HC Deb 19 October 1943 vol 392 cc1247-53

Order for Second Reading read.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

In the Gracious Message which the Prime Minister delivered to the House when we resumed after the Summer Recess His Majesty the King asked us to take into consideration the amendment of the Regency Act, 1937, in such manner as, firstly, to provide for including among the Counsellors of State the person who is Heir Apparent or Heir Presumptive to the Throne, if over the age at which the accession of a Sovereign does not necessitate a Regency, which is, as the House will recall, the age of 18, and, secondly, to enable persons who are absent, or intended to be absent, from the United Kingdom to be excepted from among the number of Counsellors of State. In moving the Address in reply to the Gracious Message, the Prime Minister informed the House that a Bill to give effect to His Majesty's desires would be introduced in another place. The Government lost no time in introducing that Bill, which is now before the House, and I am sure the House will pass it with all reasonable expedition.

The purposes of the Bill are certain to commend themselves to the House generally, and it is an agreeable reminder of the assured position which the Monarchy now occupies that this should be so. In the long history of Parliament Regency Bills have been in the nature of legislative rarities. In the interesting historical survey which the present Lord Chancellor, who was then Home Secretary, made in moving the Second Reading of the Bill of 1937 he referred to four Regency Acts—and I think his list was comprehensive—before the present century, the Acts of 1536, 1751, 1811 and 1830. In our own time the balance has been somewhat redressed. This is the third Regency Bill within the recollection of senior Members of this House, and both the previous Bills, those of 1910 and 1937, though not wholly unopposed, commanded general support. This, however, was not always the case in respect of previous legislation on this subject. In 1751, for example, one of your predecessors, Sir, Mr. Speaker Onslow, took what was even then the unusual course of addressing the House in opposition to the Government's proposals. He said, taking perhaps an unduly gloomy view, though it is to be remembered that the Jacobite rising in '45 was fresh in the minds of his listeners: We are now going to place our country on the verge of a precipice from whence the least touch may tumble it headlong into confusion and civil wars, not only without any necessity but at a time when the Legislature never had a better opportunity or more cause to avoid the danger. Over the Act of 1811 controversy was still more acute and did little credit to any of the parties concerned. "Highly objectionable as it was in its own nature," said one of its opponents, "it was rendered still more so by the manner in which it has been argued"—a charge which at any rate on this occasion I do not think hon. Members are likely to level against me.

The Regency Act, 1937, which will be amended by the present Bill, was novel in that for the first time it made permanent provision for the three contingencies of the minority of the Sovereign on his succession, any incapacity of the Sovereign during his reign and the absence of the Sovereign from the United Kingdom. Previously, ad hoc provision had been made for those contingencies as they arose, which in the nature of things was when they were likely to be most difficult to deal with. It was because of the failure to make any permanent provision that, on the occasion of the Regency Bill of 1811, recourse had to be had to the doubtful expedient of conveying the Royal Assent by a Commission, purporting to be issued by the King, though he was, in fact, incapable at the time. It was because of the lack of permanent provision that when the need for action arose in the reigns of George II and George III political crises occurred. On the other hand, it was because of the controversial nature of these questions, that it was so difficult to find permanent solutions.

The Act of 1937, therefore, met a need which had long existed, and the present Bill will not in any major respect affect the permanent machinery which was instituted then. The provisions relating to a possible Regency will be unchanged, but the Bill will amend the provisions as regards the appointment of Counsellors of State on two points on which experience has brought anomalies to light. Subsection (2) of Section 6 of the 1937 Act provides that in the event of the Sovereign's illness or absence or intended absence from the United Kingdom, the Counsellors of State shall be the wife or husband of the Sovereign and the four persons who, excluding any persons disqualified under the Act from becoming Regent, are next in the line of succession to the Crown. The Sub-section is mandatory. There is to be no picking and choosing between the persons designated, and this is clearly right, provided that they are available to discharge the duties of a Counsellor of State. Discrimination would be invidious, would promote controversy and would serve no practical purpose. But the Act failed to provide for the possibility of the absence or intended absence from the United Kingdom of one or more of the designated persons at the time when circumstances necessitated the appointment of Counsellors of State.

When Their Majesties visited Canada and the United States of America in 1939, the Queen was automatically included among the Counsellors of State, though she was absent from the United Kingdom with the King. It is obviously anomalous that this should happen. The provision affects not only the Queen but any person qualified to be a Counsellor of State, and the same situation may well, of course, occur again. The point may not be of very great practical importance, since the Letters Patent appointing Counsellors of State may provide for a specified number of them to act, and the primary purpose of this Bill is not to deal with it, but the Government thought that the present opportunity should be taken of removing this anomaly. The Bill accordingly provides that if it appears to the Sovereign that any person who would be required to be included among the Counsellors of State is absent or intends to be absent from the United Kingdom during the whole or any part of the period during which the Royal functions are to be delegated, the Letters Patent may make provision for excepting that person from among the number of Counsellors of State.

The main purpose of the Bill, however, is to deal with the other matter to which His Majesty alluded, the approach of the Princess Elizabeth's 18th birthday and the desirability of enabling her to acquire experience by acting as a Counsellor of State if the opportunity should occur Eighteen is the age at which, in accordance with the Act of 1937, the Sovereign can begin to discharge the Royal functions without the necessity of a Regency. It will be, noted that the provision is statutory. There is nothing in the Common Law to this effect, as is sometimes supposed. Under the Common Law the Sovereign is never under age, but a succession of ad hoc Statutes have fixed 18 as the age at which the Sovereign could assume the full Royal powers, and the Act of 1937 made permanent provision on this basis.

