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Mr. Slaughter: Well I do, yes. However, my period ends with the restoration. In a spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I prefer the settlement of 1649 to that of 1688. My cards are now on the table. I do not wish to spend a great deal of time on the history, and I would be stopped if I did, but it is important, and for
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this reason: it shows the distance that we have covered and the journey that we have made over the past three centuries and more.

I shall read out a brief paragraph about the Act of Settlement from the “Oxford History of England”. Discussing the passage of the Act that we now seek to repeal or amend, it says:

It goes on to mention that as a consequence of the passage of the Act of Settlement, and given that the legislature covered only England, Ireland and Wales at that time, Scotland, which still had its own independent legislature, resisted the matter

So some things do not change all that much over the years. The net effect of that rebellion in Edinburgh was the Act of Union in 1707 and the loss of Scottish political independence—a decisive moment in the creation of a unitary state in Britain.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend will have noticed that King James II, a Roman Catholic, was supreme governor of the Church of England at that time. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why the voice of Catholicism was so quiet in the House of Commons was that Catholics were not allowed in?

Mr. Slaughter: As always, my hon. Friend has a point and makes it well. What I do not know is who the one MP who objected was; more research will be needed to dig that up. Lest my hon. Friend impugn my motives, I should say that this all shows how far we have moved. This is a piece of pure history, and many of the statutes to which we have referred today are matters of pure history. I do not want to quote too much of the language; it has already been quoted this morning, and it is highly offensive. If it were used about any minority group, religion or race in statutes today, it would be considered beyond the pale—to use a slightly unfortunate allusion. However, it was the language of the time. However much we may want to carry on the Government’s admirable history of opposing discrimination and legislating to do so, we cannot on a Friday morning unravel the whole of British constitutional history.

Stephen Pound: When Thomas Arne wrote the national anthem in 1745, he wrote three verses that are seldom sung; one of them rhymes “Catholics” with “knavish tricks”. Some of it is extremely offensive. Those verses are not sung now—they have fallen into desuetude—but they should be removed from our national anthem. The fact that they are not observed does not make them any less real. Does my hon. Friend not feel that we need to tidy up this whole area, and that—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We should stick to the Bill before the House.

Mr. Slaughter: I am all in favour of replacing the national anthem with “Jerusalem”.

I am not as concerned about the number of statutes that would be amended or repealed as about their centrality. We are talking about the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Act of Union. Without proper constitutional consideration, we trespass on those at our peril. Despite the excellent steps that the Government have taken on constitutional reform, these have not been without difficulty—one need only look at the problems that have arisen in ridding the House of Lords of hereditary peers.

Dr. Evan Harris: Clause 2(2) would amend the Bill of Rights, which the hon. Gentleman feels is an example of something that would bring down the constitutional house. It says:

He says that those words are offensive, but they would not bring down any constitutional house but merely take out the offensive bits of the existing legislation. His point about its being a radical excision is not justified.

Mr. Slaughter: Let me make two points in response to that. First, there is much in the Act of Settlement—I will refer to that rather than to the Bill of Rights—that we would now find either otiose or offensive. Some years ago, The Guardian launched its own campaign to bring an action under the Human Rights Act to deal with this and other points. It highlighted the fact that the Act of Settlement says, in addition to the point to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention, that:

As soon as one begins to tinker with the constitutional framework—

Dr. Harris: On the Act of Settlement, the only proposal in the Bill is to take out the words,

None of the other things that the hon. Gentleman is talking about are in the Bill, so there is no basis for him to argue that it has the wider implications he states. There may be another Bill out there that would do that, but it is not this one. He should save that argument for when another Bill comes forward.

Mr. Slaughter: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is being slightly naive in saying that he can put forward this proposal without any ramifications or consequences. Yes, it is true that one can take an approach whereby one picks off one by one the offensive elements of Bills that one does not like, but surely it is far better, as the Prime Minister has indicated, to do it in a comprehensive and constitutional way.

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David Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what specific ramifications could result from taking out the words that my hon. Friend referred to?

