The Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household (Mr. John Spellar): I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
It is first appropriate for the House to offer its thanks to the Queen for her permission to hold this debate. It clearly indicates that, at my request, the Government have been in discussion with Buckingham palace about this matter. Indeed, the Prime Minister has announced that that was the case. I just hope that the discussions concern more than just seeking permission to hold the debate.
This is a welcome opportunity to debate what most people, if not every right-thinking person, would consider to be the outrageous discrimination in our constitution against Roman Catholics and the equally unfair treatment of women. I come to this not from a religious perspective but from one of recognising that whatever someones religious viewsor their views of the royal familyour constitution should not be based on unjustified discrimination.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early. Before he develops his arguments, may I offer him my congratulations? By introducing this Bill, he has moved the Government. It is said that Parliament is a poodle and achieves nothing, but we have one of our most senior and illustrious Secretaries of State, the Secretary of State for Justice, in his place on a Friday morning, and we have also had the Deputy Leader of the House making massive concessions on the Today programme this morning. I therefore congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting this issue before the House and the nation, and I wish him well with his Bill.
Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support on this and on other important matters, and I recognise his contribution to fundamental issues of human rights and freedoms. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to welcome real progress by the Government on this issue. I look forward to hearing the Governments view to determine whether real progress has been made, because the measure of that will be whether we see action in this term. Some 12 years ago, the Labour partys manifesto said that the Labour Government would end unjustified discrimination wherever it existed, and I strongly supported that. I do not doubt the sincerity of the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for JusticeI am pleased that he is in his place this morningor the Minister. However, those words and the sincerity behind them are not in the end sufficient when dealing with such discrimination. We need legislation. That is what we are here for, and that is the true power of Parliament.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): My prediction is that we will need the next Conservative Government to carry this through, but we will listen to the Minister. Those of us who are Christians have a responsibility to bring the denominations together, and this measure would help to do that. To those who would argue that the succession of the crown from father to eldest son is the normal process, I point out that that has not happened since Edward III, and even then his father had not died, so we do have some power to make changes.
Dr. Harris: I am an expert neither in bringing together the Churches nor in history, but I recognise the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. It is interesting to note that the Bill has brought together a coalitionI was going to say an unholy coalition, but that would be wrong. Some people, on behalf of the Church of England, feel that the Church should not countenance the continuation of this discrimination. Some people, on behalf of Roman CatholicsI hope that we will hear from them later and I shall refer to their viewsfeel it is wrong that this ongoing discrimination is allowed to continue. And some peopleI include myself in this categorycome from a more secular, liberal angle, and ask how one religion can be singled out and picked on for discrimination in a way that is not appropriate in todays world, or indeed yesterdays world.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): As someone who was brought up in the Anglican tradition, I greatly welcome the Bill. In 1991, I was given leave to propose a ten-minute Bill that would have changed the sexist rules of succession and required the monarch to pay income tax. The following week, the palace announced that the monarch would pay income tax, so my hon. Friend should be encouraged: just by doing this he will have made significant progress, and things could happen very quickly, if the Government are helpful.
Dr. Harris: My hon. Friend did indeed propose that Bill in 1991, and part of it was implemented voluntarily. I do not seek to speak for the royal family, but I cannot see that the change would cause them a problem. They cannot opt to make the changes themselves, because it requires legislation. It is specifically a matter for Parliament. It need not be a matter for the Executive if they merely get behind this Bill as a vehicle to achieve it. If it were to require Executive action, I am sure that Parliament would want to provide as much as help as possible, because I think that there is a majority in favour of so doing.
