Governments are often accused of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure. One such example is the Succession to the Crown Bill, backed by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and to be debated in the Commons next week.
The bill itself is deceptively simple. Clause 1 says that the gender of a person born after 28 October 2011 does not give that person any precedence in succeeding to the Crown. In practice, that means that if the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a daughter this year, that daughter would take precedence over any son born subsequently. Clause 2 of the bill removes the disqualification from succession to the Crown of those who marry or who have already married Roman Catholics. There will be no change to the provision in the Bill of Rights 1688 that excludes anyone who ‘shall professe the Popish Religion’ from the monarchy itself.
The third clause limits the requirement for all descendants of George II to obtain the monarch’s permission before marriage. It will apply only to the first six in line of succession. Why specify 28 October 2011? That was when the Commonwealth heads of government agreed to introduce the reforms in clauses 1 and 2 (only). They also agreed that the UK would be the first to legislate among the 16 countries of which the Queen is head of state. These ‘Commonwealth realms’, as they are called, include Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as some smaller countries and a few tiny specks in the ocean.
But there is no urgency about this at all. The legislation is retrospective and its effect will be the same whether it is passed before or after the expected birth of the Queen’s great-grandchild. Despite that, the government has decided to ‘fast-track’ the UK legislation. Unlike normal fast-track bills, though, this legislation is intended to be final. Why the rush? The government’s reasons, set out in explanatory notes to the bill, are utterly unconvincing.
The first is that ‘it is incumbent on the UK to act quickly to introduce legislation which accords with what has been agreed’ by Commonwealth governments. The second is that ‘following the recent announcement that the Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, the government believes that there is a general consensus that the law should be changed as soon as possible’.
The hollowness of these arguments is exposed by the government’s decision that the legislation, once passed, will not be brought into effect until all the other Commonwealth countries have changed their own laws. That could take years. Fortunately, the Prince of Wales has reminded us about the law of unintended consequences. What if his unborn grandchild were to marry a Catholic? And if that couple chose to bring up their children as Catholics? That would bar them from the throne. Is that what we would want?
And what would happen to the Duchy of Cornwall, which dates back to 1337? Would that have to be recreated so that it could descend through the female line? If so, why not do the same for all peerages? These questions are not unanswerable but they do require more thought. By contrast, the prime minister knew exactly what he thought about Sir Brian Leveson’s recommendation that an improved system of independent press regulation should have statutory underpinning. ‘I am not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives,’ David Cameron told MPs on the day Leveson’s report was published. ‘No matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would be more complicated.’
Complicated, perhaps, but too complicated? That was the implication that victims of press abuses set out to challenge. The Hacked Off campaign went to the trouble of publishing a draft bill of 12 clauses, just to show how easily it could be drafted. Nobody but the prime minister must have been surprised.
The bill’s main purpose would be to create a recognition commission, whose role would be to approve a ‘recognised regulator’ for the media. Complicated provisions would ensure that the commission’s members were as far removed as possible from government. Unless you take the view that the government should decide whether the media regulator is sufficiently independent or the media should continue to regulate itself without any outside supervision, it seems hard to avoid a structure such as this. This bill would also give regulated publishers advantages in costs and damages. Again, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without legislation.
In an ideal world, the media would move from an unsatisfactory system of self-regulation to one that meets the legitimate concerns of its critics. That might still happen. If it does not, the government should repent in haste and legislate at leisure.