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Clause 2 would remove religious discrimination and thus allow the monarch to marry a Catholic. The present constitution is, in this respect, patently absurd: the monarch or any heir to the throne can marry anyone of any religion or of none, other than a Catholic. That provision is clearly a relic of the 17th century and it should be removed. The message that it sends out is that a Catholic is a lesser being than someone of any other
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religion or someone of no religion, and that appalling sectarian message should have no place in modern society.

This Government, to their credit, have passed a great deal of legislation that removes discrimination from the country and implements a great deal of constitutional reform. They have set up a Parliament in Scotland, and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, and they have reformed the voting system for the European Parliament. They have removed discrimination in many walks of life, and I urge them to go one step further by removing the sectarian legislation that dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. It is obvious that the Government do not believe in discriminating against Catholics—that is self-evident—so why should they not simply demonstrate that today by giving this Bill a Second Reading and removing 300 years of discrimination against Catholics?

Step by step, over the past 200 years, the anti-Catholic legislation of the 17th century has been removed from our constitution. The only part remaining is discrimination against Catholics’ succeeding to the throne and against heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. The Government obviously do not believe in that discrimination. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has put forward a simple Bill that does not involve any complex issues such as the supreme governorship of the Church of England. This simple measure would send out an important signal to everyone in this country. I urge the Government to support the Bill today and give it a Second Reading.

1.9 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), who clearly feels strongly about this issue. He put his case very well, and with typical verve. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on introducing this Bill; whatever happens today, he has clearly achieved an awful lot in a short time, given the headline in today’s Daily Mail and the Government’s seizing on his Bill as a way of diverting attention from all the other difficulties in which the Prime Minister finds himself at the moment. I am sure that he did not design it with the aim of saving the Prime Minister’s skin, but it has taken us a fair way down the road to doing so.

The debate has been fascinating and informative. I have learned a lot, and it has been equally entertaining. We have heard some of the finest speakers in the House today. I do not wish to single out anybody in particular, but the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) are two of our finest orators, and it was a pleasure to witness their performances today. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) also made a good speech. Indeed, it has been very interesting to watch the unholy alliance—if I may call it that—between my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. It would be fair to say that, on 99.9 per cent. of Bills, they vehemently disagree with each other, but they have found common cause on this matter. It was also interesting to watch my hon. Friend struggle with the tragic conflict of loyalty between his understandable desire to end
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discrimination against Catholics and his long-standing support for tradition, in the face of this Bill, which is a challenge on both those fronts.

In many respects, this Bill is self-evidently sensible. I spend much of my time in this place trying to argue against gender discrimination, especially positive discrimination. It was music to my ears to hear people’s opposition to gender discrimination. It has been said that we should take it as read that nobody should believe in any form of gender discrimination. My enthusiasm and delight at hearing that were slightly tempered by the thought that many of those people who were saying that we should take it as read that we do not believe in gender discrimination are those who support all-women shortlists for parliamentary selection. If only we could take it as read that we are against gender discrimination, I would be far happier.

The Secretary of State said earlier that he had a proud record of standing against all forms of discrimination, and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute said that the Government had passed many measures to tackle discrimination in many walks of life. However, the Government’s track record in ending gender discrimination is not perfect, and if they really did believe in it they would end all-women shortlists.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could now concentrate his remarks on the Bill.

Philip Davies: I shall certainly do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was simply making the point that we cannot take it as read that gender discrimination—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman was making. I still think that he should now move on and discuss the contents of the Bill.

Philip Davies: I certainly intend to do so. The point has been well made during the debate that we have seen fine examples of women leading the country, whether it be Betty Boothroyd as Speaker, Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, or indeed the present Queen. In the debate in the House of Lords in 2005 on this issue, Lord Strathclyde made the point especially well when he said:

He went on to point out that the present system had given us Queens for 117 of the past 168 years. One might conclude that the Bill is therefore a solution looking for a problem.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am waiting with bated breath to hear whether the hon. Gentleman is for the Bill or against it. He has concentrated on the question of women who have demonstrated tremendous service and success in public life, and he referred to Her Majesty the Queen. Does he understand the point I made earlier that if George VI had had a younger son, the world would never have heard of, nor been able to enjoy the
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wonderful stewardship, counsel and leadership of Her Majesty the Queen? She would have been the Duchess of Edinburgh and no more.

Philip Davies: That is self-evidently true. There are a lot of ifs in British history, and I am sure that you do not want me to explore every one of them, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are where we are, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) said. Had we been starting from scratch, we probably would not have chosen to start from here, but here is where we are.

