Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles; and for connected purposes.
Mr Speaker, you will know that I often argue that the law should treat everyone equally, irrespective of their sex, and where that does not happen, I speak out. For example, I have spoken out to highlight where men are treated much more harshly in the criminal justice system, and about how badly women are treated by sharia councils. This Bill would deal with another area where women are treated unfairly for no reason other than that they are women. That is unacceptable and indefensible.
In 2013, male primogeniture was changed to absolute primogeniture in the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, following a report on the rules of royal succession prepared by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2011. The report also noted that women continued to be ineligible to succeed the majority of hereditary peers. My Bill would seek to extend the Succession to the Crown Act to include all hereditary titles through a straightforward piece of primary legislation consisting of just a few clauses. It would quite simply mean that daughters would be treated the same as sons for the purposes of succession. It seems to me to be a very natural step to take after amending the same principle for the royal family.
As a Conservative, I obviously resist change for change’s sake, but this amendment both should and could be made. Similarly, I was more than happy to see the ending of the centuries-old defence of marital coercion in criminal proceedings—a legal defence that had been available to married women only in one guise or another until recently.
As drafted, the Bill would not apply immediately where there is already a son due to inherit a title, and it would certainly not be retrospective. If there is currently a son in line for succession, that would remain the case.
I want to take the opportunity to thank Charlotte Carew Pole of Daughters’ Rights, who is the Public Gallery today, and Sir David Beamish, the former Clerk of the Parliaments, for their help in bringing this matter to its present state. They should both be commended for the immensely important roles they have played and the time they have spent putting together this legislation.
This modest change would obviously not affect huge swathes of people. According to Debrett’s peerage reports, there are at present 803 hereditary peers, including 24 dukes, 34 marquesses, 191 earls, 115 viscounts, 426 barons, and four countesses and nine baronesses in their own right. They could all potentially be one of the 92 hereditary peers, or on the register to stand as a hereditary peer in a by-election to the House of Lords. I understand that the register of peers for the election currently has 210 peers on it, only one of whom is female—Baroness Dacre. As this demonstrates, it is already possible to be a female hereditary peer, but clearly, because of the current system, it is not as routine as for males and clearly not as fair. The eldest of the four female descendants of the Earl of Balfour, Lady Willa Franks, commented in an article last year that she had had a very tongue-in-cheek suggestion from her father that she could consider a sex change to overcome primogeniture. I should add that the article went on to say that this was clearly a very light-hearted comment from the earl.
I accept that this is not the most important issue facing the country, but that is no reason not to put right this particular unfairness. Some people might look at this as a game of numbers—this change is needed to get more female hereditary peers into the House of Lords—but I want to be clear that this is definitely not where I am coming from. I refute the notion that any institution should have a particular number of men or women in the pursuit of what I believe to be unrepresentative representation by tick-box. I have often said that I could not care less if the House of Commons, for example, was 100% female. As long as people are here based on fairness and real equality of opportunity, their sex should be irrelevant; it should be their views and their contribution that count. That is arguably in the same vein as the change I am proposing today. As long as people fairly inherit titles regardless of their sex, I could not care less how many men and women it affects—that is not relevant to me at all; it is what they do with that title that should be of primary interest.
The Bill is not about men versus women, but about true equality between men and women, and I therefore commend it to the House.