has been in the Daily Mail, that this is essential stuff that goes to the heart of everything, but I wonder whether that is slightly over-egging the pudding.

In the debate in the House of Lords, Lord Falconer referred to the discriminatory aspect of the Act, but then said that

"we should be clear that for all practical purposes, its effects are limited."

He went on to say:

"There are 22 members of the Royal Family in line of succession after the Prince of Wales, all of whom are eligible to succeed and have been unaffected by the Act of Settlement. Only four living members of the Royal Family can be said to have been affected by the Act, but they come after the 22nd person in line to the throne. Therefore, to claim that the Act has a discriminatory impact is to ignore the improbability that any of those members of the Royal Family could, in practice, have succeeded."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 511.]

He makes the point well—this is not rampant discrimination, but what one might call indirect discrimination, to put it at its strongest.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

I am extremely grateful to the hon.—and flattering— Gentleman for giving way again. In speaking of the January 2005 debate in the other House, he prayed in aid the Lord Bishop of Winchester, who was roundly rebutted by the Lord Bishop of Worcester, who said:

"Because some of our forebears resisted small but significant and symbolically important changes when they became necessary, all sorts of revolutionary ideas started to gain currency".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 502.]

Does that comment resonate at all with him?

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I am not here to speak up for the Church of England, and it is not for me to interfere in its strife. It appears that the Bishop of Winchester and the Bishop of Worcester have differing views, so the best thing would be for them to sort it out between themselves without the need for me to referee.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

That would give the hon. Gentleman even more time to go through his concerns about the Bishop of Winchester, and I do not want to go down that route.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North appropriately mentioned Rev. Ian Paisley. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon suggested that we were out on a limb compared with other countries in Europe in the way we deal with these things. To me, that is a good thing. If only we were out on a limb regarding the European Union completely, I would be a happy man. The speech by the right hon. Member for North Antrim indicates that we may not be quite as far out on a limb as was suggested. Other countries have their own peculiar requirements as to who can succeed to the throne. Although they may not be of exactly the same nature as those that we have in this country, they could be construed as equally discriminatory, particularly indirectly. The hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned Spain, where a successor has to be a member of a particular family who all happen to be Roman Catholics. One can argue whether that makes that system discriminatory as well. The argument that we are doing something horrible, shocking and discriminatory in this country while the rest of Europe is completely pure on these matters deserves a great deal of scrutiny. The right hon. Member for North Antrim made that point rather more impressively than I ever could when he spoke in the debate in 2001.

The question is whether this measure is necessary; I am not entirely sure that it is. I can see that it is an issue that will exercise the minds of many people across the country, and I am sure that it comes up regularly in university debating societies. Such a motion might well come up for debate at Lib Dem conferences, along with debates on creating a republic, abolishing drug laws and all the other things they go on about—

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, instead of referring to conferences and other arenas for discussion, will concentrate his remarks on the Bill before the House.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

As always, Madam Deputy Speaker, you are entirely right. I was tempting myself down a path that I should not have gone down, and I apologise.

The relevant point is that this may be a matter of great interest to academics and to people in debating societies, but the vast majority of people in this country are worried about losing their jobs and homes and about rising crime levels, and I wonder whether this issue is at the top of their list of concerns. How important is it to the nation as a whole? I suspect that most people in the country would think that this is unnecessary stuff. They may even mildly support the Bill, if they were to hear all its provisions, but they would not think it one of the most important matters for the Government to legislate on.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and he echoes a point that I made. He has drawn attention to the fact that the Bill is rather reductive. To expand his point, does he agree that if one wished to see a wider blossoming of alternative religions in the establishment of the royal family, the example that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has given, by talking about being a defender of faiths and opening things up in a positive way, would be—

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must be concise in his interventions.

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Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, Labour)

I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does Philip Davies agree that the Bill's approach would be somewhat reductive, and if we wish to deal with the religious issue, we should do so de novo, and consider it in a much broader way?

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

I accept the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said. I am not sure that I would particularly agree with all the detail. This matter is not of major concern to most people in the country, or to most of my constituents in Shipley. It would be fair to say that none of my constituents has raised this issue with me, either by post or e-mail, or even on the doorstep. It is not the first thing that comes to people's minds when I ask them what they are concerned about. We ought to bear that in mind when we decide how we should legislate.

