Government blocks equality in the monarchy

By staff

Far-reaching plans to rid the monarchy of male-preference and anti-Catholicism have been blocked by the government.

Justice secretary Jack Straw told the Commons during today’s debate of the bill, put forward by Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, that it was not the “appropriate vehicle” for such an extensive series of reforms.

But Mr Straw said the pressure for changes in the monarchy had now made it a “higher priority” for the government.

His assurances failed to reassure back benchers supporting the bill, however.

He was repeatedly challenged to give a clear timetable for enacting change, and was forced to admit the chances of a bill before the next general election were “very limited”.

Mr Straw was still speaking when time ran out at 2.30pm and the royal marriages and succession to the crown (prevention of discrimination) bill now stands no chance of making progress.

The government had said it did not intend to back the private members bill, but discussions had been taking place between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace along the same lines.

These included plans to rid the monarchy of its anti-Catholic rules.

A BBC poll released today found 80 per cent of the public want equal rights of succession for women.

“There are clearly issues about the exclusion of people from the rights of succession and there are clearly issues that have got to be dealt with,” Gordon Brown said from Brazil, where he was travelling yesterday on route to Chile.

“This is not an easy set of answers.

“But I think in the 21st Century people do expect discrimination to be removed and they do expect us to be looking at all these issues”.

Government officials stressed the difficulty of implementing any changes, which would require agreement from 15 other Commonwealth countries.

It had appeared there was momentum within government to reform the rules laid down by the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics, or those who marry Catholics, from becoming King or Queen.

Under current rules, elder sisters must make way for their younger brothers.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “The government has always stood firmly against discrimination in all its forms, including against Roman Catholics, and we will continue to do so.

“To bring about changes to the law on succession would be a complex undertaking involving amendment or repeal of a number of items of related legislation, as well as requiring the consent of legislatures of member nations of the Commonwealth.

“We are examining this complex area although there are no immediate plans to legislate.”

Earlier Dr Harris said the reform was a long time coming.

“When first elected 12 years ago they said they would end unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. But there has been no action to back that up,” he said.

“They need to support this bill today, amend it as necessary and make sure it passes. They can’t wait until next year because our constitution also tells us that their time is up in June. This is the last chance.”

The Act of Settlement stipulates that only the Protestant heirs of Sophia, granddaughter of James I, can become King or Queen.

It was drawn up during a period of acute religious strife to protect Protestant succession, but has increasingly been condemned as discriminatory against both Catholics and women in the modern world.