Mr. Slaughter: I will come to that in a moment, but let my finish my point. Another provision in the Act of Settlement—that the monarch must not leave the country without the permission of Parliament—has been repealed, without any consequences. Last time the monarch declared war on Parliament, it was done from Nottingham—so that may not resolve the problem at hand. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is possible to take such steps; I am merely urging caution because the Bill would amend a number of fundamental Acts that are important to the constitutional integrity of this country.

Andrew Mackinlay: Just before my hon. Friend entered this House, we amended the provisions of the Bill of Rights of 1689 to accommodate the then hon. Member for Tatton, in order that he could pursue litigation in the courts that would otherwise have been subject to article 9 of the Bill of Rights. It is nonsense to suggest that we cannot tweak these things, because we have done so very recently in that respect.

Mr. Slaughter: If my hon. Friend has been listening, he will know that I am not saying that such things are impossible. This House can repeal whatever it wishes. I am urging caution because one may end up with unintended consequences if one takes such a piecemeal approach.

Actually, has this Bill not effectively already achieved its objective? The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), rather uncharitably, referred to the Prime Minister’s trip to South America. The hon. Gentleman may wish to reconsider that, and reflect on the fact that the Prime Minister’s spending so much time among Catholic Heads of State has brought this matter to the fore. I saw the Prime Minister being given what I can only describe as a cuddle by President Lula of Brazil in the newspaper this morning.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have difficulty seeing how that relates to the Bill. Could the hon. Gentleman concentrate on the contents of the Bill before the House?

Mr. Slaughter: I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Thank you for bringing me back to the second point that I was going to make in response to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon.

I feel strongly that, for the best of motives, hon. Members have glossed over what may be unintended consequences of the Bill, and there are three. I have already effectively dealt with the first by referring to a number of pieces of legislation that are important and fundamental. Although they are perhaps in need of comprehensive assessment and possibly repeal, they are nevertheless the building blocks of a constitution that is robust in its execution, but fragile in its construction, and which came about because of a series of historical events some 300 to 400 years ago. To go back to the words of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that I quoted earlier, there are implications of this Bill that go beyond the United Kingdom, which cannot be glossed over. Despite the fact that this is denied by the supporters of the Bill, there are also implications for the position of the Church of England.

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We heard quotations from Professor Blackburn, who largely supports the line taken by the supporters of the Bill, and who would pooh-pooh the arguments about complexity. He is entitled to that view, and we should respect his opinion, but with regard to the possible effects on the legislative status of the Church of England and the monarch as head of that institution, he says:

Stephen Pound: I do not want to accuse my hon. Friend of being disestablishmentarian, or even antidisestablishmentarian, but is he implying that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is introducing the Bill not as a measure of Catholic relief and equality for women, but as some cunning stalking horse, or Trojan horse, for the disestablishment of the Church of England?

Mr. Slaughter: I would never ascribe base or hidden motives to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, although I notice that he is currently secularist of the year.

Dr. Evan Harris: It is only fair to Professor Blackburn to point out that the link he made concerned a provision that affected the Protestant succession and disestablishment, not the religion of the spouse of the monarch. If my Bill talked about allowing Catholics to be on the throne, as it were, as the monarch, that might be a point for academic discourse. The Bill would not do that, however, so it does not follow that even a debate on disestablishment would be started by its provisions. They fall far short of that, and the hon. Gentleman should not quote an academic in support of an argument that I am not making, and that the academic has not made.

Mr. Slaughter: I know what the hon. Gentleman is doing—he is trying to get his Bill through, as he is entitled to do. He has tried to draw it up in such a way that it curves a path between rocks that would otherwise lure it to its end, but I fear that he has had difficulty in doing so. He has made a good effort, and as I have said, I support the principles of what he is trying to do about not only religious discrimination but sex discrimination. I have voted for every measure against that that has come before the House, which my constituents welcome. The argument is about proportionality and the suitability of using the process of the Bill to achieve that end, and I am perfectly entitled to make my points about that.

