HC Deb 21 June 1910 vol 18 cc205-11

Order for Second Beading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


I am heart and soul in agreement with the Prime Minister in hoping that the contingency contemplated by this Bill may never arise. In point of fact such a contingency has never arisen. Altogether there have been four Regency Bills. The first was in 1537 by Henry VIII., and it was the only one that ever came into operation. I think we are pretty safe in believing that such a Regency Bill as this will not come into operation in the present case. This Bill, in my judgment, involves principles which are not completely consonant with constitutional usage in this House. I know the Prime Minister has stated that this Regency Bill is an absolutely necessary one, but I traverse that statement. Should it please God to remove the King tomorrow the present Heir-Apparent would be amply and abundantly competent to carry out all the duties required of him. I ask that the right hon. Gentleman should direct his attention to the fact that, although four Regency Bills have been introduced during the last 317 years, not a single Regency Bill has contemplated a Regency taking effect when the Heir-Presumptive has reached the age of sixteen years. Take the Regency Bill of Henry VIII. It was passed in the year Edward VI. was born, and in reference to the age-limit it is interesting to note that it was in the event of a Prince of eighteen years of age or a princess sixteen years of age. I think in these days when women's rights are so much in the ascendant that the age for a King attaining full power may easily be sixteen years of age instead of eighteen, inasmuch as Henry VIII. was no very great admirer of ladies.

I now come to the Regency Bill of 1751. Under that Bill George III., the Heir-Presumptive was eleven years of age. Under the Regency Bill of 1765 George IV. was three years of age, and in the case of the Bill of 1830 Queen Victoria was only eleven years of age. In 1840 no children were of age at all, because none of them were born. Why should we have all this embarrassing legislation for a contingency which we all hope and believe will not arise, and even if it does arise the present Heir-Apparent would be fully able to fulfil all the duties of the position. Take the case of Queen Victoria in 1830 immediately after the death of George IV. If was said by the Liberal party then: "How can you dissolve Parliament and leave no provision with regard to the succession?" The King is sixty-five years of age, and the Heir Apparent is only eleven. Sir Robert Peel answered that admirably. He said:— We may hear a great deal about the power of the Crown in this case. and then he said:— The powers of the Grown is now vested in the hands of responsible Ministers, and they and they alone, are responsible for them. What difference is there between a youth of sixteen and a youth of eighteen so far as great political power and management are concerned? I should say none whatever. The matter is one absolutely of Ministerial responsibility, and, if that is so, this Bill is as useless as we all hope it may be inoperative. Mr. Gladstone, expounding the political institutions of England for the benefit of the American Republic, in 1878, spoke of Ministers having absolute responsibility and of the Crown having practically none except through their hands. This is what he said:— There can be in England no disloyalty more gross as to its effects than this superstition which affects to assign to the Sovereign a separate and so far as separate transcendental sphere of political action. Anonymous servility has in these last days hinted such a doctrine, but it is no more practicable to make it thrive in England than to have ten jungles of Bengal on Salisbury Plain. Having said that much, may I, without entering into details, say how I think this Bill, although useless, is not consonant with the principles of government as we understand them. The illustrious person named in the Bill is perhaps the very best selection on constitutional principles that could be made, and absolutely accords with the constitutional precedents; but there are powers in which this Regent, if she were appointed, would be curtailed in the exercise of the Prerogative. It is said that a Regent should, if possible, on account of the uncertainty and embarrassing position, have more power than the Sovereign. These three cases in which the Prerogative is concerned, such as the succession to the Throne, are merely relics of past times, and could have been safely left out. The other matters in reference to the Scotch and Established Church are there, but I think it would be in constitutional principle and practice to leave out everything which indirectly re-establishes the Veto of the Crown. It is really contrary to the tendency of legislation of both Houses. I hope the Prime Minister will have no great difficulty in leaving that out.

