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I shall deal with the Statute of Westminster shortly, but my right hon. Friend also said that he was ready to consult other relevant Commonwealth Heads of Government, not least at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting later this year.

Dr. Evan Harris: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and for responding to the debate—I was not aware that he was going to do that. Which of the Prime Minister’s points move the Government’s position in any way from their position a year ago, two years ago or indeed 12 years ago? I understand that the Government always believed that the discrimination that the Bill would remove was wrong, that the issues were serious and that they affected the Commonwealth. What is the exact change of position that the Prime Minister’s remarks denote?

Mr. Straw: The priority that the Prime Minister said that the Government would give the matter. No one in the Chamber, let alone outside, would suggest that the matter should have overwhelming priority. The Government are preoccupied not only with the economy, as we are at good times as well as at difficult times, such as the current times, but with bread-and-butter issues that affect the day-to-day lives of our constituents. However, we are considering an important constitutional issue and it is important that our constitution, which determines not only the balance of power, but many of the values that inform how our society should operate, is brought up to date. If there is clear discrimination, we should deal with that.

Let me just say that I was not intending to be here; I would not have been but for the results of the hon. Gentleman’s assiduity—I have already paid him some compliments about that. Sometimes people in his position are fortunate and something gels in the minds of, say, the journalists. The fact that he has managed to achieve a considerable degree of prominence for the Bill is the reason why I am here. I make no pretence about that. This has been a really interesting debate and it has been good for me—it is the first such debate that I have sat through in the past 12 years. I happen to have governmental responsibility for the issue, and the debate has also informed my thinking.

Simon Hughes: On the Commonwealth question, it is generally accepted that the issue is one not for the whole Commonwealth, but for the 15 other countries that have the Queen as Head of State. Can the Justice Secretary tell the House whether any approach about the issue has been made to the other Heads of Government in the Commonwealth countries affected since Labour came to office 12 years ago, and if so how far has that got?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that quite a considerable part of relations with other states is confidential. Let me put it this way: we have not been unaware of the views of the Heads of Government of relevant countries, but I will deal with the Statute of Westminster in a moment.

I want to put on record two things, the first of which is this Government’s commitment to the elimination of discrimination. That is something about which I, and
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everybody on the Labour Benches, feel passionately. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon applauded this Government’s work over the past 12 years in removing discrimination in one area after another. He said, however, that he thought that perhaps the period when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary in the ’60s was a period that was even more radical, because of the inherent difficulty of dealing with some of those issues at the time. I am not going to have a competition over the benefits of one Labour Government as against those of another Labour Government. It is, however, a fact that only Labour Governments have ever introduced any legislation to root out discrimination in any area of our public life.

Some of us remember the Smethwick election in 1964. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), who now sits for that former constituency, knows of the searing pain that was caused by the words used in that election by the Conservative candidate, who later became the Member of Parliament, which were so disgusting that I shall not repeat them in the House. At the time, those on the Conservative Benches said that there was no need to legislate, because people should be free to express whatever views they wanted. I remember at that time seeing notices in windows on the sides of lodging houses in London saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. That was very straightforward discrimination. Those desperate insults and worse were allowed in the interests of freedom of speech.

Mr. Bellingham: The Lord Chancellor is going back into distant history, but I take grave exception to what he said about the previous Conservative Government, who were pre-eminent in removing any discrimination against disabled people. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was Minister for Disabled People at the time and he did a superb job, helped by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was a junior Minister in the responsible Department. They worked very hard indeed to remove discrimination against disabled people. The right hon. Gentleman should accept that and ensure that it is on the record.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are certainly on the record now. I have allowed that, but may I suggest that we get back to the elements of discrimination in the Bill?

Mr. Straw: I will be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I simply make the point that in one area after another—whether it be on race, religion or gender discrimination, and not least in respect of people’s sexuality, on which the Conservative Government, through section 28, moved discrimination up a notch, rather than back—it is our record that is second to none.

Philip Davies: The Bill relates to gender discrimination. That is what we are on about. The Secretary of State is slightly on his high horse, if I might say so, about what the Government have been doing. This Government introduced all-women shortlists. That is clear gender discrimination. They have introduced discrimination.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I brought the hon. Gentleman to order before on that point.

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Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman should speak more often. I look forward to his attributes and his merits being better recognised by the leader of the Conservative party and to his becoming a Front Bencher. We are going to win the next election anyway, but the more the public hear him the more we are likely to win by an even bigger margin. The point about all-women shortlists—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot stray into the subject of all-women shortlists. Can we please concentrate on the content of the Bill?

