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Succession to the Crown Bill: Deputy Prime Minister's opening statement

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Deputy Prime Minister's opening statement at the second reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill in the House of Commons.

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This Bill does three specific things.

First, it ends the system of male preference primogeniture. So, in the royal succession, older sisters will no longer be overtaken by their younger brothers.

Second, it removes the law which says that anyone who marries a Roman Catholic automatically loses their place in the line. A legal barrier that applies to Catholics and only Catholics - no other faith.

Third, it replaces the 1772 Royal Marriages Act. Under that Act, any descendent of George II must seek the reigning monarch’s consent before marrying - without which their marriage is void. This law - passed 240 years ago - is clearly now unworkable: George II’s descendants number in their hundreds; many will be unaware of this arcane requirement; many will have only a tenuous link to the Royal family.

So the Bill proposes that the monarch need only consent to the marriages of the first six individuals in the line of succession - without which they would lose their place.

That way we retain the tradition of monarchical consent, but, in limiting it to the people who could - feasibly - assume the throne it will be applied in a much more reasonable way.

Clearly this third reform is important for practical reasons. The other two, Mr Speaker, are more about our values.

The current rules of succession belong to a bygone era. They reflect old prejudices and old fears. Today we do not support laws which discriminate on either religious or gender grounds. They have no place in modern Britain, and certainly not in our monarchy: An institution central to our constitution, to the Commonwealth, and to our national identity too. 

With the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge expecting a baby, and having just celebrated our Queen’s 60 year reign, this Bill is timely, as well as popular. It’s also straightforward and enjoys support across these benches. So altogether a rare beast in constitutional reform - and I should know. 

I’ll come on to the Catholic provisions in a few moments - I’m aware some Honourable Members have concerns about their implications. But, just on female succession, I think the real question we need to ask is: why has it taken us so long?

This is a nation which prides itself on pioneering equality between the sexes. A nation of great queens: Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II. A woman can - and has - been the Head of the UK government. Yet still, on our statute books, with parliament’s official backing, we have succession laws based on the supposed superiority of men.

That anachronism is out of step with our society. It sends the wrong message to the rest of the world. It’s time for the rules to change.

That aim, I know, has support on all sides of this House. Indeed the Bill builds on the endeavours of the previous government, who helped lay the foundations for reform with the Commonwealth Realms - for whom the Queen is also the Head of State.

Drafting has been a long and careful process. And I would like to pay special tribute to Rebecca Kitteridge - New Zealand’s Cabinet Secretary - for her extraordinary work in making sure these proposals can be effected across the Commonwealth Realms.

Agreeing constitutional change for 16 states - each with its own government and legislature - is clearly a challenge. And, from the realms backing the reforms in principle in 2011 it took one year and two months to get full agreement, in writing, from everyone. In a phenomenal coincidence - one I know is hard to believe - we received the final consent just hours before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced that they are expecting a baby.

The Palace has - of course - been actively involved in the process from the beginning. And both the Church of England and the Catholic Church have been kept informed throughout.

We now have a very short Bill - five clauses and a schedule. And I would urge the House to bear in mind that it must be kept narrow in order to be adopted across all 16 Commonwealth Realms.

I’ve heard the suggestion that we use the Bill to tackle the gender bias in hereditary titles. So where titles - and the benefits that come with them - leapfrog eldest daughters and are handed down to younger sons or can be lost entirely when there is no male heir.

Personally I’m very sympathetic to that reform, and I can see why this seems like the natural time to do it. But, for purely practical reasons, it cannot be done in this Bill. Nor can we use the Bill to mop up any other constitutional odds and ends. Very simply, it cannot be broadened out to include UK-specific reforms because they are not relevant to the Realms of the Commonwealth. 

On the so-called ‘Catholic Question’, Mr Speaker, the Coalition Government is seeking to remove the current ban on heirs to the throne from marrying Catholics. Or, as the current legislation says, rather insultingly, from ‘marrying a papist’.

This law is a reflection of the times in which it was written. We’d seen nearly two centuries of religious strife within England, Scotland and Ireland; the threat of conflict with Louis XIV’s France and other Catholic powers; tension with Rome. An era when legal defences seemed vital against a dangerous threat from abroad.

And not just in the royal succession - in the 40 years after the Glorious Revolution a whole range of restrictions were put in place. 

Catholics couldn’t vote; they were excluded from all professions and public offices; they couldn’t go to university; couldn’t teach; couldn’t be the guardian of a child; couldn’t buy land with a lease of more than 31 years; couldn’t own a horse worth more than £5.

Edmund Burke called the laws “well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”.

Many were repealed relatively quickly. The ban on owning land in 1778; on voting and serving in the legal profession in 1793. By the time the ban on Catholics serving in this House as MPs, and serving as judges, was lifted in 1829, most of the main restrictions were gone.

And, years later, in November 1995, the visit by Her Majesty The Queen to Westminster Cathedral - the first time a reigning Monarch had set foot inside a Catholic Church since Queen Mary - was a watershed moment in relations between the British state and its millions of loyal, patriotic Catholic citizens.

Now it falls to us to complete this transformation, ridding ourselves of the arcane ban on Catholics marrying the monarch. This Bill does exactly that.

I know there are some concerns among some honourable members about potential unintended consequences of this reform: specifically, if a monarch is married to a Catholic and their heir has to be brought up in the Catholic faith. On becoming King or Queen they would then be unable to assume their role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That, in turn, would lead to the disestablishment of the state church. But if we follow that logic, we should be introducing bans on marriage to members of every other faith - and indeed people with no faith. Right now the monarch can marry a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, an atheist - yet no one is alleging today that we’re teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis.

The Catholic Church does not - and has not for some time - have any blanket rule dictating all children in mixed marriages must be brought up as Catholics. Indeed, look at the current Royal Family. Prince Michael of Kent is an Anglican, his wife a Catholic, and their heirs, Lord Frederick and Lady Gabriella Windsor, are Anglican and retain their places in line to the throne.

For anyone who’s still not convinced, I suggest they read the briefing issued to MPs by the Church of England’s parliamentary unit last week. It states that: “the present prohibition on anyone remaining in the line of succession or succeeding to the Crown as a result of marrying a Roman Catholic is not necessary to support the requirement that the Sovereign join in communion with the Church of England.”

Its proposed removal is a welcome symbolic and practical measure consistent with respect for the principle of religious liberty. It reflects the sea change in ecumenical relations over recent decades.

Yes, in matters of constitutional significance we should always proceed with care. Yes, we must always think through the potential knock on effects of reform. But we also need to move with the times. Discrimination is discrimination wherever we find it. And, just as we respect our traditions and cherish our monarchy, this House must never tolerate prejudice in our laws. Equality is, after all, a great British tradition too.

And with that, Mr Speaker, I commend this Bill to the House.