It is appropriate to recognise the significant contributions to this debate that were made before I had the good fortune to come high up in the private Members Bill ballot. For example, I recognise the work of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who on 8 March 2005 introduced the Royal Marriages (Freedom of Religion) Bill. We see eye to eye on very few issuesperhaps this one and fox hunting are the exceptionsbut I have great respect for the consistent position that he has taken on this issue, and for the fact that, although he may not be an enthusiast for everything in the Bill, he was willing to recognise its importance and the fact that it was partly inspired by the action he had taken, and to
put his name to it as a sponsor. I am grateful to him for being in his place today and for his support as a senior parliamentarian and Catholic.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), in February 2007, introduced the succinctly titled Catholics (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill as a ten-minute Bill. The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) mentioned the next Conservative Government, but the right hon. Gentlemans Bill showed that even the Conservative partyI do not mean this in a party political way, but one has to remember what the adjective conservative can meanhas no problem with this proposal. I believe that we will hear confirmation of that from its Front-Bench spokesman. Indeed, many of the calls for some of the Bills provisions have come from Conservative Back Benchers, and not necessarily those of a radical persuasion.
Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman moves down the roll of honour on this issue, and before he mentions Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, who introduced a Bill on the issue twice, once in 1997 and once in 1998, will he mention Kevin McNamara, a former Member of Parliament for Hull, who introduced the Treason Felony, Act of Settlement and Parliamentary Oath Bill in 2001 and who was, above all, a consistent, clear, precise and logical voice for this move? Over many years, Kevin fought for the same principles of equality that the hon. Gentleman raises today.
Dr. Harris: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentions Kevin McNamara. I was going to come on to him next, but the hon. Gentleman has put it far better than I could. I had my disagreements with Kevin McNamara about discrimination in the school system against people who were not of the right religion, but he was clear on this issue and I shall quote him later.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) invites me to refer to Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, and it is appropriate to recognise that he tried twice in the House of Lords to address these issues, especially the unfair treatment of women in the line of succession. That is another example of the opportunities that the Government have had to hear the argument in both Houses and to take action.
The case that I put in my Bill can be found in a book by Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is, I am pleased to say, one of my constituents. In The Monarchy and the Constitution, published in 1995, he says at the end of chapter 2:
The rules relating to succession, being a product of the religious struggles of the seventeenth century, are now ripe for reform. The statute specifically prohibiting a Roman Catholic or someone married to a Roman Catholic from occupying the throne is deeply offensive to Catholics, not only in Britain, but also in those Commonwealth countries with large Catholic populations such as Canada and Australia. It should be repealed.
In an era of equality of opportunity, moreover, it will appear increasingly anomalous for male heirs still to take precedence over female. There is at the time of writing a male heir apparent with two sons. Therefore, the succession is unlikely to be affected by any alteration in the law allowing for it to be passed to the eldest child of the sovereign irrespective of gender, as in Sweden. The time is ripe, surely, for such a reform.
Most urgent of all, however, is a reform of the Royal Marriages Act. There are, perhaps, few more absurd pieces of legislation on the statute book. The purpose of the Act, as stated in its preamble, that marriages in the Royal Family are of the highest importance to the state, can...easily be achieved without needing to invoke its complicated paraphernalia.
There is no reason why a marriage made in contravention, perhaps unconscious contravention, of its provisions by someone who was unaware of his or her descent from George II
should be void. It would be better simply to deprive the person concerned of the right to succession, as would occur if he or she married a Catholic.
The fundamental weakness of the Act, however, is that it applies to many who are quite remote from the throne and who are never likely to succeed. Conversely, someone who may well succeedfor example, an heir presumptive whose mother has married into a foreign familywould fall outside the provisions of the Act. An obvious reform would be to make provision for the sovereigns approval to be required for the marriages, of the descendants not of George II, but of George VI, or, better still, simply for the first five people in the line of succession.
Any member of the royal family to whom it applied would still, of course, have the right to renounce his or her rights of succession and contract a civil marriage, as Princess Margaret could have done in 1955. The second route provided for in the Royal Marriages Act, the declaration at the age of 25, is otiose and should be removed.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman knows that I support the Billand if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall amplify the reasons why I support it and why I wish to amend itbut I think that even he is missing the central, fundamental point that is repugnant. It is not only the spouses of the monarch or the princes who are discriminated against, but the monarch him or herself. It is unacceptable in this day and age that a Head of State has to be an adherenta communicantof one particular religious faith. That is what is bonkers and repugnant.
