The power of the well-phrased question: the Lords and the Succession to the Crown Bill

We are delighted to publish another guest post from Bob Morris of the Constitution Unit at UCL

There is nothing in Parliamentary debate quite like the well-phrased question for cutting to the heart of things. An issue is encapsulated and the minister has to respond. Unlike podium assemblies where speakers may hector without interruption, the UK Parliament can suddenly be made alive by a pithy intrusion.

That is what happened during the Lords committee stage on the Succession to the Crown Bill on 28 February. Under examination was the clause that would abolish the rule dating from 1689 that no-one married to a Catholic may succeed to the Throne. Discussion turned to an amendment (subsequently withdrawn) which would have permitted the Sovereign to be a Catholic but made arrangements during the reign for the Supreme Governorship to be shouldered by an Anglican qualified under the Regency Acts.  As noted previously – including by the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (PCRSC)[i] – removal of the Catholic marriage disqualification leaves intact the absolute ban on Catholics and anyone else not in communion with the Church of England from succeeding. The latter would, of course, disqualify Catholics (and most non-Anglicans) from succeeding even if the explicit ban on Catholics were removed.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (former Cabinet minister and Scottish Secretary who, as a member of the Kirk who worships with the Scottish Episcopalians,  describes himself as “a kind of hybrid”) asked what was it that the Government were trying to achieve with the provision:

“Are they trying to end discrimination against Roman Catholics or are they just trying to enable the Heir to the Throne to marry a Roman Catholic?”  [Lords Hansard 28 February 2013 c 1230].

He added that he would be horrified if it were the latter. Whilst it was a good thing that people who wanted to marry should be able to do so, he had thought that the provision “was part of a wider agenda of ending discrimination against Catholics. We need to understand why the Bill has not provided for that…”. Lord Stevenson then intervened to point out that the amendments tabled on the point went “to the heart of whether the present Anglican establishment in England can or even should remain in its present form” and suggested that it was time for further Parliamentary consideration in some appropriate committee. This suggestion gained some support though not from the minister, who sheltered behind the fiction that such matters were for Parliament alone itself to decide.

None of this will stop the Bill. Parliament knows when it is being bounced and in any case the things in the Bill are not in themselves bad things that should be stopped. On the other hand, what their Lordships pointed out was that, in the words of a witness before the PCRSC, “one cannot half open a can of worms, because all the worms will come out”.

Has the time come for Parliament to take a closer look? We shall see. What seems certain is that the Forsyth question will not go away.

[i] PCRSC Report, Rules of Royal Succession, 11th Report 2010-12, December 2011, HC 1615.

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