Succession to the Crown Bill: the Commons committee proceedings


The Succession to the Crown Bill has completed its passage through the Commons. Much of the debate has been about technical matters relating to subsidiary Styles and Titles such as the Lordship of the Isles and the Duchy of Cornwall. However, some of the debate related very much to issues of law and religion.

During the first day in Committee of the whole House Chloe Smith reiterated that the changes proposed in the Bill were limited to removing the bar on marriage to a Roman Catholic. The Bill did not allow a Roman Catholic to accede to the Throne, nor did it touch the basis of the established Church. Because she understood that the Church of Scotland does not define itself as an “established Church” she went no further into Scottish matters – but she assured the House that the Church of Scotland had been consulted.

During the second dayJacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con) moved a New Clause to remove the bar on the Sovereign “succeeding to the Crown or … possessing it as a result of that person not joining in communion with the Church of England as by law established”. In essence, what Rees-Mogg proposed was splitting the position of Sovereign and the position of Supreme Governor, so that if the Monarch were a Roman Catholic the next Anglican in line of succession would be Supreme Governor. In addition, the House debated (but did not vote on) his amendments to remove the statement in the Act of Settlement 1700/01 that a child brought up as a Roman Catholic would be deemed “for ever incapable of succeeding to the Crown”.

Rees-Mogg’s basic point was fairness:

“If there were to be no change in our plans for the succession, I would not be the one charging the barricades and saying that we ought to be changing them, but the Government have proposed this change, which they wish to limit to a very narrow sphere. They wish to limit it to making primogeniture equal among males and females, and to allowing marriage to Catholics, without considering the grating unfairness that currently exists in our laws of succession in an age of much greater toleration, and in an age in which so many of the areas in which the Queen is sovereign do not have an established Church”.

Though himself a Roman Catholic, he supported an established Church as “good for the body politic” but an established Church obviously could not have as its head somebody who belonged to another Church because that would be both logically inconsistent and unfair on the Church of England. His proposal was designed to maintain establishment while removing the inherent unfairness in the present situation.

In reply, Chloe Smith said that the Government agreed with Rees-Mogg’s understanding of the Act of Settlement as meaning that a Roman Catholic may not convert to the Protestant faith and then succeed to the Throne – though that had never been tested. The bar appeared to be on anyone who has ever “professed” the Roman Catholic faith, or held communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Once disqualified, the exclusion from succeeding to the Throne was permanent.

The Bill had never been intended to address the religion of the Monarch or of those in the line of succession; moreover, changing the law in this area would require consultation and the agreement of the Commonwealth realms. Secondly, the amendments would add greater uncertainty to the line of succession.

The New Clause would split the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England from the role of Sovereign, in a method akin to a regency. Such a split would represent a fundamental change to the role of the Monarch in English society in relation to the established Church, and could not be considered without extensive consultation. The Government had no intention of going further than the limited scope of the Bill as presented. The amendments and the New Clause would introduce unwelcome instability and uncertainty.

She reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Church of England as the established Church, with the Sovereign as its Supreme Governor. The relationship between Church and state in England was an important part of the constitutional framework; and the Government had no intention of legislating to disestablish the Church of England. The Government’s view was that allowing a person of the Roman Catholic faith to accede to the Throne would clearly be incompatible with the requirement for the Sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England.

The New Clause was negatived on division by 371 to 38. The Bill was read the third time and passed. The Bill as amended in Committee is available here.

2 thoughts on “Succession to the Crown Bill: the Commons committee proceedings

  1. To which Bob Morris has e-mailed the following comment:

    The religious tests

    As the bill goes to the Lords it might be useful to reflect further on the detail of what was said in the Commons debates on 22 and 28 January about the place of religious tests in our constitution.

    Of the three tests, two – ineligibility of Catholic believers and those married to Catholics – are directed explicitly at Catholics and one – the requirement to be “in communion with” the Church of England – excludes Catholics and all others unable to satisfy the requirement. The bill would abolish only the second of the three tests.

    The proceedings on 28 January were dominated by the attempt of Jacob Rees-Mogg to remove the remaining tests:

    “As the discrimination on the grounds of sex is no longer necessary, or can no longer be argued for logically, nor can exclusions on the grounds of religion” [Commons Hansard 28 January 2013 c 697].

    Stressing that he was not opposed to church establishment per se, he proposed a device which, he claimed, would permit a Catholic to succeed without challenging the sovereign’s current roles in respect of the Church of England. The device turned on using the Regency Acts to identify a Protestant who could assume the sovereign’s duties much as Catholic and other non-Anglican cabinet ministers relinquish any Anglican-related duties to Anglican colleagues during their term of office. Whilst the device was technically inadequate and imperfect, it gave MPs an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the bill fell short of dealing with the other remaining disqualifications affecting Catholics and others.

    Understandably, this discussion – as on 22 January in a very thin House – was dominated by Catholics. Interestingly, they appear to have felt obliged simultaneously to object to the disqualifications and declare something like reverence for Anglicanism – the latter position slipping slightly only once [c 708] when the alleged elasticity of Anglicans’ demands on adherents was naughtily raised. Loyalty to the monarchy was also stressed, as if that were nowadays still in question for Catholics. As Frank Cranmer has reported, Jacob Rees-Mogg pressed the matter to a division and lost by three to one.

    What may be made from all this? As a proportion of those voting on a probably lightly-whipped occasion, the supporters of the amendment (not all Catholics and not joined by the Opposition front bench) constituted just over nine per cent but still nearly six per cent of the whole House. Only rarely in the two days was the point being circled and not voiced explicitly: that is, whether the headship of the state needs any longer to be yoked to a particular religious denomination. An SNP Catholic, Angus MacNeil, said of the bill:

    “It is only a halfway house – a real dog’s breakfast of broken biscuits. It deals with succession and partially with freedom of religion, but it leaves the question of full freedom of religion untouched” [22 January 2013 c 226]

    Another MP, Nia Griffith, thought that there was another downside in persisting with the religious tests:

    “…if someone is expected to take on the role of monarch, we are putting them in a situation in which they will have to pay lip service to a faith, possibly one in which they do not believe, making a mockery of those who have a true faith” [22 January 2013 c 237].

    As Frank Cranmer has pointed out, the government was, of course, not having any of this. To be fair, the bill was, after all, a strictly limited exercise pre-agreed with no fewer than fifteen Commonwealth countries. The minister, Chloe Smith, in what appears to have been a carefully pre-scripted formula, was adamant:

    “…let me state again that the Government are absolutely committed to the Church of England as the established Church, with the sovereign as its Supreme Governor. We consider that the relationship between Church and state in England is an important part of the constitutional framework. It has evolved over centuries and the Government have no intention of legislating to disestablish the Church of England. It is important to state that. The Government’s view is that allowing a person of the Roman Catholic faith to accede to the throne would clearly be incompatible with the requirement for the sovereign to be in communion with the Church of England” [28 January 2013 c 721].

    She said this in reply to the senior government backbencher, Nicholas Soames, who asked the minister whether she agreed that what Rees-Mogg had with his interventions “just shown is that what has been completely settled and without question can now be open to challenge? Does she believe that this is a sensible way to proceed when overturning 1,000 years of British history?” [c 721].

    Has the genie been now let out of the bottle?

  2. Pingback: Royal Requiem for Richard III? | Law & Religion UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *