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27 Mar 2009 : Column 591

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is the Act requiring the descendents of George I to seek the consent of the monarch before marrying, is outmoded and out of date.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 the hon. Member for Thurrock (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.

Andrew Mackinlay: 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.

Mr. Bellingham: 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.
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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 the hon. Member for Ealing, North (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—

Mr. Straw: 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?

Mr. Bellingham rose—

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

Mr. Bellingham: 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.

Dr. Evan Harris: Before the hon. Gentleman further talks down the Church of England—

Mr. Bellingham: It is my Church.

Dr. Harris: 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.

Mr. Bellingham: 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
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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.

Andrew Mackinlay: 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.

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It was only a matter of time.

Mr. Bellingham: 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.

Mr. Leigh: 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—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We do not want to move into the realm of commercials, either.

Mr. Bellingham: 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
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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

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): 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 the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (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.

Stephen Pound: The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (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?

Mr. Slaughter: 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
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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?

Andrew Mackinlay: Spellar’s come in!

Mr. Slaughter: I regard my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (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.

Lynne Featherstone: 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.

Mr. Slaughter: 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:

I shall say who he is in a moment—

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.

Andrew Mackinlay: 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.

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

Andrew Mackinlay: So is Keith O’Brien.

Mr. Slaughter: 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.

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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 the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who said:

Stephen Pound: 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.

Mr. Slaughter: 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—

Andrew Mackinlay: When?

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

Andrew Mackinlay: When?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Thurrock (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.

Mr. Slaughter: 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—

Stephen Pound: Yes you do.

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