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To bring about changes to the law would be a complex and controversial undertaking, raising major constitutional issues which would involve the amendment or repeal of a number of pieces of related legislation.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 510.]
Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman may speak disparagingly about a former Cabinet Minister in his Government, but on this occasion I tend to accept that Lord Falconer was making a valid point and that this matter is rather complicated and will involve the repealor certainly the amendmentof much legislation. That is why, if the Government do want to come forward with something, they should take their time and consider all the implications, which we would not have the chance to consider in a private Members Bill.
Philip Davies: I agree. Generally, we should tread carefully when we seek to make major constitutional changes. It may well be that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is on the money and doing the right thing and that it all makes perfect sense. I am just not convinced that we have considered all the implications or sufficiently understood how complicated it could all be to deliver. We should tread more carefully and not rush headlong into giving the issue further consideration in Committee. If the Government are true in coming forward with their own proposals, they can take their time.
The Bishop of Winchester was trenchant in his views about the impact that the measures would have on the constitution; he even questioned whether the position
of the Crown as the head of the established Church might be affected. In his contribution to the debate, he quoted Lord Campbell of Alloway, who pointed out:
There is the need, approached in part in the Statute of Westminster Act 1931, to maintain a uniform succession to the throne by ensuring that precisely the same rules govern that succession in each of the independent monarchies of which Her Majesty is Queen...any change in those rules would have to be precisely replicated in the law of each of...the...other Commonwealth countries. [ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 501.]
Andrew Mackinlay: Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman and the other people who excuse themselves for not advancing the Bill that if our fellow legislators in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the other states take their own initiative, as they can under the Statute of Westminster, there will be a breach with uniformity? They would in their own legislation have enacted the ending of primogeniture and the discrimination against Catholics, and there would then be a problem when the next succession came. I hope that they do it.
I wonder how important the change is that we are discussing. We have been given the idea, partly from what has been in the Daily Mail, that this is essential stuff that goes to the heart of everything, but I wonder whether that is slightly over-egging the pudding.
we should be clear that for all practical purposes, its effects are limited.
There are 22 members of the Royal Family in line of succession after the Prince of Wales, all of whom are eligible to succeed and have been unaffected by the Act of Settlement. Only four living members of the Royal Family can be said to have been affected by the Act, but they come after the 22nd person in line to the throne. Therefore, to claim that the Act has a discriminatory impact is to ignore the improbability that any of those members of the Royal Family could, in practice, have succeeded.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 511.]
Stephen Pound: I am extremely grateful to the hon.and flattering Gentleman for giving way again. In speaking of the January 2005 debate in the other House, he prayed in aid the Lord Bishop of Winchester, who was roundly rebutted by the Lord Bishop of Worcester, who said:
Because some of our forebears resisted small but significant and symbolically important changes when they became necessary, all sorts of revolutionary ideas started to gain currency.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 502.]
I am not here to speak up for the Church of England, and it is not for me to interfere in its strife. It appears that the Bishop of Winchester and
the Bishop of Worcester have differing views, so the best thing would be for them to sort it out between themselves without the need for me to referee.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North appropriately mentioned the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon suggested that we were out on a limb compared with other countries in Europe in the way we deal with these things. To me, that is a good thing. If only we were out on a limb regarding the European Union completely, I would be a happy man. The speech by the right hon. Member for North Antrim indicates that we may not be quite as far out on a limb as was suggested. Other countries have their own peculiar requirements as to who can succeed to the throne. Although they may not be of exactly the same nature as those that we have in this country, they could be construed as equally discriminatory, particularly indirectly. The hon. Member for Ealing, North mentioned Spain, where a successor has to be a member of a particular family who all happen to be Roman Catholics. One can argue whether that makes that system discriminatory as well. The argument that we are doing something horrible, shocking and discriminatory in this country while the rest of Europe is completely pure on these matters deserves a great deal of scrutiny. The right hon. Member for North Antrim made that point rather more impressively than I ever could when he spoke in the debate in 2001.
The question is whether this measure is necessary; I am not entirely sure that it is. I can see that it is an issue that will exercise the minds of many people across the country, and I am sure that it comes up regularly in university debating societies. Such a motion might well come up for debate at Lib Dem conferences, along with debates on creating a republic, abolishing drug laws and all the other things they go on about
The relevant point is that this may be a matter of great interest to academics and to people in debating societies, but the vast majority of people in this country are worried about losing their jobs and homes and about rising crime levels, and I wonder whether this issue is at the top of their list of concerns. How important is it to the nation as a whole? I suspect that most people in the country would think that this is unnecessary stuff. They may even mildly support the Bill, if they were to hear all its provisions, but they would not think it one of the most important matters for the Government to legislate on.
Mr. Slaughter: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and he echoes a point that I made. He has drawn attention to the fact that the Bill is rather reductive. To expand his point, does he agree that if one wished to see a wider blossoming of alternative religions in the establishment of the royal family, the example that the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has given, by talking about being a defender of faiths and opening things up in a positive way, would be
Mr. Slaughter: I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) agree that the Bills approach would be somewhat reductive, and if we wish to deal with the religious issue, we should do so de novo, and consider it in a much broader way?