For the Regent, however, it prescribed 21 and not 18 as the minimum age. The reason for the distinction was that it was felt than when a Sovereign died leaving a daughter slightly older than his eldest son, who would be the heir to the Throne, it was hardly suitable that she should be Regent until he attained the age of 18. It was felt better that the next in the line of succession who was of full age should be appointed. This, on the whole, seems right, and it is not proposed to make any change. But the Act also laid down 21 as the minimum age for being a Counsellor of State, and one consequence is that while the Heiress Presumptive on succeeding to the Throne could perform the Royal functions at 18, she is disqualified from performing the far less onerous and responsible functions of a Counsellor of State until she is 21.

It is the desire of the King and Queen, as His Majesty told us in the Gracious Message, that the Princess Elizabeth should have every opportunity of gaining experience in the duties which would fall upon her in the event of her accession to the Throne. This is a desire with which the House will be most sympathetic, and it will strike a chord of sympathy, too, in the hearts of every mother and father anxious like Their Majesties that their own children shall have the best possible opportunities of preparing themselves for their adult vocations. Formal though in the main the duties of a Counsellor of State may be, they will undoubtedly provide valuable training for the wider and heavier responsibilities of a constitutional monarchy, and the Bill accordingly provides not simply to meet the present need but as a permanent measure that the Heir Apparent or Heir Presumptive, if not under the age of 18, shall not be disqualified from being a Counsellor of State by reason only of his not being of full age. This will continue to be a disqualification in other cases, but t will, I think, be agreed that the position of the person who may at any time be called upon to assume the full powers of the Sovereign is exceptional and that the same considerations do not apply to others.

I do not think that I need argue the case for this proposal any further, and if I cite what is, at least, a partial precedent, it is more as a matter of interest than by way of argument. I have been looking up the history of this question—and very interesting history it is—and I find that while in the Middle Ages, when absences of the King were frequent, the Justiciar, or, at a later period, a Lieutenant, normally acted for him, Henry H appears to have contemplated the institution of a practice whereby his eldest son, though not of full age, should act in his absence. In accordance with the custom of the period the Prince was crowned in his father's lifetime, and, both before and after his coronation, he acted for his father in the latter's absence. The delimitation of functions between the Prince and the Justiciar, if such delimitation was made, is not clear, but in this capacity the Prince transacted business, issued writs and generally acted as Regent while still an infant.

Mr. McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston)

He signed the cheques.

Mr. Morrison

I do not know. We are not proposing to go as far as this. The Heir Apparent or Presumptive will act as one of the number of Counsellors of State under more experienced guidance and, of course, on the advice of Ministers, but the fundamental conception underlying the present proposal is the same as that of Henry II.

In conclusion, the House will wish to know that while the Dominions are not immediately affected by this Bill—the points with which it deals do not arise as far as they are concerned—the Government thought it right to inform them of what was proposed. I am sure that the House will approve of this action. The Mother Country and the Dominions are bound together in a common loyalty to the Crown, and although this Bill is, strictly speaking, a purely United Kingdoms matter, they are interested in any question intimately affecting the Throne. I do not suggest that this Bill is a Measure of great constitutional or political importance. Obviously it is not, but the occasion for it, the approach of the Princess Elizabeth's 18th birthday, is pleasing. It will make two useful improvements in the machinery of the 1937 Act, and in the confidence that it will be generally approved I ask the House to be good enough to give it a Second Reading.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)

I think that the Bill will meet with the approval of the House. I have not the erudition of my right hon. Friend, who has thrown a great light on these problems. I am sure that it seems to the House that it is right that Princess Elizabeth, on approaching the age of 18, should begin to be entrusted with some of those responsibilities which she may be called upon to fulfil in greater measure at some subsequent date. Therefore, on those grounds I believe the House will welcome the Measure. I would, if I may, take the opportunity very humbly to suggest that her future education might well be conducted in association and cooperation with others of like age, so that she may, before those responsibilities come upon her in all their fullness, have that knowledge and experience of life which will be of enormous assistance to her in the responsibilities which she may one day—I hope a long distant day—have to bear.

Sir Percy Harris (Bethnal Green, South-West)

I would like to give my support to the common-sense proposal contained in this Bill. It did not require the eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman to persuade the majority of the House that this is a proposition that should have the support of Parliament. We cannot forget that Queen Victoria ascended the throne at 18, that she discharged her difficult task with great skill, and that she inaugurated one of the greatest reigns in our history. It is a good thing that this young lady, who has the respect and affection of the whole nation, and who inspires such hopes for the future, should have the advantage of some experience in the difficult task she will ultimately have to undertake.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I was somewhat doubtful with regard to this Measure, but after I heard the Home Secretary the point of doubt in my mind was removed. This young lady is going to be put into this position, and I wondered whether, since the age at which her sisters in the country would qualify for the vote was 21, an exception in her case in connection with this matter should be made. I see, however, that there is this difference, that this is a matter of beginning her apprenticeship, and I do not think the age of 18 is a wrong age to begin the course of apprenticeship to the trade she will occupy in the future. Consequently, there is no objection that we take to the Measure. I thought that it was as well that I should make this point, in view of the position that my colleagues and I have taken with regard to previous occurrences in connection with the Royal House.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for the next Sitting Day. —[Mr. A. Young.]