I am not sure that the full implications of the Bill have been debated, and I come now to the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which everybody seems to accept, on the nod, should be repealed. It is worth pointing out the other side of the argument, whether one accepts it or not. I mention in passing my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde who, like Lord Falconer, made an impressive speech when this matter was debated in the House of Lords. He said that he was not entirely convinced by the arguments of Lord Dubs and:

"It is true that modern Royal Dukes are not as raffish as the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Gloucester, who gave so much trouble in the 18th century, but I wonder whether there is not some sense in allowing Crown and Parliament to control those who can become the consort of a monarch."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 508.]

He accepted that that was an old-fashioned view, which, to my mind, does not necessarily make it a bad one. He went on to make the point that in Spain, those with a right of succession to the throne who marry against the prohibition of the King are excluded from succession to the Crown, as are their descendents. In Norway, only the King can give permission for a wedding of an heir, in dialogue with Parliament, and even in liberal Holland, anyone in the line of succession who marries without the permission of Parliament loses the right of succession.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The point is that there are arguments against the repeal of the 1772 Act. They may well not be persuasive to the hon. Member for Thurrock—I entirely accept that—but people are entitled to hear these arguments before they come to a view.

We all want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say, and I do not intend to delay the House any further. In conclusion, I understand the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and others. The points made about discrimination are, on a superficial level, perfectly clear and understandable, and nobody believes in such discrimination, so those points are well made. My point is twofold: is this really necessary? Is it something that the British public are so concerned about that they expect us to take urgent action? I am not convinced that it is. Is it something that should be taken forward through a private Member's Bill, or is it of a major constitutional nature, requiring a Bill from the Government of the day if it is to be taken any further? I tend to fall into the latter camp, despite the quality of the arguments made by those who have advanced the case for the Bill. I hope that the Secretary of State will indicate to the House that despite the headline-grabbing announcement in the Daily Mail, the Government will tread carefully before rushing down this route.

1:45 pm
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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I congratulate Dr. Harris on coming third in the ballot for private Members' Bills and securing the first slot in today's considerations. He is an assiduous parliamentarian and has made active use of the facilities that are available to Back Benchers of all parties to pursue causes in which they strongly believe. I share his views and have actively supported him on some of them and not on others, but that does not in any sense detract from the way in which he has seized the opportunities that are available to private Members to pursue particular points and shift Government policy.

It is something of a canard that, as is often implied, the House of Commons in particular has become less effective in holding the Executive to account in recent decades. As was spelled out in some detail in a Modernisation Committee report in the 2006-07 Session, the academic evidence shows that the House has become much more active and rebellious in holding Governments to account, and quite right too.

Mr. Michael Ryle, who was Clerk of Committees about 10 years ago, wrote an interesting treatise in which he commented that the alleged golden age of the '50s and '60s was actually a period when the House was effectively asleep. There was not a single rebellion by Government Back Benchers between 1951 and 1955. The work of Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham university illustrates that in the past dozen years we have had one of the most so-called "rebellious" Government parties. I do not resent that in the least, because I happen to believe that while Ministers are here to propose, it is for Parliament, and above all this House, to dispose.

I also believe that Governments damage themselves—we have avoided doing so—if they enter into the conceit of believing that what they and their officials have dreamed up in their Departments is the last word. I have had some uncomfortable times at the Dispatch Box in trying to persuade colleagues of the rightness of my view or sometimes, less uncomfortably, in accepting that they were right and I was wrong. I am on record as saying that not a single one of the quite large number of Bills that I have sponsored in the past dozen years has not been improved by the parliamentary process.

Mr. Bellingham had a bit of sport about the Prime Minister's comments overnight on his trip to Brazil and Chile, and suggested that they were the result of some dastardly plot. As a matter of fact, they were not. They were a consequence of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon bringing the Bill before the House and the fact that the Prime Minister, as ever with Prime Ministers of either party, travels with a party of journalists.

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Alistair Burt (Assistant Chief Whip, Whips; North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

And talks to them about private Members' Bills.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman used to be the Member for Bury, North until he lost his seat, but now represents somewhere else.

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Alistair Burt (Assistant Chief Whip, Whips; North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

Bedfordshire.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Bedfordshire. He was one of the many who fled south and east during the chicken run of the mid—

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Alistair Burt (Assistant Chief Whip, Whips; North East Bedfordshire, Conservative)

I lost my seat.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. Perhaps rather than indirect references, we can have a continuation of the Secretary of State's contribution on the Bill and the discussion that has taken place.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman met the fate of most chickens, but luckily for him—and for the Commons; I am very fond of him—he was resurrected in a different incarnation.

