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Andrew Mackinlay: 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 the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), which was that Catholics are facilitating all the rubrics, traditions and ceremonies of the monarchy and the Church of England.
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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.

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

Andrew Mackinlay: No, the Lord Chancellor.

Stephen Pound: 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.

Mr. Straw: I could.

Stephen Pound: 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
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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 the Member for Thurrock (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.

Dr. Evan Harris: 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:

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.

Stephen Pound: 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

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.

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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.

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

Stephen Pound: Of course.

Andrew Mackinlay: Is he trying to talk this Bill out?

Stephen Pound: 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.

Andrew Mackinlay: Yes. So would we.

Stephen Pound: 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,
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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

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (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,
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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:

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 the Member for Beaconsfield (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, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (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 the Member for Gainsborough (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.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not long ago I referred the case of Lady Louise and her brother to the Equality
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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.

Mr. Bellingham: 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 the Member for Arundel and South Downs (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 the Member for Gainsborough (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.

Andrew Mackinlay: 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.

Mr. Bellingham: 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.

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