Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 24 April 2002.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Government Whip 9:30, 24 April 2002

My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, said, the Bill seeks to modernise succession rights to the title of freemen by providing that the title and the property rights that go with it can be handed down through the female line as well as the male. As the noble and learned Lord indicated, there are two similar titles: that of freeman and honorary freeman. Both are dealt with by the Local Government Act 1972.

Section 249(5) of the 1972 Act provides that a London borough or a district council having the status of city, borough or royal borough can admit any person to be an honorary freeman of that place. The decision is entirely at the discretion of the council which can make any person an honorary freeman regardless of gender, race, age or disability provided that the individual is a person of distinction or, in the opinion of the council, has rendered eminent service to the locality. The title is honorific and, beyond the distinction, it confers no other rights or duties. It is bestowed for life only and cannot be inherited by the individual's heirs.

The noble and learned Lord's Bill does not affect the right of these local authorities to bestow honorary freedom on individuals of either gender. Instead the Bill deals solely with the more ancient right to be a freeman of a town or city. That right was intimately bound with the rights of admission to the guilds and, in its present form, is both an inherited right and one that can confer property rights on the title holder.

As the noble and learned Lord said, it was the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 which first reorganised the governance of local authorities along modern lines. In doing so, it swept away the existing arrangements which gave freemen special rights in the election and governance of the pre-1835 corporate boroughs. As a class, freemen of the old corporate boroughs also enjoyed the exclusive right to benefit from the rents and profits of certain corporate land and property. The 1835 Act preserved those rights and since 1835 successive local government Acts, including the 1972 Act, have reconfirmed the position.

The 1835 Act and its successors also froze the basis on which a person can be admitted to a freeman. They invariably provide for a right of succession so that a freeman can pass on his title and property to his heirs. However, reflecting their antecedents they are often based on patrimony and cannot, therefore, be passed from a father to his daughter. It is this anachronism which the Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill seeks to remedy. It does so by amending Section 248 of the Local Government Act 1972 which reconfirmed the right of freemen first preserved under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.

I hope that noble Lords find this explanation helpful. The Government will not take a formal view for or against the Bill. We shall take no steps to oppose its progress through your Lordships' House.