I often quote my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) at such times. He always says, in words that resonate with me, that to a conservative, if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Today’s argument, to me, is about whether it is necessary to change. To make the proposed change, the case for it has to be set out and we have to be wholly persuaded that it is needed. To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Thurrock, I am not yet convinced of the need for the Bill. I understand the motivations behind it, but I am not sure that we have explored fully all its implications.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon say that he supports the monarchy and that the Bill is in no way intended to threaten the monarchy. His point appears to be that it is entirely wrong that the eldest child, because of the accident of having been born female, should not be allowed to become England’s monarch. That is a perfectly logical point, but from it, perfectly logically, flows the argument that a person should not be able to become king or queen just because of the accident of their birth into the royal family. The thrust of his argument therefore undermines the monarchy as an institution.

Mr. Alan Reid: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but surely if discrimination on grounds of sex and religion were removed, succession to the Crown would become purely random, in that the first-born child of the previous monarch would succeed. Previous legislation has removed the randomness, so surely his argument, if he wants the succession to remain random, is that the Bill should be passed.

Philip Davies: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the thrust of my argument is that, in many respects, the Bill could be regarded as the thin end of the wedge. Once the argument over the Bill was won, those who, perfectly honourably, hold republican views would then move on the next argument: they might say that, having declared that this aspect of discrimination on the ground of accident of birth is unacceptable, we should turn to the wider issue of accident of birth into the royal family.

Simon Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I really disagree with him. If the changes proposed in the Bill were made, I believe the general view would be that the case for a monarchy had been strengthened, and we would have shown that we can sensibly and intelligently discuss how to make the monarchy suitable and fit for the next generation. I support disestablishment, but I have not heard anyone suggesting that the Bill is a Trojan horse for disestablishment.

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Philip Davies: I understand the point. Time will tell, I guess, but one of my fears is that the Bill advances that agenda.

I understand the argument that, if we are to do this, now is a good time. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made that very point when introducing a similar Bill. He said that his Bill would not affect the succession for the next two generations and so had no implications for any individual—no one would be blocked and it would not be perceived to be an attack on any individual. None the less, I fear the implications.

Mr. Slaughter: I understand—and indeed agree with the hon. Gentleman on—the points about complexity and unintended consequences, but he seems to be conflating them with the question of whether the measure is good in itself. I would welcome clarification on that. Does he, as a true Conservative, simply believe that all change is bad? Does he believe that the measures in question will not be necessary at any point? I would disagree with that.

Philip Davies: As a true Conservative, I believe that all unnecessary change is bad. As I said earlier in reply to the hon. Member for Thurrock, I absolutely agree on the points about not wishing to discriminate against women and others. I understand those points. However, I am not entirely convinced that the Bill in its entirety is the right mechanism to take us forward. I am not sure that we have explored all the potential implications of the Bill; that is my fear.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and for his earlier extraordinarily generous comments, of which I am extremely unworthy. He is making an interesting journey from an angry young man to something of a statesman; I hope that he will not be too insulted by that. Surely he meant to say “all unnecessary change is bad”, rather than what he actually said, which was that all necessary change is bad. I am sure that he would like the opportunity to correct the record.

Philip Davies: I am sure that our friends in Hansard will be able to correct us on this point, but I fear that the hon. Gentleman misheard what I said. I did say that all unnecessary change was bad. I thank him, too, for his incredibly generous remarks, of which I am certainly not worthy, either.

The issue about Catholics particularly affects my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who made his point very well. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon quoted my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who also pointed out particularly well how ridiculous the bar on Catholics is. I perfectly understand the arguments. However, I am not wholly sure whether the change is entirely necessary. I am not sure how many cases there have been in which the provision has needed to be invoked, or in which there was a problem. I think that such cases are few and far between. I am not sure that it is at the top of the issues raised by the man on the Clapham omnibus at the moment. I certainly share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham): surely the Government have far better things to be doing with their time, particularly at the moment, than to go down that route.

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The arguments for the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772 are perfectly logical. Vernon Bogdanor described it as the most absurd piece of legislation on the statute book. We have all heard about how it originated; it was, in effect, passed in a fit of pique, and that is hardly how legislation should be passed. In the 2005 debate, Lord Falconer, arguing why it should be repealed, made the point that the longer the current provisions remain on the statute book, the more couples there will be who are covered by the Act. I perfectly understand all those arguments.

