Act of Settlement – Reform Postponed

The UK Coalition Government appears to have quietly abandoned plans, mooted by the then Labour Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) in 2009 but also backed by the Liberal Democrats before the general election last May, to reform the Act of Settlement 1701.

That, at least, is the implication of a written Parliamentary answer on 30 June by Mark Harper, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform at the Cabinet Office and Conservative MP for the Forest of Dean.

Asked by William Bain, Labour MP for Glasgow North-East, whether the Government intended to ‘bring forward proposals to change the law to enable Roman Catholics or those married to Roman Catholics to succeed to the throne’, Harper’s reply was that: ‘There are no current plans to amend the laws on succession.’

The Act of Settlement 1701 was passed at a time when there were uncertainties regarding the succession to the English throne, as well as a widespread fear of, and discrimination against, Roman Catholics. The legislation was subsequently extended to Scotland and the British Empire and Commonwealth, and its provisions remain in force.

The Act’s exclusion of Roman Catholics or persons married to a Roman Catholic from the line of succession to the throne has long been regarded as anomalous, in a society which has become religiously pluralistic and committed to equality of opportunities.

The Government’s decision to put reform of the Act on the back-burner certainly appears to fly in the face of majority opinion, according to the most recent polls.

Thus, a YouGov survey for the Sunday Times on 13-14 November 2008 (conducted online among a sample of 2,080 adults aged 18 and over) found that 62% supported a change in the law to allow a future monarch to marry a Roman Catholic and still assume the throne. 19% were opposed and 20% were don’t knows.

Support for reform varied somewhat according to demographics, particularly voting intention. Liberal Democrats were most in favour (71%), followed by Labour voters (67%) and Conservatives (61%). Support was also markedly higher among non-manual than manual workers, 66% versus 57%, and in London (66%) and Scotland (69%).

An ICM poll for the BBC on 20-22 March 2009 (carried out by telephone among 1,005 adults aged 18 and over) reported an even larger majority, 81%, backing the heir to the throne being allowed to marry a Catholic and still become monarch.

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