Philip Davies: I accept the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said. I am not sure that I would particularly agree with all the detail. This matter is not of major concern to most people in the country, or to most of my constituents in Shipley. It would be fair to say that none of my constituents has raised this issue with me, either by post or e-mail, or even on the doorstep. It is not the first thing that comes to peoples minds when I ask them what they are concerned about. We ought to bear that in mind when we decide how we should legislate.
I am not sure that the full implications of the Bill have been debated, and I come now to the repeal of the Royal Marriages Act 1772, which everybody seems to accept, on the nod, should be repealed. It is worth pointing out the other side of the argument, whether one accepts it or not. I mention in passing my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde who, like Lord Falconer, made an impressive speech when this matter was debated in the House of Lords. He said that he was not entirely convinced by the arguments of Lord Dubs and:
It is true that modern Royal Dukes are not as raffish as the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Gloucester, who gave so much trouble in the 18th century, but I wonder whether there is not some sense in allowing Crown and Parliament to control those who can become the consort of a monarch.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 14 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 508.]
He accepted that that was an old-fashioned view, which, to my mind, does not necessarily make it a bad one. He went on to make the point that in Spain, those with a right of succession to the throne who marry against the prohibition of the King are excluded from succession to the Crown, as are their descendents. In Norway, only the King can give permission for a wedding of an heir, in dialogue with Parliament, and even in liberal Holland, anyone in the line of succession who marries without the permission of Parliament loses the right of succession.
Philip Davies: The point is that there are arguments against the repeal of the 1772 Act. They may well not be persuasive to the hon. Member for ThurrockI entirely accept thatbut people are entitled to hear these arguments before they come to a view.
We all want to hear what the Secretary of State has to say, and I do not intend to delay the House any further. In conclusion, I understand the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and
others. The points made about discrimination are, on a superficial level, perfectly clear and understandable, and nobody believes in such discrimination, so those points are well made. My point is twofold: is this really necessary? Is it something that the British public are so concerned about that they expect us to take urgent action? I am not convinced that it is. Is it something that should be taken forward through a private Members Bill, or is it of a major constitutional nature, requiring a Bill from the Government of the day if it is to be taken any further? I tend to fall into the latter camp, despite the quality of the arguments made by those who have advanced the case for the Bill. I hope that the Secretary of State will indicate to the House that despite the headline-grabbing announcement in the Daily Mail, the Government will tread carefully before rushing down this route.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on coming third in the ballot for private Members Bills and securing the first slot in todays considerations. He is an assiduous parliamentarian and has made active use of the facilities that are available to Back Benchers of all parties to pursue causes in which they strongly believe. I share his views and have actively supported him on some of them and not on others, but that does not in any sense detract from the way in which he has seized the opportunities that are available to private Members to pursue particular points and shift Government policy.
It is something of a canard that, as is often implied, the House of Commons in particular has become less effective in holding the Executive to account in recent decades. As was spelled out in some detail in a Modernisation Committee report in the 2006-07 Session, the academic evidence shows that the House has become much more active and rebellious in holding Governments to account, and quite right too.
Mr. Michael Ryle, who was Clerk of Committees about 10 years ago, wrote an interesting treatise in which he commented that the alleged golden age of the 50s and 60s was actually a period when the House was effectively asleep. There was not a single rebellion by Government Back Benchers between 1951 and 1955. The work of Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham university illustrates that in the past dozen years we have had one of the most so-called rebellious Government parties. I do not resent that in the least, because I happen to believe that while Ministers are here to propose, it is for Parliament, and above all this House, to dispose.
I also believe that Governments damage themselveswe have avoided doing soif they enter into the conceit of believing that what they and their officials have dreamed up in their Departments is the last word. I have had some uncomfortable times at the Dispatch Box in trying to persuade colleagues of the rightness of my view or sometimes, less uncomfortably, in accepting that they were right and I was wrong. I am on record as saying that not a single one of the quite large number of Bills that I have sponsored in the past dozen years has not been improved by the parliamentary process.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) had a bit of sport about the Prime Ministers comments overnight on his trip to Brazil and
Chile, and suggested that they were the result of some dastardly plot. As a matter of fact, they were not. They were a consequence of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon bringing the Bill before the House and the fact that the Prime Minister, as ever with Prime Ministers of either party, travels with a party of journalists.
Let me therefore dismiss the gratuitous comments of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk about the Governments actions. The assiduity of the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and journalists interest meant that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was bound to be asked about the matter.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk apologised for the absence of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the shadow Justice Secretary. I, too, apologise, because it is entirely my responsibility. I gave him information that was correct at the time, but changed overnight, about whether I was going to be here. I hope that he accepts that.
Several hon. Members have asked what will happen if the House accepts, as I invite it to do, that the Bill is not the appropriate vehicle for making change of such a scale. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we take the issue seriously, and we accept that at the heart of the measures that we are considering, there is discrimination, which should have no place in a modern society. On the radio this morning, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:
This is a very complex issue that has been a matter of controversy and discussion for decades, indeed over centuries. What we must do is protect the position of the monarchy, and what weve got to do is to protect the position of the Queen as head of the established Church, the Church of England. So nothing we must do must affect that. But there are clearly issues about the exclusion of people from the rights of succession, and there are clearly issues that have got to be dealt with, not just in Britain, but would have to be dealt with across the whole of the Commonwealth. So this is not an easy set of answers, but I think in the 21st century people do expect discrimination to be removed, and they do expect us to be looking at all these issues.
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