There is another provision—Section 5— in reference to religious declarations. The Bill is a great improvement on other Bills, but it was only such an improvement as you would expect when you have a Gentleman at the head of the Administration who from his early years has had a hatred of religious disabilities of any kind. Section 5, however, is not necessary for the purpose for which it is enacted. In the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 the Regent was one of the specially excluded officers. Strange to say, that fact was relied on in 1867 in the House of Lords, when an endeavour was made to repeal the Declaration with reference to minor officers. I think I have stated the chief things that may in some way or other need rectification if it be necessary to pass this Bill, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, in reference to the principle that there is no infancy for the Sovereign and to the well-known constitutional morality that Ministers, and Ministers alone, are responsible for the Executive Government of the country, whether it might not be well to drop the Bill? I hope, in any case, the Bill will never come into operation, and that His Majesty the King may see his children's children.

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

The House always listens with interest and no doubt instruction to my hon. and learned Friend when he deals with points of constitutional law and history. On such points there is no higher authority among us, and for that reason I have listened with great consideration and respect to what he has said on the various points he has raised. As regards, first of all, the necessity of a Bill of this kind, I entirely agree with him that in point of law the Sovereign, though still an infant, is capable of discharging all regal acts; but, nevertheless, it has always been felt that at least the same precautions which a man would take with regard to his own private property by providing a proper guardianship for his heir during infancy ought to be taken by the Legislature when dealing with such an infinitely important matter as the succession to the Crown and the exercise of the various prerogatives which still belong, and always; will, I trust, belong to the holder of the Throne. It has, therefore, with the single exception he mentioned in the reign of Henry VIII., when I think the age was sixteen, been the uniform rule in a Regency Bill to provide for the continuance of the Regency till the child who succeeds to the Throne attains the age of eighteen.

4.0 P.M.

As the hon. Member suggested, it makes no difference whatsoever as to at what stage of the child's life you make the provision— whether at the time of the Regency the child is seven or whether he is sixteen years of age. According to law, it does not matter at what particular age we make the provision. We act upon precedents. In the most recent—in the case of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in 1830, and in the case of our late lamented Sovereign, in 1840—we provided for the Regency to continue until the successor to the Throne came to the age of eighteen. With regard to the other points raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman, he will agree with me, I think, that they are Committee points, and do not strictly rise on the Second Reading of the Bill. I agree there is some force in what the hon. and learned Member said as to whether it is necessary in the altered conditions of modern times to continue the provisions of the fourth Clause of the Bill. But they are copied from previous enactments, and the omission of them may give rise to suspicions and apprehensions in some over-sensitive quarters, although I do not believe that the dangers against which they are intended to guard are dangers which in any real sense of the word need fill our minds with the notion that it is necessary to take precautions against them. On the whole, however, it seems better to follow precedent and to adhere to established rule. With regard to the fifth Clause my hon. and learned Friend has acknowledged that in point of phraseology it is an improvement on precedent, although it makes no alteration in substance. While I think the hon. Member was well founded in saying that the terms of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 are in themselves sufficient to disable any person professing the Roman Catholic faith from exercising the office of Regent. In the two cases which have occurred since 1829 the corresponding provision was inserted ex abundante candela, and that is the reason why the Government have thought it very desirable to put the provision into this Bill. These are not arguments of substance, but they are Committee points which, if necessary, can be discussed at a later stage. I will only conclude by once more re-echoing the wish expressed by my hon. and learned Friend, and shared, I am sure, by every Member in every quarter of the House, that the contingency contemplated by the Bill may never come into operation.


; There are several points in the Bill to which objection may be raised, and which certainly are deserving the consideration of the House. For instance, there is the latter part of Clause 3, which provides that if the Sovereign enters into a marriage which is objected to by the Regent that marriage can be declared null and void. That is a very serious provision in itself. What does it mean 1 It means that the Sovereign is under a great temptation to enter into a marriage knowing that the full responsibility of marriage, as it is generally recognised in this country, does not rest upon him. He knows that the marriage can be lightly set aside, and he therefore does not enter into it with that feeling of responsibility which ordinary citizens have. I think it is wrong to put such a temptation before the Sovereign. But looking at the matter from the point of view of the poor girl who happens to fall in love with the Sovereign, it is indeed an extremely hard case. She is to be punished, while he is to get off scot-free. Then, again, the persons who act as matchmakers are subject to a very grave penalty—for death, I believe, is the punishment awarded for high treason. Again, why should the poor girl who has been foolish enough to fall in love with the Sovereign and marry him be liable to the same fearful penalty as that set apart for high treason? I think these are serious objections to the latter part of Clause 3. Again, to Clause 5 there are great objections. There are many on this side of the House who hold that there ought to be no religious disabilities whatever. The fact that a Government which not so very long ago tried to get rid of religious tests in education should now be making proposals which would have the effect of allowing a test to be imposed on the person whose duty it is to educate the Sovereign is most inconsistent. I fully recognise, however, that these are objections that can and will no doubt be raised in Committee on this Bill.


