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,
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.[ Official Report, 25 March 2008; Vol. 474, c. 27.]
to bring about changes to the law on succession would be a very complex undertaking; it would involve the amendment or appeal
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.
Philip Davies: 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 Sophias Precedence Act 1711, the Royal Marriages Act 1772, the Union with Ireland Act 1800, the Accession Declaration Act 1910 and the Regency Act 1937.
Dr. Harris: 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 Billeven though its amendments are very important.
The case is clear. The Bill is a competent vehicle to make the changes and it is the Governments 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 weeks MPs salary to a charity of his choice in Blackburnand, indeed, to a charity in Dewsbury.
Dr. Harris: 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 Ministersthey can argue among themselvesto give a weeks MPs 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.
Mr. Straw: 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?
Dr. Harris: 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 givethat they would solve the problems that I have been discussingis 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 Billand, if they feel that a private Members Bill is the wrong vehicle to go to Royal Assent, to take it over. Let us solve this problem once and for all.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (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 Bills 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 Bills intent with vigour? I shall explain why. I do not doubt that the Home Secretary and the Prime Ministerand, indeed, everyone on the Treasury Benchrecognises 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 pointI hope that the Lord Chancellor will seek to prove me wrongI 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 priestonce 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 conferencethat 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, whenI have read the debates many timesArchibald 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 involvedwhat 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. Youre not going to pass at Westminster legislation affecting my countrys Head of StateIll 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-Generalthe representative of the Kingand 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 farI intervened on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon about this earlierthe 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 Pandoras box, not just here in the United Kingdomperhaps least of all herebut in all the other countries
Mr. 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?
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.
Simon Hughes: 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?
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 ones 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 ladys qualities would never have been testedshe would never have become Head of Statehad there been a younger brother. But for that fact, she wouldI do not say this in any frivolous wayat 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 dont 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 marriageand that was the spinwe 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.