Dr. Harris: In fact, the extract from Professor Bogdanors book that I read out implies that he wants that provision to be changed as well, but let me be clear: my Bill would not affect the requirement that the monarch should be not only a Protestant but in communion with the Church of Englandalthough the exact terms of that provision in relation to the Church of Scotland are not entirely clear. There is nothing in the Bill that would affect the establishment of the Church of England. That is a wholly separate debate, and one that I do not intend my Bill to influence or initiate.
My Bill has no implications for the future of the royal family as our monarchy. I support the monarchy, although I know that that may undermine my credibility in some radical circles. I would not have introduced the Bill if I thought I was wasting my time; there are other causes relating to human rights and discrimination to which I could turn my attention. I have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, therefore, in that my Bill does not go as far as he might like, but I think that politics is often the art of what is possible and practical. This limited measure is possible, it is practical and it could be achieved.
Peter Bottomley: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be slightly more ambitious. The practice of politics should be making possible what is right. The measure he is proposing is right for the Churches, right for the royal family and right for the country. When those interests come together, a measure should be supported, without delay.
Dr. Harris: Of course I accept that. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) says that he supports the Bill. However, what is in the Bill is possible and practical, whereas it would be more difficult to go further. I wish him luck in the ballot next time.
Andrew Mackinlay: I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman and I hope for his success, but I hope that he will discuss the long title of his Bill, which refers to the law of succession. The Bill is therefore amendable. If, contrary to his better judgment, he asks me to sit on the Committee that scrutinises the Bill, I shall try to amend it at that stage, so that it allows for the point I just raised.
Dr. Harris: I am asked to resist that suggestion. I do not want to get ahead of myself by thinking about the Committee: that is a distant dream at 10 oclock in the morning on a Friday, discussing a private Members Bill.
I shall deal first with the discrimination against women. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, whom I have had the pleasure and the privilege to meet, is one of the members of the royal family whom I hold in the highest regard for her work and her sense of duty. She is the second eldest child of the Queen, yet she is tenth in line to the throne. That is not acceptable in this day and age. It does not require her to complain; it is just obvious that that is unacceptable. It is no slight to her younger brothers to say that; it is just wrong that a woman should have to give way.
To encourage the hon. Member for Ealing, North, I shall cite the words of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, in the 1998 House of Lords debate on his Bill. He is, after all, a Member of the House of Lords and the Government have not seen fit to change his status. He said that his Bill, which is equivalent to mine in this respect,
would have no effect on the present Royal Family, making no difference to the status of the Princess Royal, so it could hardly be described as a revolutionary concept. While I am on the subject of the Princess Royal, I would suggest that had she been the first born, this debate would not be taking place in a half empty House of Lords on a Friday afternoon, but in every household in the country. Although I am delighted by the prospect of King Charles III, I am not fearful of Queen Anne II.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 27 February 1998; Vol. 586, c. 909.]
That is the point, is it not? It simply seems unfair, especially in the light of the historical contribution made by female monarchs. There is no evidence that the present arrangement is in any way justified. I am surprised that the Government have taken so long to deal with the matter.
I shall deal now with the bar on Catholics marrying into the royal family. That is a specific, singled-out discrimination, and the language of the statute on which it is based is offensive to Catholicsand, indeed,
to people who are offended by other people being offensive. It was a product of its time, but it is not a product of this time. The Prime Minister said this morning that he thought that, in the 21st century, people would not expect those provisions to exist. I think that that is an understatement: such provisions would be surprising in the 20th century, or the 19th.
I have my differences with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, but at least no onealthough some have triedcould accuse me of being a Vatican stooge in proposing the Bill. I can be cleared ab initio of such a charge.
Dr. Harris: That may be so, but sometimes there is something wrong with being seen to be a Vatican stooge. That is the point. In correspondence, after I had announced the title of the Bill, I was surprised to find that, despite understanding the limits of the measure, a small number of people still feel that it would threaten the nature of this country if, in future, the motheror potentially the fatherof the heir to the throne were a Catholic, disseminating in some way loyalty to the Vatican and the Holy See rather than to this country. I just think that that is wild conspiracy of the sort of which the Catholic Church has found itself the victim on more than one occasion in recent times.
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