Mr. Straw: The Bill is about gender discrimination, but it is also about serious discrimination against members of the Catholic Church. I am an Anglican. I was brought up in that tradition and I am a communicating Anglican today. I never had to suffer the sense of pain that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) when he described what it has felt like to come from the Catholic tradition and to be a Catholic in our society. That point was first brought home to me at university. Graduation day at Leeds university in 1967 happened to be on 12 July. For me, that was just another day in July. All our parents were coming up to see how some of us had managed to overcome, at least in part, the other distractions at university and had got ourselves degrees. I asked my friend when his parents were going to come, and he said, “I’m afraid my father’s not coming.” I think his mother had passed away. I said, “But they only live in Liverpool. My mother lives in the south. Where is your father?” “My father is an Orangeman,” he said. He went on, “My father—I agree with him—regards it as more important that he should parade through Liverpool to assert the Protestant supremacy than that he should come and see me receive my degree.” That is absolutely shocking, yet that was not in Northern Ireland, but in England. It illustrates the extent of the divide that was still there in our society even 40 years ago.

In the old days, when I first came in to this House—they seem very recent to me, but they are not to many other people—if one wanted to introduce a ten-minute Bill, one was not sorted out conveniently by the Whips. In those days, one had to be the first Member through a door on the upper Clerks corridor, on the third floor above here, at 10 o’clock in the morning. That meant that one had to be the first person in that room in 5 o’clock in the morning—

Simon Hughes: Or earlier.

Mr. Straw: Indeed, or earlier. The hon. Gentleman will recollect that, because on one occasion he got there before me and on another I got there before him.

In 1979, I found someone else in that room when I went to try to introduce my Bill on police authorities’ powers, which would have introduced measures partially to democratise police authorities that I was able to introduce in 1997. Having failed on one occasion, I arrived to find no one else in that wretched room and settled down for four hours, glued to the room, in order to get my ten-minute Bill slot. The room was full of copies of Hansard from 1861, so, faute de mieux, I started reading them. They were absolutely extraordinary. I opened that copy of Hansard on a page that contained debates about suppression and coercion in Ireland. One
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Member had the temerity to complain about the fact that whole villages were being torched in order to punish all the villagers for the fact that one of their number—and no more—might possibly have committed a crime against the state. What was so breathtaking was the fact that Front Benchers on both sides of the House were saying “That is absolutely right. Of course these villages should be torched. These people do not properly recognise who is in charge. They are potentially treacherous, traitors to the nation. What else can we do but suppress and coerce the Irish peasantry?” As must be clear to the House, I have never forgotten that.

One of the things we must remember is that what we are dealing with is a rich, highly complicated and highly divisive history: the history of our nation. It has been said that a nation without a history is like a man without a memory. We cannot escape from our history: it is part of us—or, as T. S. Eliot more intriguingly put it in the last of the “Four Quartets”,

What we are discussing today—this is for the benefit of those who take an interest, as I think all of us in the House do, in how we come to be here, and what has moulded this extraordinary and great nation of the United Kingdom—is the consequences of two centuries, the 16th and especially the 17th, of great conflict, in which much blood was shed. We had a civil war in which one in 10 males in England is estimated to have been killed, and in which families were divided. Even that did not lead to any kind of settlement until almost exactly 40 years after Charles I lost his head—an event that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) described as one of the greatest moments in history, involving a man whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North described as the martyred king.

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Straw: Of course—on that point.

Dr. Harris: Actually, off that point. I am loth to interrupt the Secretary of State, but his recalling of the long history of oppression of certain religious minorities, in this case Catholic, combined with the list of the discriminations that he—with the support of those on these Benches—has rightly got rid of, contrasts starkly with the forgotten few people whose interests in not being discriminated against have been left behind over two centuries and over 12 years. I merely ask the Secretary of State—because time is limited—whether he would be willing to put our minds at rest by specifying a timetable for his, and the Government’s, implementation of a measure that is designed to rid us of that remaining discrimination.

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I am not ready to specify a precise timetable. I can say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that as a result of the pressure that he has exerted by means of the Bill and other concerns that have been expressed, as it were, on both sides of the confessional spectrum—not least in Scotland—this is now a higher priority for Government than it has been. That, rightly, is how the parliamentary process operates.

