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Mr. Straw: I am sorry, but I suggest that what I have said could be one of the consequences, and I certainly believe that this must be thought through much more carefully than the hon. Gentleman believes. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spelt out the great
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importance of not disturbing, inadvertently, the position of the Church of England—it is the established Church in this country. We have always taken the position, which I believe is widely shared across the parties, that the issue of the establishment of the Church of England has to be a matter for the Church to initiate and not for this House—although we could, of course, initiate it. I am a member of the established Church, and I am comfortable with that. One of the truths about the Church of England is that because it is established, it represents not only its own particular faith, but every kind of faith. It is significant that, as far as I am aware, no pressure at all for disestablishment has come from the Roman Catholic Church, the non-conformist Churches or other faiths.

Simon Hughes: This is really important business, but the Justice Secretary has not yet given us an explanation of why any of these arguments have differed over the past 12 years and why therefore there is a bigger problem. More importantly, everybody in Britain now understands that when somebody of one faith or denomination marries somebody of another, that, in no way, changes their allegiance to their denomination or faith. The proposal is that the monarch has to retain, constitutionally, the allegiance to the established Church in this country, but their partner—their spouse—need not. Nobody, in this modern age, thinks that this is a problem; it happens in marriages, royal or otherwise, in this country and around the world, all the time.

Mr. Straw: I say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the many values of today’s debate has been to clarify that and to clarify the intention, because the process of debate today has to produce a better consensus on what we could change and what we must leave untouched than was there before.

May I move on to deal, in the time available to me, with the issue of gender discrimination? The discrimination against members of the Roman Catholic Church is, as I think we would all accept, the most offensive part of the current arrangements. There is an issue about quite how far the two things impact on each other, but because the Bill is bound to have some impact on and consequences for the established Church, it needs to be thought through in some detail. Gender discrimination is a much more straightforward matter to deal with, and that is the position of the Government. Interestingly, however, the change in the rule would have less practical effect—in terms of number, although not for the individuals involved—than might be imagined. In the current line of succession, five out of the first 12 are women. If we change the rules to achieve equality between the sexes, as proposed—or absolute primogeniture, as it is called—five out of the first 12 would still be women, exactly the same number.

Simon Hughes: The order would be different.

Mr. Straw: Of course, but the same five would be reshuffled. The first three on the list would be unchanged—the Prince of Wales, Prince William, and Prince Henry. Fourth is the Duke of York and fifth and sixth are Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie. Under absolute primogeniture, fourth would be Princess Anne, followed by Mr. Peter Phillips and Miss Zara Phillips. The case for change is strong, but the practical effect, given that the top three all happen to be men, is likely to be limited.

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Dr. Evan Harris: Another benefit of the Bill would be that Peter Phillips could marry someone with whom he fell in love without that person feeling that they needed to change their religion in order to retain his place in the succession. One wonders how many other people’s private lives or religious allegiances have been affected by the fact that this change has still not yet been made.

I know that the Secretary of State has only eight more minutes to occupy, but I would like to ask him—for the third time now, and with due respect for his sincerity—what tangible proposals the Government have to implement the higher priority that no less a person than the Prime Minister, taking time out of a busy trip, made clear that he had given this issue?

Mr. Straw: I do not want to give a precise time scale this afternoon, least of all one that, for other reasons, might not be fulfilled. However, it is an issue that we will pursue; that includes discussions with Commonwealth Governments.

Mr. Leigh: I understand that the Secretary of State will not give a precise timetable, but is there any chance of having a Government Bill before the general election in a year’s time?

Mr. Straw: The chances are very limited. One should never say never, but there is a lot to do.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, in what was, with respect, the weakest part of his speech, that we would have to consult—I think that that was the verb he used, and it was certainly used by Mr. John Humphrys on the “Today” programme this morning—the Heads of Government of the relevant Commonwealth realms. Indeed, clause 4(2) states:

The idea is that we pass the Bill and then we find out what Commonwealth Heads of Government think about it. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock comprehensively answered that point by pointing out that the Swedish Government had taken that approach, with unacceptable results as far as the Swedish royal family were concerned.

