Succession to the Crown

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in Parliamentary News

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I beg to move,

    That leave be given to bring in a Bill to remove any distinction between the sexes in determining the succession to the Crown.

At very outset, I need to declare my interest. No, Mr Speaker, I am not one of those who is in line to the throne. However, I am a fervent monarchist. I believe passionately that the British monarchy is an institution widely respected and highly regarded in this country and greatly admired abroad and that the current occupant of the throne will go down in history as one of the greatest monarchs that we have ever had. This one-clause Bill therefore seeks to celebrate the monarchy and strengthen it, rather than to cause any mischief.

For the past 300 years, the basis for succeeding to the throne has been determined by male preference primogeniture. A product of the 17th century’s constitutional developments, the Act of Settlement 1701 enshrined men as first in line to the throne regardless of age.

At this time, the next in line to the throne is His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. He is followed by His Royal Highness Prince William. The Bill will not affect that line of succession. Only a couple of months ago, the House joined the rest of the country in celebrating the engagement of Prince William to Miss Catherine Middleton. This is therefore the right time to look at the issue.

Any daughters of Prince William would not succeed their father to the throne if they had a male sibling younger than them. Whereas that might have been acceptable in another age, I believe that at this time in our history Britain is a modern, egalitarian society and that this ought to be reflected in our succession rules. Thus, before any question arises over the heir to the throne, we need to resolve this now. History has shown us the need for absolute clarity. I have known for a long time, and the Leader of the Opposition discovered recently, that it is always better to know where we stand with respect to our siblings, royal or otherwise.

At the centre of this debate is a great principle: gender equality. In Britain, we have had a woman Prime Minister and continue to see more women in the House, though we need even more. The reality is that the public want more women to take high office. The 2001 census showed that Britain is a majority female country: 52% compared with 48% men. The success of women is nowhere better reflected than in the monarchy.

Three of the country’s longest-serving and most successful monarchs have been women. The 58-year reign of Queen Elizabeth I during that golden age, and Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign, when Britannia literally ruled the waves, are only two examples; another is our current monarch. Queen Elizabeth II has for 58 years led Britain through dramatic and significant changes in an outstanding and exemplary manner and will celebrate her diamond jubilee in 2012.

Queens have served Britain longer and, some would argue, with more stability than Kings. It might be pertinent to mention that Her Majesty may never have become Queen if her father, King George VI, and her mother, Queen Elizabeth, had had a younger son instead of a younger daughter, Princess Margaret.

Parliament has in the past demonstrated its ability to act against male dominance in the line of succession. In 1688, when James II fled the country, Parliament decreed that he had “abdicated the government” and the throne was offered to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, as joint rulers, rather than his son, James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): That’s all right.

Keith Vaz: James was not a member of the Scottish National party.

Our country leads the way in equality issues, and that should be reflected in our succession rules. Comparing our succession laws internationally highlights the advancement of our European counterparts. The House might often be wary of looking to our European partners to set the standards but, on equality in succession rules, I am afraid that Europe is ahead of the game.

Five monarchies have already eliminated male dominance and introduced equality. In Sweden, after the retroactive approval of equal succession rights in 1979, the older Victoria became Crown Princess over her younger brother, Prince Carl Phillip, and she will be the future Queen of Sweden. In the Netherlands, equal succession was adopted in 1983 under the reign of Queen Beatrix. In Norway, the adoption of equal succession rights in 1990 will not allow Princess Märtha Louise to be Queen over her younger brother, but the rights will apply to his children. In Belgium, a system that excluded females entirely from succeeding to the throne was replaced in 1991, allowing Princess Elisabeth to be second in line to the throne. The Danish public approved a referendum in 2009 whereby women could succeed equally to the throne.

Sex discrimination has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1975. Some 35 years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Britain’s employers must ensure equality between the sexes. Those who break the law are rightly punished. The Bill attempts to bring such gender equality into our succession rules.

There is clearly cross-party support for the Bill in the House, and I thank all the Bill’s supporters for backing the measure. There is also significant public support. A YouGov poll following the royal engagement highlighted strong public support for equality in succession. More than 70% of those polled felt that men and women should be treated equally in the line of succession to the throne. A poll last weekend in probably the most respected local newspaper in the world-the Leicester Mercury-also confirmed that view, with 68% of those who participated agreeing that there should be equal rights to succession.

As is required for a constitutional change of this kind, I have written to Her Majesty, the Prince of Wales, Prince William, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament and the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly. I have also written to the Prime Ministers of all 15 Commonwealth countries whose sovereign is still the Queen to ask for their support, as the right of primogeniture holds force in those countries.

Today, I received a reply from Her Majesty’s private secretary, who wrote:

    “The Queen has asked me to thank you for your letter of 20th December with its kind sentiments about the forthcoming marriage of Prince William with Miss Catherine Middleton. You made reference to the Bill which you will be proposing in Parliament on 18th January to which you hoped Her Majesty would be willing to lend her support.

    It was most thoughtful of you to have alerted the Queen to your interest and you can be certain that the proceedings in Parliament will, as always in such matters, be followed here with close interest. As to Her Majesty’s own views, it is of course her custom only to act in matters of this kind on the advice of her Ministers. In this particular case, the fundamental issue is one upon which the common advice of all sixteen of the Commonwealth Realms would first be required. You will…be aware of the…British Government’s position as expressed by Lord McNally in the House of Lords”.

It is therefore over to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)-the Minister sitting on the Front Bench-to give his advice to the monarchy.

There are many champions of the equality movement in the House and many more outside. You, Mr Speaker, have been a fervent supporter of gender equality and diversity within Parliament for many years. We have heard much about the film “The King’s Speech” in recent weeks, but let us focus today on the speeches of our future Queens. We have a 21st century monarch and we need 21st century succession rules to match. God save not only this Queen but our future Kings and Queens to come, but let them succeed to the throne on the basis of equality-a noble and vital principle that should be the cornerstone of all political and public life. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Keith Vaz, Lorely Burt, Lorraine Fullbrook, Siobhain McDonagh, Sir Peter Bottomley, Bob Russell, Valerie Vaz, Simon Hughes, Martin Caton and Nick de Bois present the Bill.

Keith Vaz accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May , and to be printed (Bill 133).