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Before I deal with some of the absolutely central issues, let me respond briefly to a few of the points that have been made today.

Stephen Pound: My right hon. Friend will, of course, be as familiar as I am with the current edition of The Catholic Herald, in which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) describes himself as

I am not implying that many of us are pin-up boys for anyone. However, my right hon. Friend would be a pin-up boy for all true democrats and all people who believe in equality and fairness if he were to continue in this vein, and give an indication of tangible support for this excellent Bill.

Mr. Straw: I have already said that no one could argue with the principle—and no one has done so today, not even the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who entertained us by declaring that he is against discrimination, especially positive discrimination, which is a means of ending discrimination. He also managed to get his apparent wish for us to leave the European Union into the debate. Please do not worry, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I shall now immediately return to the subject of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) talked about complexity. The complexity is to do with not the drafting of the measures—that will be lengthy and detailed—but with their potential implications and inadvertent consequences. My hon. Friend said we could have a disaster if we do not address this issue. I do not think that is likely. I accept that we need to resolve this, but we can do so steadily, given who is actually in the line of succession and the fact that, at most, we might face the very distant eventuality of a crisis.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for having heard only the opening part of his speech, but I have been given a good note of what he said. [Interruption.] I am sure it was a very good speech—the note is certainly very good, and I shall read the speech in Hansard tomorrow. I understand that he said that the Roman Catholic Church requirement for families to be brought up as Catholic in marriages between someone of the Catholic faith and someone not of that denomination had been much relaxed in recent decades. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock says, “Totally.” That is one necessary consideration, but there are others, and although none of them is insuperable, they must be thought through. It is still the case, for instance, that those who are in the Catholic Church are told that they are not in communion with the Anglican Church—although I have seen that. The reverse is also the case: according to the Catholic Church, it is not possible for me as an Anglican to take holy communion in a Catholic church. That would also need to be sorted out.

In 1972, there was a change in the arrangements inside the Church of England: the Church of England’s admission to holy communion measures allow baptised persons who are communicant members of other Churches, and who are of good standing in their own Church, to be admitted to holy communion in Church of England churches. That means, to my certain witness, that Methodists
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and Congregationalists, and Church of Scotland and Baptist members, can take holy communion, and there is no direct prohibition within the Church of England of members of the Roman Church taking holy communion, but that is not directly reciprocated. I understand why; it is a matter of profound history for both Churches, but that is something we would have to talk about.

Andrew Mackinlay: With the greatest respect, I think that, on the details, the Secretary of State is wrong. I do not want to labour this matter, but I know of Church of England vicars who have been given communion in a Roman Catholic church and Catholic Church members who have received communion in the Church of England. That is a matter of fact, and it is happening all the time. The question, however, is this: what has this got to do with the Bill? With the greatest respect, the question of intercommunication or lack of it, and of what might be anyone’s belief about communion, has got nothing at all to do with the Bill, and I challenge the Secretary of State to tell us how it has.

Mr. Straw: I was going to come to that.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon and others say that this Bill is not intended to disturb the position of the sovereign—the King or the Queen—as head, or supreme governor, of the Church, in ecclesiastical matters as well as in temporal matters. I fully accept that that is the hon. Gentleman’s intention in moving his Bill. The law at present does not prohibit someone who is in communion with the Church of England but who is not a confirmed Anglican from being head of the Church, because they would then be in communion with the Church. The difficulty—this is one of the complexities of what he proposes—is that he has not thought through sufficiently the potential consequences of his proposals for the sovereign’s position as head of the Church, and this matter needs to be thought about very carefully. The monarch is the supreme governor of the Church of England, and Catholics, under the laws of their Church—this is the point—cannot enter into communion with the Church of England. Thus, there would be the anomalous position where if there were a supreme governor, a monarch succeeding to the throne, who was a member of the Roman Catholic Church —[Interruption.] I understand the point, but we need to think things through a little, because the Bill proposes to allow members of the Catholic Church to be in the line of succession and one of the issues that we must—

Dr. Harris: I think that the Secretary of State has indicated in those remarks that he has not read the Bill, because it is not about whether Catholics should be in the line of succession—it is about who can marry into the line of succession—and it leaves completely untouched the requirement that those in the line of succession and those inheriting the throne need to be in communion with the Church of England. That is why those of us who listened to his recent remarks have found it very difficult to understand their relevance. What tangible things can he bring, other than the notion of a higher priority, to achieving the ending of this discrimination?

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