However, I am not decided, and sometimes in the course of making such decisions we find out whom we are in bed with and who supports and opposes a Bill. There have been eloquent and passionate arguments in support of the Bill and few against it, and I am not arguing against it on its merits.

Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend is making the entirely valid point that there may be unintended consequences and an unanticipated read-across. Heaven forfend that we have to grapple with the Princess Sophia’s Precedence
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Act 1711. Surely we employ some of the greatest brains in the nation in the form of parliamentary counsel, and surely they, if no other, are more than capable of advising and assisting on the eventual form of a Bill such as this in order to avoid any disastrous unintended consequence.

Mr. Slaughter: I understand the frustration that has brought this Bill and previous Bills to the House. I have been a Member for only a few short years, and I am sure that there are Members present who have been trying to make similar changes to legislation for a longer period. This is not the first time that the Government have said that they support such changes, and there appears to be unanimity among the three Front-Bench teams that those changes are necessary. I hoped that if it was not possible to deal with the matter in this Parliament, it would be sufficient for the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the Bill had engendered publicity and received support and interest from the Prime Minister downwards, but it is clearly not sufficient.

I shall try to give the hon. Gentleman some comfort by saying that in my admittedly brief search for opponents of the Bill—this may be one of the faults of internet searching—I came up with a rather eclectic group of people including the Bishop of Winchester, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the comedian David Mitchell, who has been referred to, and last but not least the editor of the Catholic Herald. That is perhaps an unusual coalition of forces, and I should perhaps explain my rationale slightly further. It is only reasonable that the arguments against the Bill are expressed as we give it a fair hearing, because on merit I think that they are so shallow that they will end up helping to support the endeavours of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon.

Stephen Pound: Could my hon. Friend help those of us who seem to be hearing in his words a new extension being built into the constitutional architecture, whereby legislation is no longer necessarily passed through this House but suggested here and echoed outside, and our role is simply to initiate it and stand back while forces outside carry it forward?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I think that our role this morning in this House is to discuss the Bill before us.

Mr. Slaughter: I shall have to reply outside the Chamber to my hon. Friend’s very interesting, almost theological point.

Stephen Pound: In the cafés of Shepherd’s Bush.

Mr. Slaughter: Indeed, in the café society of Shepherd’s Bush, where I can often be found.

I do not know whether the Bill’s promoter has read the previous debates on the matter, including that in the other place when Lord Dubs introduced such a measure. If the hon. Gentleman has done so, he will know that, unlike what is happening in this Chamber, some rather trenchant objections were made, including by the Bishop of Winchester, who claimed that it would separate the
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state from the Church of England and the Christian faith. I will not develop the bishop’s argument because I do not agree with it, but it is nevertheless interesting that the prelate could advance that argument despite being a substantial advocate of closer co-operation between the Anglican and Catholic Churches.

I mentioned the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who is not in her place, but she was quoted in the National Catholic Register last month as saying that the Bill is

An observation was made that the opposition may have more to with the Bill’s promoter than its content. However, I will not put words into the right hon. Lady’s mouth.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon misquoted David Mitchell when he referred to him earlier. I shall correct the quote for the record. Perhaps the article in question, which appeared in The Observer in January, when the Bill was presented, is slightly less than serious. Mr. Mitchell said:

he names the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon—

That is the quote.

Dr. Evan Harris: I did not misquote David Mitchell because I did not quote him—I paraphrased his argument. I do not know who was present earlier, but my point was not about making the monarchy fair, but about making our constitution fairer because that affects the people. I thought that the article was funny, but I believe that the argument was not strong, and the arguments of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) are so weak that she is not even here to present them. There is a poor group of arguments against the Bill and I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to support it.

Mr. Slaughter: I get closer with each of the hon. Gentleman’s interventions. Who knows—in a few short minutes, I may be completely on board. I am closer than I was half an hour ago.

However, Mr. Mitchell is entitled to his view. He has a column in The Observer and therefore a greater platform than us—I doubt whether more than half a dozen people are listening to us today. Mr. Mitchell’s point is:

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