Let me therefore dismiss the gratuitous comments of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk about the Government's actions. The assiduity of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and journalists' interest meant that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was bound to be asked about the matter.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk apologised for the absence of Mr. Grieve, the shadow Justice Secretary. I, too, apologise, because it is entirely my responsibility. I gave him information that was correct at the time, but changed overnight, about whether I was going to be here. I hope that he accepts that.

Several hon. Members have asked what will happen if the House accepts, as I invite it to do, that the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for making change of such a scale. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we take the issue seriously, and we accept that at the heart of the measures that we are considering, there is discrimination, which should have no place in a modern society. On the radio this morning, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

"This is a very complex issue that has been a matter of controversy and discussion for decades, indeed over centuries. What we must do is protect the position of the monarchy, and what we've got to do is to protect the position of the Queen as head of the established Church, the Church of England. So nothing we must do must affect that. But there are clearly issues about the exclusion of people from the rights of succession, and there are clearly issues that have got to be dealt with, not just in Britain, but would have to be dealt with across the whole of the Commonwealth. So this is not an easy set of answers, but I think in the 21st century people do expect discrimination to be removed, and they do expect us to be looking at all these issues."

I shall deal with the Statute of Westminster shortly, but my right hon. Friend also said that he was ready to consult other relevant Commonwealth Heads of Government, not least at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting later this year.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and for responding to the debate—I was not aware that he was going to do that. Which of the Prime Minister's points move the Government's position in any way from their position a year ago, two years ago or indeed 12 years ago? I understand that the Government always believed that the discrimination that the Bill would remove was wrong, that the issues were serious and that they affected the Commonwealth. What is the exact change of position that the Prime Minister's remarks denote?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The priority that the Prime Minister said that the Government would give the matter. No one in the Chamber, let alone outside, would suggest that the matter should have overwhelming priority. The Government are preoccupied not only with the economy, as we are at good times as well as at difficult times, such as the current times, but with bread-and-butter issues that affect the day-to-day lives of our constituents. However, we are considering an important constitutional issue and it is important that our constitution, which determines not only the balance of power, but many of the values that inform how our society should operate, is brought up to date. If there is clear discrimination, we should deal with that.

Let me just say that I was not intending to be here; I would not have been but for the results of the hon. Gentleman's assiduity—I have already paid him some compliments about that. Sometimes people in his position are fortunate and something gels in the minds of, say, the journalists. The fact that he has managed to achieve a considerable degree of prominence for the Bill is the reason why I am here. I make no pretence about that. This has been a really interesting debate and it has been good for me—it is the first such debate that I have sat through in the past 12 years. I happen to have governmental responsibility for the issue, and the debate has also informed my thinking.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

On the Commonwealth question, it is generally accepted that the issue is one not for the whole Commonwealth, but for the 15 other countries that have the Queen as Head of State. Can the Justice Secretary tell the House whether any approach about the issue has been made to the other Heads of Government in the Commonwealth countries affected since Labour came to office 12 years ago, and if so how far has that got?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that quite a considerable part of relations with other states is confidential. Let me put it this way: we have not been unaware of the views of the Heads of Government of relevant countries, but I will deal with the Statute of Westminster in a moment.

I want to put on record two things, the first of which is this Government's commitment to the elimination of discrimination. That is something about which I, and everybody on the Labour Benches, feel passionately. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon applauded this Government's work over the past 12 years in removing discrimination in one area after another. He said, however, that he thought that perhaps the period when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary in the '60s was a period that was even more radical, because of the inherent difficulty of dealing with some of those issues at the time. I am not going to have a competition over the benefits of one Labour Government as against those of another Labour Government. It is, however, a fact that only Labour Governments have ever introduced any legislation to root out discrimination in any area of our public life.

Some of us remember the Smethwick election in 1964. My right hon. Friend Mr. Spellar, who now sits for that former constituency, knows of the searing pain that was caused by the words used in that election by the Conservative candidate, who later became the Member of Parliament, which were so disgusting that I shall not repeat them in the House. At the time, those on the Conservative Benches said that there was no need to legislate, because people should be free to express whatever views they wanted. I remember at that time seeing notices in windows on the sides of lodging houses in London saying, "No blacks, no Irish, no dogs". That was very straightforward discrimination. Those desperate insults and worse were allowed in the interests of freedom of speech.

