Royal Succession: the UK fast-tracks it

It’s only a common sense change, so says the government. Then why is it trying to ram the Succession to the Crown bill through parliament, especially when the thirteen* other realms haven’t even started yet? What’s the rush?

It’s only been introduced and read a first time so far (on the 13th of December) but there has already been some parliamentary activity already on this. About a year before this bill was published, the Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform reported on the issue of Royal succession reform and broadly endorsed the principles behind the proposals while questioning whether the role of the Church of England in the monarchy should be considered ‘in due course’. There was little more they were prepared to say without a bill in front of them to scrutinise.

After first reading, the government tabled a programme motion intending to take the bill through all of its stages in one day. This understandably caused a bit of a backlash and the motion was withdrawn from the order paper and replaced with an allocation of time motion giving it a whole two days’ debate. Today time allocation will be debated for up to three hours and if approved second reading will take up to four hours and committee stage will take up to six hours.

With the number of amendments tabled, each amendment should get an average of fifteen minutes debate each. Usually, of course, the Commons doesn’t get past the first few within the time limit and then has to vote on them all whether they’ve even been mentioned in debate or not. Arguably, this is not enough time considering the issues being debated and when the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution reported on the bill it was scathing on the restrictions on debate. It hinted menacingly that the House of Lords ‘will no doubt wish to reflect on whether a similar approach would allow for proper deliberation and scrutiny in the Lords’.

The committee also did some quick scrutiny on potential unintended consequences of the legislation. These fell into four categories:

  • The religion of a child from a mixed-religion marriage: the committee raises the question of whether a Catholic who married an heir would be obliged to raise the child Catholic – the government position is that there is no longer a doctrine in the Catholic church on that.
  • The remaining Royal marriage veto on the six highest individuals in the line of succession: the committee raise the question of whether the monarch would veto a marriage on the basis that they would marry a Catholic – the government maintains these are separate issues.
  • Letters patent of the Duke of Cornwall: the Duchy of Cornwall, which gives private funds to the Prince of Wales, descends only to male heirs according to the letters patent and hence a female heir would not have access to those funds at present.
  • Letters patent in general: like the Political and Constitutional Reform committee before them, the Constitution committee raises the question of whether normal aristocratic succession should be reformed.

The committee doesn’t take a firm position on any of these issues but makes the point that these issues must be debated thoroughly in Parliament not ignored because the government says to trust them.

I’ve categorised the twenty-four amendments tabled for today’s Committee of the Whole House fall into ten strands, as defined by Russell and Johns, each with the sponsor’s party attached:

  1. Gender equality rules become entirely retrospective (1 amendment – Labour backbencher – not moved)
  2. Drafting amendment on marriage equality (1 amendment – Conservative backbencher – not selected)
  3. Allowing Catholics to ascend to the throne (9 amendments – Labour backbenchers – not selected)
  4. Drafting amendment on removing the Catholic spouse disqualification (1 amendment – Conservative backbencher – withdrawn)
  5. Ensure heirs cannot be Catholic (1 amendment – Democratic Unionist – not selected)
  6. Allowing Catholics to ascend to the throne (4 amendments – Conservative backbencher – not selected)
  7. Giving the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England to a regent when necessary (2 amendments – Conservative backbencher – not selected)
  8. Drafting amendment on the Sovereign’s consent to Royal marriages (1 amendment – Government – passed)
  9. Holding a referendum on the monarchy after the death of Elizabeth II (3 amendments – Labour backbencher – not selected)
  10. Diverting the succession to adopted children of any heir in a civil partnership (1 amendment – Labour backbenchers – not selected)

As Russell and Johns note, the process is not without subjectiveness but I’ve tried my best to follow their guidelines, the most important of which being that amendments belong in the same strand it they cannot stand alone or concern the same or similar topics in the same clause. I’ve included consequential amendments in the strand, though I’m a little uncertain if that’s what Russell and Johns did. Either way, it’s an interesting experiment and I can always change it if need be.

A couple of things: only one Conservative backbencher, Jacob Rees-Mogg, actually tabled amendments to this bill so he’s responsible for a third of the total tabled amendments. Of the rest, a total of four Labour backbenchers sponsored all but one. John McDonnell and Katy Clark top the list with nine, Paul Flynn has five, and Kelvin Hopkins has one. The lone DUP amendment is from Ian Paisley Jr. There’s only one government amendment, one that corrects some drafting.

No doubt some of these amendments are just probing amendments, designed to let the Commons debate a certain provision without ever intending to vote on the issue. But all the same, I can see at least two that have a reasonable chance of being voted on (Ian Paisley’s keep-the-monarchy-protestant amendment and Paul Flynn’s referendum – doubt either will pass but I get the impression that the hardliners on both sides wouldn’t mind making their point) and one that I’d expect to pass unanimously (the government’s drafting amendment).

The remaining stages of the bill will, if the allocation of time motion passes, be taken on Monday the 28th of January. The bill is not likely to get a second reading in the Lords until at least the 11th of February and they may drag the process out a little if they feel some issues haven’t been debated enough.

Personally I agree with the principles behind the bill, but that’s no reason to fast-track it. It would be a nice thought if we didn’t rush changing the constitution.

I’ll update later on with voting figures and success rates and all that.

UPDATE: Right, as expected only the government drafting amendment made it, but only three amendments were actually selected by the Chairman of Committees for debate. The first was from Paul Flynn MP (Lab) ensuring retrospective equality in the line of succession and it wasn’t moved because Paul Flynn thought his amendments had not been selected. The second was from Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (Con) which allowed discussion on removing the Catholic spouse disqualification was withdrawn as a probing amendment.

Allocation of time motion was debated for an hour, second reading for the full four hours, and committee stage for one hour forty-eight minutes.

*To change the rules of succession to the Crown requires legal changes in fourteen of the sixteen Commonwealth Realms*. Being without a codified constitution, the bill requires no special majorities, resolutions or referendums or anything like that. The other two, Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea, specially refer in law to the rules of succession in the United Kingdom (see the appendix).
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