Equality: Act of Settlement — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:09 pm on 10 January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 3:09, 10 January 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any proposals to amend the Act of Settlement to afford equal rights to the Throne for daughters of the Sovereign and Roman Catholics.

Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as a country, we oppose discrimination on grounds of gender or religion? It is curious, to say the least, that we allow such discrimination to continue in the succession to the Throne. Does he also agree that, given that there is a bar on Roman Catholics, it is odd that there is no bar against Jews, Muslims, Hindus or even atheists? Does he further agree that the matter is of some urgency? If His Royal Highness Prince William and his bride have children, it would be invidious to change the arrangements then. The time to do it is surely now.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I might agree with many of the propositions that the noble Lord has put forward, but as the previous Administration recognised, we are dealing with Acts of Parliament that govern not only us but a number of countries where the Queen is Head of State. For that reason, we have been proceeding with extreme caution.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the central provision for the establishment of the Church of England is that the Sovereign, as Supreme Governor, should join in communion with that church? Does the Minister agree that, unless the Roman Catholic Church is prepared to soften its rules on its members' involvement with the Church of England, whose orders it regards as null and void, it is hard to see how the Act of Settlement can be changed without paving the way for disestablishment, which, though it might be welcome to some, would be of great concern to many and not just to Anglicans or, indeed, to other Christians?

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, shortly after joining this House more than 10 years ago, I introduced a Private Member's Bill that was torpedoed very effectively by my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley and which sought to prevent the heir to the Throne marrying a Roman Catholic? The then Government used exactly the same argument, saying that it required countries in which the Queen is Head of State to pass legislation and that they would take the matter forward. It is more than 10 years since that commitment was made. What progress was made and what was done?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, first, I welcome the noble Lord down from his mountain in Antarctica. Messages from the mountain top are always welcome. We are talking about an Act that is 300 years old and that has served this country not too badly when one considers the 60 years of religious and communal strife that went before it. Therefore, although 10 years seems a long time, there have been consultations. I thought that, at least in this House, talking of progress in terms of centuries would be much appreciated. As is known, the previous Administration initiated discussions among Commonwealth countries. Those discussions are proceeding under the chairmanship of the New Zealand Government and we will continue to keep the matter under consideration.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

My Lords, I share almost totally the views of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I was very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, just told us: that there were apparently discussions with the various countries that recognise the Queen as their Monarch. Can he tell us when the last meeting of those countries was and when the next meeting is going to be, and perhaps give us a gentle glimpse of the agenda?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I never cease to be amazed at the penetrating way in which the Opposition demand action this day on matters it sat on for 13 years. I have told the noble Lord that the discussions I referred to have not ended; they are ongoing. I shall consult the New Zealand Government, and if they are in a position to let me have that information I shall write to the noble Lord.

Photo of Lord St John of Fawsley Lord St John of Fawsley Conservative

Perhaps I may ask noble Lords whether they agree that in principle one must support what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, and that one must favour equality for women. As Disraeli said, "I owe everything to women". I hope that they will remember that at the Garrick. Heaping a coal scuttle of fire on the head of the right reverend Prelate, I say that I hope that we can have an assurance from the Government that they have no intention of excluding or reducing the representation in this House of the Bishops of the Church of England, because it is the national church of the country and that would send entirely the wrong signal from this House.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

That is a matter for another day and another debate. I will settle on the statement made by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who said that the Act of Settlement was,

"discriminatory. I think it will disappear, but I don't want to cause a great fuss".

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, is it not the case that Section 1 of the Act of Settlement 1701 does not specifically proscribe any member of the Catholic faith from succeeding to the Crown? Rather, the wording is that the Crown shall devolve upon:

"The most excellent Princess Sophia Electress"- who was the mother of George I-

"and the heirs of her body".

The words "being Protestant" were then added.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest as someone who was born and baptised a Roman Catholic. However, noble Lords will be gratified to know that I have no ambitions at present to succeed to the Throne. Does the Minister not recognise that it is not only an offensive but an anachronistic symbol of division, discrimination and inequality in an age when we are trying to inculcate the opposite in every other aspect of society? If it were sufficient grounds for retaining a law that it had been around for 300 years, we would still be hanging people for stealing sheep and jailing children for stealing bread. Will the Minister make his advice known privately through the Privy Council and government channels that this set of values is incompatible with modern Britain? Before he asks whether I did the same when I was in government, the answer is yes.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

In response to the noble Lord's introductory remarks, I say that that makes two of us. I also appreciate that some of these matters perhaps cause greater problems in Scotland than elsewhere. I have said, and I think that it is accepted, that there are discussions with the Commonwealth countries. We are conscious that there are anachronisms in the Act, but we still advise the House of the wisdom of proceeding with caution.