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Henry Bellingham (Shadow Minister, Justice; North West Norfolk, Conservative)

The Lord Chancellor is going back into distant history, but I take grave exception to what he said about the previous Conservative Government, who were pre-eminent in removing any discrimination against disabled people. Indeed, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague was Minister for Disabled People at the time and he did a superb job, helped by my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, who was a junior Minister in the responsible Department. They worked very hard indeed to remove discrimination against disabled people. The right hon. Gentleman should accept that and ensure that it is on the record.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's comments are certainly on the record now. I have allowed that, but may I suggest that we get back to the elements of discrimination in the Bill?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I simply make the point that in one area after another—whether it be on race, religion or gender discrimination, and not least in respect of people's sexuality, on which the Conservative Government, through section 28, moved discrimination up a notch, rather than back—it is our record that is second to none.

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Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative)

The Bill relates to gender discrimination. That is what we are on about. The Secretary of State is slightly on his high horse, if I might say so, about what the Government have been doing. This Government introduced all-women shortlists. That is clear gender discrimination. They have introduced discrimination.

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. I brought the hon. Gentleman to order before on that point.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman should speak more often. I look forward to his attributes and his merits being better recognised by the leader of the Conservative party and to his becoming a Front Bencher. We are going to win the next election anyway, but the more the public hear him the more we are likely to win by an even bigger margin. The point about all-women shortlists—

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Sylvia Heal (Deputy Speaker)

Order. We cannot stray into the subject of all-women shortlists. Can we please concentrate on the content of the Bill?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The Bill is about gender discrimination, but it is also about serious discrimination against members of the Catholic Church. I am an Anglican. I was brought up in that tradition and I am a communicating Anglican today. I never had to suffer the sense of pain that was referred to by my hon. Friend Stephen Pound when he described what it has felt like to come from the Catholic tradition and to be a Catholic in our society. That point was first brought home to me at university. Graduation day at Leeds university in 1967 happened to be on 12 July. For me, that was just another day in July. All our parents were coming up to see how some of us had managed to overcome, at least in part, the other distractions at university and had got ourselves degrees. I asked my friend when his parents were going to come, and he said, "I'm afraid my father's not coming." I think his mother had passed away. I said, "But they only live in Liverpool. My mother lives in the south. Where is your father?" "My father is an Orangeman," he said. He went on, "My father—I agree with him—regards it as more important that he should parade through Liverpool to assert the Protestant supremacy than that he should come and see me receive my degree." That is absolutely shocking, yet that was not in Northern Ireland, but in England. It illustrates the extent of the divide that was still there in our society even 40 years ago.

In the old days, when I first came in to this House—they seem very recent to me, but they are not to many other people—if one wanted to introduce a ten-minute Bill, one was not sorted out conveniently by the Whips. In those days, one had to be the first Member through a door on the upper Clerks corridor, on the third floor above here, at 10 o'clock in the morning. That meant that one had to be the first person in that room in 5 o'clock in the morning—

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Indeed, or earlier. The hon. Gentleman will recollect that, because on one occasion he got there before me and on another I got there before him.

In 1979, I found someone else in that room when I went to try to introduce my Bill on police authorities' powers, which would have introduced measures partially to democratise police authorities that I was able to introduce in 1997. Having failed on one occasion, I arrived to find no one else in that wretched room and settled down for four hours, glued to the room, in order to get my ten-minute Bill slot. The room was full of copies of Hansard from 1861, so, faute de mieux, I started reading them. They were absolutely extraordinary. I opened that copy of Hansard on a page that contained debates about suppression and coercion in Ireland. One Member had the temerity to complain about the fact that whole villages were being torched in order to punish all the villagers for the fact that one of their number—and no more—might possibly have committed a crime against the state. What was so breathtaking was the fact that Front Benchers on both sides of the House were saying "That is absolutely right. Of course these villages should be torched. These people do not properly recognise who is in charge. They are potentially treacherous, traitors to the nation. What else can we do but suppress and coerce the Irish peasantry?" As must be clear to the House, I have never forgotten that.

