Charles 'open to reform', say Lib Dems

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The Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes has re-ignited the debate over the monarchy on the eve of the party's annual conference by calling for negotiations with the Prince of Wales on reform of the Crown's role as head of Church and State.

The Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes has re-ignited the debate over the monarchy on the eve of the party's annual conference by calling for negotiations with the Prince of Wales on reform of the Crown's role as head of Church and State.

Mr Hughes, who said that Prince Charles was "open to negotiated change", and that the public was "ready to move on", is backing a move to call for the disestablishment of the Church at his party's conference in Bournemouth, Dorset, which begins today. He believes that Charles would be ready to end his role as Protector of the Faith.

Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, Mr Hughes said he was tempted to formally talk through the options with the Prince. "I think Prince Charles is open to a negotiated change. We ought to move on, I think we owe it to people to move on. There is a whole set of issues we could tidy up - such as the blasphemy laws. We could raise religious equality legislation, we could disestablish formally the position of the Church, so [taking] away the power of the prime minister to appoint bishops."

He added that the guaranteed place in the Lords for the bishops would be removed. "It does not mean to say that the Church of England could not remain as the national church, having parish churches. That is fine."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, yesterday claimed that his party could overtake the Conservatives, through defending its stance as a radical party, which includes plans to raise taxes to improve public services. "I don't think that if there's a general election tomorrow we can overtake the Conservatives, but that's not to say that by the time of the next election we can't. We can. But it's up to us to make our luck. Nobody else is going to make it for us."

Mr Kennedy said that he wanted the opposition, by the end of the week, to be "struck by a party which is upbeat about itself and upbeat about our country and ambitious for our country". The Government had "disappointed in many ways" but the Conservative alternative "would be an absolute, total disaster".

At this week's party conference, the radical side of the party will be underlined in part by the former candidate for London mayor, Susan Kramer, who will call for gay couples to be given new rights in "civil partnerships". Mr Hughes said this would mean extending legal rights and protection to gay couples over mortgages and inheritance law.

In his own keynote speech, Mr Hughes - a thorn in the side of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw - will call for the 43 police forces and their chief constables in the counties to be reduced to about 10 forces, with the savings put towards more "precinct" police on the beat.

Mr Hughes seems also prepared to ruffle a few feathers in his own party. "We as a party have a bit of a weakness because we are perceived as soft on everything and woolly on things. Therefore I am going to say something that some in the party won't like," he said.

At the conference he will say that the victims of crime or their families ought to have a say in offender's penalties, gaining the right, before sentencing, to inform judges about how they have suffered from the crime.

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