The Commonwealth is no longer the empire, or even the British Commonwealth: it is the Commonwealth and all its members are equal. The members of the Commonwealth would be right to be offended if, contrary to the clear statement in the Statute of Westminster 1931, we were to bounce them into a take-it-or-leave-it position, which had already become the law. The preamble to the Statute of Westminster states that any changes touching on

now the Commonwealth countries—

There is a slightly arcane argument about whether, as the preamble to the statute, that statement has legal force—I shall not offer a view, because preambles to modern statutes are unusual—but it plainly has huge moral force. No serious British Government of any complexion could ignore part of a solemn compact with, originally, the dominions and now the Commonwealth.

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The recent judgment in the Superior Court of Ontario of Mr. Justice Roleau, in the case of O’Donohue v. Canada, also made it clear that the arrangements have to be symmetrical between one member of the Commonwealth and another. In his judgment, the learned judge said:

He continued:

—that to the Statute of Westminster—

He went on to say that

That is the position set out by legal authorities in Canada, and it has to be the position followed by any Government.

Simon Hughes: If the Secretary of State is not willing today to let the Bill go to Committee, so that an amendment could be tabled providing for that procedure, will he undertake that, as soon as the G20 meeting is out of the way—obviously, that is the priority—he will speak to the Prime Minister to initiate the process, so that the Commonwealth conference this autumn could be the conclusion and the agreement, rather than the start of, the discussion?

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly ensure that soundings are taken among Commonwealth Heads of Government and talk to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the outcome of today’s debate, which has been very interesting and informative, not least to me. I genuinely mean that. Normally when one spends five hours in this Chamber, one learns something—in fact, I have never spent five minutes in this Chamber without learning something—and I have done so today.

However, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. Almost every Commonwealth country, and certainly the older ones—two being Canada and Australia, which are parts of the realm—have faced precisely the same tensions between people of the Anglican faith or the Protestant faiths and people of the Catholic faith. Famously, in Australia, where the establishment of the country was Anglican, there were huge tensions involving those of Irish heritage. In Canada, the tension continues between those of British heritage and those of French heritage, and there is the potential for conflict—

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 16 October.

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Business without Debate

CHILDREN in Care (Custody) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 3 July.

Driving Instruction (Suspension and Exemption) Powers Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 15 May.

Broadcasting (Television Licence Fee Abolition) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April.

European Union (Audit of Benefits and Costs of UK Membership) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April.

Presumption of Death Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April.

Exercise of Reasonable Discretion Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April.

Scottish Banknotes (Acceptability in United Kingdom) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (6 March), That the Bill be now read a second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 24 April.

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Housing Subsidy (Barking and Dagenham)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Frank Roy.)

2.32 pm

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): It is fair to say that the subject of this short debate is quite different from that of the debate that preceded it. However, we Catholics have always had quite an interest in housing policy, so there is a certain continuity. This afternoon I want to talk about the operation of the housing revenue account, and the so-called negative subsidy system, with regard to its effect on my borough, the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.

The housing subsidy system is based on a complex set of rules and assumptions that the Government make about a council’s need to spend, about the Government’s national rent-setting policy, and about a council’s debt position. The councils that have historically managed their finances well, and are debt-free, such as my authority in east London, are assumed to be in less need, and therefore have to contribute to the housing subsidy pot. The Government run their national system as a redistributive pool, so they pay housing subsidy to those they assume to be in greatest need, and require others, who are in less need, to pay negative subsidy back to the Government for subsequent redistribution.

When the housing revenue account was first set up, no council had to pay money to the Government, but now 156 of the 206 housing authorities pay negative subsidy to the Treasury. This year, the Treasury has taken £194 million from council tenants. I would argue that that is a tax on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities. Not only is that deeply unfair in principle, but it actively prevents councils from investing in, improving and repairing their housing stock.

The allocation formula creates perverse incentives. For example, if a council pays off its housing debt, reduces crime on its estates or reduces vandalism of its stock, it loses some of its subsidy. That situation will get worse over the next few years. The amount of money that central Government will take out of the system is planned to increase to some £300 million in the next financial year. Obviously, I realise that the revised determination of rents will probably reduce that figure dramatically, but I simply repeat the point that the system is structured in a way that produces those surpluses.

I turn now to the situation in our borough, Barking and Dagenham, which is a deprived area of east London. The council manages some 20,000 homes. It used to manage 40,000. Our council paid in some £17 million to Government negative subsidy in 2007-08. That is equivalent to nearly £900 per property per year. Next year, 2009-10, we will pay some £22 million in negative subsidy back to the centre. Through their rent payments our tenants are effectively subsidising council tenants in other parts of the country. This additional tax on our tenants operates at the same time as we have an investment gap of about £100 million, looking to 2011.

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