One of the things we must remember is that what we are dealing with is a rich, highly complicated and highly divisive history: the history of our nation. It has been said that a nation without a history is like a man without a memory. We cannot escape from our history: it is part of us—or, as T. S. Eliot more intriguingly put it in the last of the "Four Quartets",

"A people without history

Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern

Of timeless moments."

What we are discussing today—this is for the benefit of those who take an interest, as I think all of us in the House do, in how we come to be here, and what has moulded this extraordinary and great nation of the United Kingdom—is the consequences of two centuries, the 16th and especially the 17th, of great conflict, in which much blood was shed. We had a civil war in which one in 10 males in England is estimated to have been killed, and in which families were divided. Even that did not lead to any kind of settlement until almost exactly 40 years after Charles I lost his head—an event that my hon. Friend Mr. Slaughter described as one of the greatest moments in history, involving a man whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North described as the martyred king.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Of course—on that point.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Actually, off that point. I am loth to interrupt the Secretary of State, but his recalling of the long history of oppression of certain religious minorities, in this case Catholic, combined with the list of the discriminations that he—with the support of those on these Benches—has rightly got rid of, contrasts starkly with the forgotten few people whose interests in not being discriminated against have been left behind over two centuries and over 12 years. I merely ask the Secretary of State—because time is limited—whether he would be willing to put our minds at rest by specifying a timetable for his, and the Government's, implementation of a measure that is designed to rid us of that remaining discrimination.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I am afraid that I am not ready to specify a precise timetable. I can say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that as a result of the pressure that he has exerted by means of the Bill and other concerns that have been expressed, as it were, on both sides of the confessional spectrum—not least in Scotland—this is now a higher priority for Government than it has been. That, rightly, is how the parliamentary process operates.

Before I deal with some of the absolutely central issues, let me respond briefly to a few of the points that have been made today.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North, Labour)

My right hon. Friend will, of course, be as familiar as I am with the current edition of The Catholic Herald, in which Dr. Harris describes himself as

"not exactly the pin-up boy for Catholics".

I am not implying that many of us are pin-up boys for anyone. However, my right hon. Friend would be a pin-up boy for all true democrats and all people who believe in equality and fairness if he were to continue in this vein, and give an indication of tangible support for this excellent Bill.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I have already said that no one could argue with the principle—and no one has done so today, not even Philip Davies, who entertained us by declaring that he is against discrimination, especially positive discrimination, which is a means of ending discrimination. He also managed to get his apparent wish for us to leave the European Union into the debate. Please do not worry, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I shall now immediately return to the subject of the Bill.

My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay talked about complexity. The complexity is to do with not the drafting of the measures—that will be lengthy and detailed—but with their potential implications and inadvertent consequences. My hon. Friend said we could have a disaster if we do not address this issue. I do not think that is likely. I accept that we need to resolve this, but we can do so steadily, given who is actually in the line of succession and the fact that, at most, we might face the very distant eventuality of a crisis.

I apologise to Mr. Leigh for having heard only the opening part of his speech, but I have been given a good note of what he said. [Interruption.] I am sure it was a very good speech—the note is certainly very good, and I shall read the speech in Hansard tomorrow. I understand that he said that the Roman Catholic Church requirement for families to be brought up as Catholic in marriages between someone of the Catholic faith and someone not of that denomination had been much relaxed in recent decades. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock says, "Totally." That is one necessary consideration, but there are others, and although none of them is insuperable, they must be thought through. It is still the case, for instance, that those who are in the Catholic Church are told that they are not in communion with the Anglican Church—although I have seen that. The reverse is also the case: according to the Catholic Church, it is not possible for me as an Anglican to take holy communion in a Catholic church. That would also need to be sorted out.

In 1972, there was a change in the arrangements inside the Church of England: the Church of England's admission to holy communion measures allow baptised persons who are communicant members of other Churches, and who are of good standing in their own Church, to be admitted to holy communion in Church of England churches. That means, to my certain witness, that Methodists and Congregationalists, and Church of Scotland and Baptist members, can take holy communion, and there is no direct prohibition within the Church of England of members of the Roman Church taking holy communion, but that is not directly reciprocated. I understand why; it is a matter of profound history for both Churches, but that is something we would have to talk about.