I certainly have a problem with the vehicle that is being used to make the changes—a private Member’s Bill. I do not think that that is the right vehicle to take the matters forward. Despite what has been said, we are talking about a major constitutional matter. The Government should introduce the changes themselves, if they feel so inclined, and that should really be done with consent and common support. When considering whether to support the Bill today, one has to ask whether the measures should be introduced through a private Member’s Bill. I do not believe that they should be. In answer to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, I can say that if there were a Division on the Bill, I would not vote for it. I would either abstain or vote against it, because I do not think that it is the right vehicle for such a constitutional change.

Simon Hughes: I have one last very short point to make. If we look back over the past 100 years, we see that many initiatives of a constitutional nature have been taken up by Back Benchers, and were then picked up by Governments and legislated for, such as devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Private Members’ Bills are often the way to get things going. That use of private Members’ Bills should be encouraged; the Government often do not move otherwise.

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I would say in response that that seems already to have happened. As a result of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon tabling the Bill, it appears—if we believe what we read in the Daily Mail, which I always do because it is a fine paper—that the Government will do as the Bill proposes. In that sense, the job that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) mentioned has been done. The Government have, it seems, moved.

Dr. Evan Harris: The hon. Gentleman is very wise and therefore, although he may agree with everything that is written in the Daily Mail, he might not agree with everything that is spun out of Government. It is my view, though we have yet to hear from the Secretary of State, that the Government’s position has not changed. They want to see the changes happen but have no specific proposal to bring them about. The hon. Gentleman said that a private Member’s Bill is not the way to do that. He may be right, but he also said that the matter should not be a priority for the Government, so he must clarify whether there is some third way of achieving legislation in this place, other than through Government legislation or private Members’ Bills.

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Philip Davies: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but he misses my point. I do not think a private Member’s Bill is the right way forward for the legislation, and if the Government wish to move matters forward—I am not saying that they do—they should do so by consent, with a proper debate of the whole House and a vote of the whole House. Whether the Government are serious about it, time will tell.

The hon. Gentleman may well be right. I am a new boy in this place, but even I have been here long enough to know that the Government do not always deliver on what they say they will deliver. Their position may be a delaying tactic to get some cheap headlines today, and the matter will then be kicked into the long grass. I suspect that may well be true.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I have not seen today’s Daily Mail because I have been busy chairing a Committee all night—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope the hon. Gentleman is going to make an appropriate intervention on the Bill.

Mr. Chope: So do I, Madam Deputy Speaker. It would set a very bad example if, as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel, having been sitting in a Committee since 4 pm on Thursday, I did not set an example that I would follow myself. In my intervention on my hon. Friend, I want to ask him to comment on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Prime Minister commenting on the subject from south America, and whether he thinks that that is a diversion from the unravelling of the G20 summit agenda.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I will protect the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) from straying from the content of the Bill. The Bill before us is very clear. We would prefer the hon. Gentleman to confine his comments accordingly.

Philip Davies: I totally accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, so however tempted I am, I will not go down the path that my hon. Friend is trying to lead me down.

Stephen Pound: I will certainly not tempt the hon. Gentleman down any forbidden byways or pathways. He makes the sound constitutional point about the primacy of legislation over private Members’ Bills, but does he agree that one of the most momentous pieces of legislation this country has ever seen was the Abortion Act 1967, which was introduced by the mechanism of a private Member’s Bill?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point and he makes it, typically, very well. My contention is that a constitutional change such as that proposed by the Bill is best delivered by the Government, rather than through a private Member’s Bill.

We have heard today the view that the change is mere tinkering and that it could all be done via a telephone call or in five minutes flat. I am not sure I accept that. The Bill deals with major constitutional stuff, and we would be disingenuous to pretend that that could all be unravelled in five minutes flat.

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Mr. Slaughter: If the hon. Gentleman believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail, no doubt he believes everything said on the BBC, which is a far more anti-Government organisation than the Daily Mail. The BBC’s take on the issue this morning was:

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with that? Will he withdraw his rather churlish comments about the Government’s not taking action? Actually, they are being prudent in addressing the matter sensibly.

Philip Davies: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I do not always believe everything I hear on the BBC. My point is that the Government do not always do what they say they will do. I am perfectly content, however, to accept for the time being that on this occasion they will. Time will tell; one of us will be proved right, and we do not know who.

This is major constitutional stuff, as Lord Falconer made particularly clear in the House of Lords debate. He said:

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