Human Rights Act 1998: The Monarchy

– in the House of Lords at 2:30 pm on 23rd March 2005.

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Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative 2:30 pm, 23rd March 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Human Rights Act 1998 alters existing legislation concerning primogeniture, the succession to the Crown and the prohibition on the Monarch marrying a Roman Catholic.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is it not clear that the discriminatory provisions in our statute law against—to use the word of the legislation—"Papists", or the descendants of the Electors of Hanover, or elder daughters, could not possibly be judged by any court to be compatible with the Human Rights Act precisely because they are so explicit? Is not the argument that has been used previously by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—that these provisions have only restricted application and therefore are not discriminatory— seriously weakened by recent events where the Government had to rush out a Statement at the last moment, drawing on the Human Rights Act, in order to sanction a Royal marriage that otherwise would have been impossible? Would it not be more satisfactory for the Government to anticipate future events?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord. There is a difference between applying the Human Rights Act to, for example, new legislation and applying it to that which is part of the backbone of our constitutional arrangements. The Government did not "rush out" anything. In looking at the Marriage Act 1949, the Government were very clear to engage Section 3 of the Human Rights Act, which provides that when looking at legislation that may have any ambiguity, one is conscious of the rights within the Human Rights Act—in this case, rights 12 and 14.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, is the noble Baroness saying that the Human Rights Act simply cannot apply to the Royal Family and the rules of the inheritance of the Throne? Or is she saying that it does not affect it in the sense that the present rules are compatible with the Human Rights Act?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am saying that the succession Act of 1701 is absolutely clear; there is no ambiguity in law about what is implied there. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to the way in which my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor had used the Human Rights Act in the interpretation of the Marriage Act 1949, where there might be some ambiguity. In this particular context, the succession Act is absolutely clear. Therefore it does not apply in that context.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if one were to use the Human Rights Act to repeal the discriminatory provisions clearly expressed in the Act of Settlement, it would undermine the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty? Does she further agree that it is very curious for Conservatives in the House to rely upon the Human Rights Act in the way which I think is suggested, but at the same time to suggest scrapping it, thereby leaving British citizens without British courts giving British remedies for British problems, leaving only the European Court of Human Rights—which I am sure many on the Conservative Benches would rather not hear about at all? Does the Minister agree that that is a very bizarre posture for the Conservatives to take?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, "bizarre" probably is the right word. As the noble Lord knows well, Parliament is not a public authority in the context of the Human Rights Act. However, I believe that the Human Rights Act is among the most important pieces of legislation that any government have introduced since the achievement of universal suffrage. It enshrines the notions of respect, equality and fairness and it protects some of the most vulnerable members of our society. I hope that all noble Lords would agree that that is of critical importance.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Alloway Lord Campbell of Alloway Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the Human Rights Act has nothing whatever to do with our constitutional arrangements affecting the succession to the Monarchy, and that if such were sought to be exercised we should immediately opt out?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the Human Rights Act says that there needs to be a victim in order to mount a challenge under it. As I can see no victim within this context, one could argue that it is not engaged in that way. Considering the benefits that the Human Rights Act brings to the citizens of this country, I can see absolutely no reason ever to opt out of it.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister nevertheless agree that to have a provision on our statute books that seems to challenge the loyalty of one specific section of the community in this country, one specific denomination, is itself something that should be addressed? The Prime Minister was right when he said at the beginning of the previous Parliament that this was an issue that he wanted to see addressed and changed. The Bill that has been introduced in another place by Mr Edward Leigh would be a welcome addition to our statute books. Will the Minister respond to that Bill?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to a debate on these very issues that took place not long ago in your Lordships' House, led by my noble friend Lord Dubs, and indeed to the contributions made by two right reverend Prelates about the critical importance of the role of the Sovereign in relation to the Church of England. I shall not take up your Lordships' time now, but I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that a cursory look at the Hansard record of that debate will demonstrate how important and, dare I say, difficult these issues are in ensuring that we continue in the way that we have since the Acts were introduced.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Spokespersons In the Lords, Home Affairs

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lamont referred to the Government anticipating future events. When introducing the Human Rights Act, did they anticipate that it might, for example, prevent schoolteachers having a dress code in schools; allow Travellers to ride roughshod over planning controls; or even lead to a state where the Government would effectively abolish habeas corpus?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, sometimes we do not always look at the issues that have been raised in quite the right way. To take the example of Travellers put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, it is very clear, as he knows well, that in 1994 the Conservative government overturned a very important rule which enabled Travellers to find settled sites. Any noble Lord who has looked at the issue of, for example, educational under-achievement will know that Traveller children have the lowest educational achievement of any group in our society. Finding ways in which all of our children and all of our communities can live together is very important. That is not putting one person's rights above another's; it is recognising all human rights and recognising the importance to our society of doing so. In each of the examples that the noble Lord gave, I could explain to him how important it is that we have this valuable Human Rights Act.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, I have no problem with ending the presumption that the male heir takes precedence to the Throne. That is a particular issue. On the apparent discrimination against the Roman Catholic Church, does the Minister join me in hoping that future ecumenical developments might ease these problems, given that at present the Church of England has no problem with the Sovereign being simultaneously a member of the Church of Scotland whenever she exercises her responsibilities north of the Border? Does she also join me in hoping that at some future date, ecumenical developments will ease some of the underlying problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has drawn attention?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I could not agree more with the right reverend Prelate that the ecumenical movement, with which I was involved in my teenage years in the north-west, is of critical importance. The work that has been done in Liverpool in the past 30 years in bringing together the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England has been extremely important, as it was in my youth. It is very important that we remember that we are a country of a variety of faiths and of a variety of denominations within faiths. The more that faiths can work together harmoniously, the more we will have the society for which we all strive.