I should not have intervened in this discussion but for the observations of the hon. and learned Member for Donegal, who is admittedly a very profound student of constitutional law and history—who deserves all praise in respect of the depth and width of his knowledge, but who does not always bring to bear upon it judgment as sound as his reading is deep. On this particular occasion he has seemed to lay down a doctrine which appears to me to be utterly unconstitutional. According to his showing the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility altogether supersedes the exercise of will on the part of the Sovereign in the performance of legal Acts. I am sure that that is an entirely unconstitutional doctrine. As recently as 1850 it was laid down that it was untrue that the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility had superseded the freedom of the exercise of the Sovereign's will. Indeed, Ministerial responsibility means exactly what it says: Ministers are responsible legally, and in extreme cases criminally, for the acts of the Sovereign done when they are in the position of advisers of the Crown. The Sovereign in every case exercises an absolutely free choice in legal acts, but the Ministers have the choice, if their advice is neglected, to continue in office and accept responsibility or to resign. The Sovereign, like any other citizen of this country, is bound to act according to law, and it is entirely untrue to say that modern constitutional practice has reduced him to a dummy. The Constitution leaves the Sovereign perfectly free to perform all legal acts, and Ministers, if their advice is neglected, can either resign or accept responsibility.


I can only echo most sincerely the hope that this Bill will never come into operation. But I want to draw the attention of the House to Clause 4, which prevents the Regent from giving assent to any Bill for repealing, changing, or in any way varying the course of succession, or repealing or altering the Act of Uniformity. The present Government are pledged up to the hilt to uphold the disestablishment of the Church in Wales. The great majority of their supporters are also pledged to vote for that measure, and surely that means altering the Act of Uniformity, and if disestablishment is not held to be altering the Act of Uniformity, then I think this particular provision is of very little value. Another question being raised by devout Churchmen was that of the revision of the Prayer Book, which is clearly an alteration of the Act of Uniformity. I think it is very unsafe to put forward the suggestion that the number of subjects to which the Regent may give assent should be limited, because it must hamper Parliament; and although it may be suggested that these are obsolete provisions, the very fact that they are re-enacted in 1910 tends to show that they are not so very obsolete. There was a good deal of trouble with George III. in respect to the Catholic Emancipation Act with regard to the Coronation Oath, and if you are going to re-enact these obsolete provisions you will give great justification to any future Regent to say that Parliament has just recently affirmed this principle. Then, as regards Clause 5, I have always been brought up as a most convinced Protestant Dissenter myself, but I agree with my hon. Friend who has just spoken that the time has come for all of us who advocate freedom from tests for teachers to also advocate freedom from tests for the Regent. I believe that there should be absolute religious equality for all religious sects before the law of this country. I ask for that myself, and I am freely willing to give it to all other sects, whether I agree with them or not. They, at all events, ought to have the same rights that I have, as far as the law is concerned. That, too, belongs to an obsolete time. No one, I think, believes now that the personal act of the Sovereign can be of sufficient importance to affect the Protestant character of the religion of the people of this country, and if we cannot remain Protestant without these safeguarding provisions of Acts of Parliament, it seems to me about time we ceased to be Protestant altogether, for our religious faith cannot be of a very valuable description. When the Prime Minister introduced this Bill a few days ago he told us that it was strictly founded upon precedent, and I have no doubt that that is correct; but may I suggest to him that there are a great many precedents which are extremely bad, and that human progress is bound up in breaking bad precedents?

Bill read a second time.

Resolved, "That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House."— [The Prime Minister]