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Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock, Labour)

With the greatest respect, I think that, on the details, the Secretary of State is wrong. I do not want to labour this matter, but I know of Church of England vicars who have been given communion in a Roman Catholic church and Catholic Church members who have received communion in the Church of England. That is a matter of fact, and it is happening all the time. The question, however, is this: what has this got to do with the Bill? With the greatest respect, the question of intercommunication or lack of it, and of what might be anyone's belief about communion, has got nothing at all to do with the Bill, and I challenge the Secretary of State to tell us how it has.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I was going to come to that.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and others say that this Bill is not intended to disturb the position of the sovereign—the King or the Queen—as head, or supreme governor, of the Church, in ecclesiastical matters as well as in temporal matters. I fully accept that that is the hon. Gentleman's intention in moving his Bill. The law at present does not prohibit someone who is in communion with the Church of England but who is not a confirmed Anglican from being head of the Church, because they would then be in communion with the Church. The difficulty—this is one of the complexities of what he proposes—is that he has not thought through sufficiently the potential consequences of his proposals for the sovereign's position as head of the Church, and this matter needs to be thought about very carefully. The monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England, and Catholics, under the laws of their Church—this is the point—cannot enter into communion with the Church of England. Thus, there would be the anomalous position where if there were a supreme governor, a monarch succeeding to the throne, who was a member of the Roman Catholic Church —[Interruption.] I understand the point, but we need to think things through a little, because the Bill proposes to allow members of the Catholic Church to be in the line of succession and one of the issues that we must—

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

I think that the Secretary of State has indicated in those remarks that he has not read the Bill, because it is not about whether Catholics should be in the line of succession—it is about who can marry into the line of succession—and it leaves completely untouched the requirement that those in the line of succession and those inheriting the throne need to be in communion with the Church of England. That is why those of us who listened to his recent remarks have found it very difficult to understand their relevance. What tangible things can he bring, other than the notion of a higher priority, to achieving the ending of this discrimination?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I am sorry, but I suggest that what I have said could be one of the consequences, and I certainly believe that this must be thought through much more carefully than the hon. Gentleman believes. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spelt out the great importance of not disturbing, inadvertently, the position of the Church of England—it is the established Church in this country. We have always taken the position, which I believe is widely shared across the parties, that the issue of the establishment of the Church of England has to be a matter for the Church to initiate and not for this House—although we could, of course, initiate it. I am a member of the established Church, and I am comfortable with that. One of the truths about the Church of England is that because it is established, it represents not only its own particular faith, but every kind of faith. It is significant that, as far as I am aware, no pressure at all for disestablishment has come from the Roman Catholic Church, the non-conformist Churches or other faiths.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

This is really important business, but the Justice Secretary has not yet given us an explanation of why any of these arguments have differed over the past 12 years and why therefore there is a bigger problem. More importantly, everybody in Britain now understands that when somebody of one faith or denomination marries somebody of another, that, in no way, changes their allegiance to their denomination or faith. The proposal is that the monarch has to retain, constitutionally, the allegiance to the established Church in this country, but their partner—their spouse—need not. Nobody, in this modern age, thinks that this is a problem; it happens in marriages, royal or otherwise, in this country and around the world, all the time.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the many values of today's debate has been to clarify that and to clarify the intention, because the process of debate today has to produce a better consensus on what we could change and what we must leave untouched than was there before.

May I move on to deal, in the time available to me, with the issue of gender discrimination? The discrimination against members of the Roman Catholic Church is, as I think we would all accept, the most offensive part of the current arrangements. There is an issue about quite how far the two things impact on each other, but because the Bill is bound to have some impact on and consequences for the established Church, it needs to be thought through in some detail. Gender discrimination is a much more straightforward matter to deal with, and that is the position of the Government. Interestingly, however, the change in the rule would have less practical effect—in terms of number, although not for the individuals involved—than might be imagined. In the current line of succession, five out of the first 12 are women. If we change the rules to achieve equality between the sexes, as proposed—or absolute primogeniture, as it is called—five out of the first 12 would still be women, exactly the same number.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

The order would be different.

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

Of course, but the same five would be reshuffled. The first three on the list would be unchanged—the Prince of Wales, Prince William, and Prince Henry. Fourth is the Duke of York and fifth and sixth are Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. Under absolute primogeniture, fourth would be Princess Anne, followed by Mr. Peter Phillips and Miss Zara Phillips. The case for change is strong, but the practical effect, given that the top three all happen to be men, is likely to be limited.

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Evan Harris (Oxford West and Abingdon, Liberal Democrat)

Another benefit of the Bill would be that Peter Phillips could marry someone with whom he fell in love without that person feeling that they needed to change their religion in order to retain his place in the succession. One wonders how many other people's private lives or religious allegiances have been affected by the fact that this change has still not yet been made.

I know that the Secretary of State has only eight more minutes to occupy, but I would like to ask him—for the third time now, and with due respect for his sincerity—what tangible proposals the Government have to implement the higher priority that no less a person than the Prime Minister, taking time out of a busy trip, made clear that he had given this issue?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I do not want to give a precise time scale this afternoon, least of all one that, for other reasons, might not be fulfilled. However, it is an issue that we will pursue; that includes discussions with Commonwealth Governments.

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Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)

I understand that the Secretary of State will not give a precise timetable, but is there any chance of having a Government Bill before the general election in a year's time?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

The chances are very limited. One should never say never, but there is a lot to do.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, in what was, with respect, the weakest part of his speech, that we would have to consult—I think that that was the verb he used, and it was certainly used by Mr. John Humphrys on the "Today" programme this morning—the Heads of Government of the relevant Commonwealth realms. Indeed, clause 4(2) states:

"No order may be made under this section unless the Secretary of State has consulted the government of every Commonwealth country on the provisions of this Act."

The idea is that we pass the Bill and then we find out what Commonwealth Heads of Government think about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock comprehensively answered that point by pointing out that the Swedish Government had taken that approach, with unacceptable results as far as the Swedish royal family were concerned.

The Commonwealth is no longer the empire, or even the British Commonwealth: it is the Commonwealth and all its members are equal. The members of the Commonwealth would be right to be offended if, contrary to the clear statement in the Statute of Westminster 1931, we were to bounce them into a take-it-or-leave-it position, which had already become the law. The preamble to the Statute of Westminster states that any changes touching on

"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"—

now the Commonwealth countries—

"as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom."

There is a slightly arcane argument about whether, as the preamble to the statute, that statement has legal force—I shall not offer a view, because preambles to modern statutes are unusual—but it plainly has huge moral force. No serious British Government of any complexion could ignore part of a solemn compact with, originally, the dominions and now the Commonwealth.

The recent judgment in the Superior Court of Ontario of Mr. Justice Roleau, in the case of O'Donohue v. Canada, also made it clear that the arrangements have to be symmetrical between one member of the Commonwealth and another. In his judgment, the learned judge said:

"The office of the Queen is such a fundamental part of our constitutional structure that amendments to the Constitution...require the unanimous consent of the federal and provincial governments".

He continued:

"Applying that reasoning to the present case, it is clear that Canada's structure as a constitutional monarchy and the principle of sharing the British monarch are fundamental to our constitutional framework. In light of the preamble's"

—that to the Statute of Westminster—

"clear statement that we are to share the Crown with the United Kingdom, it is axiomatic that the rules of succession for the monarchy must be shared and be in symmetry with those of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries. One cannot accept the monarch but reject the legitimacy or legality of the rules by which this monarch is selected."

He went on to say that

"if symmetry...were to be maintained, any changes to the rules of succession would have to be agreed to by all members of the Commonwealth."

That is the position set out by legal authorities in Canada, and it has to be the position followed by any Government.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

If the Secretary of State is not willing today to let the Bill go to Committee, so that an amendment could be tabled providing for that procedure, will he undertake that, as soon as the G20 meeting is out of the way—obviously, that is the priority—he will speak to the Prime Minister to initiate the process, so that the Commonwealth conference this autumn could be the conclusion and the agreement, rather than the start of, the discussion?

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Jack Straw (Lord Chancellor, Ministry of Justice; Blackburn, Labour)

I shall certainly ensure that soundings are taken among Commonwealth Heads of Government and talk to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the outcome of today's debate, which has been very interesting and informative, not least to me. I genuinely mean that. Normally when one spends five hours in this Chamber, one learns something—in fact, I have never spent five minutes in this Chamber without learning something—and I have done so today.

However, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. Almost every Commonwealth country, and certainly the older ones—two being Canada and Australia, which are parts of the realm—have faced precisely the same tensions between people of the Anglican faith or the Protestant faiths and people of the Catholic faith. Famously, in Australia, where the establishment of the country was Anglican, there were huge tensions involving those of Irish heritage. In Canada, the tension continues between those of British heritage and those of French heritage, and there is the potential for conflict—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 16 October.