Second Reading

Equality (Titles) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:15 pm on 25th October 2013.

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Moved by Lord Lucas

That the Bill be read a second time.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 12:19 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Equality (Titles) Bill [HL], has consented to place her prerogative, so far as affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. That I am doing so, with at least some small hope of success, would have delighted the first holder of my title, Mary Lucas, who was a most successful and energetic woman, who took on her husband’s derelict estates and created a basis of great prosperity, which lasted for 200 years—sadly, only 200 years—after her. It would have delighted even more her aunt, Margaret Lucas, later Margaret Cavendish, who was an author, a scientist, and a regular part of the debates around the Royal Society, as it was being founded. She ended up buried in Westminster Abbey. But the dents that they made in the carapace of male supremacy were soon forgotten. It has only been the progress that we have seen in the past 150 years that has made, gradually and steadily, enough of a difference for us to stand today at a position where Margaret Cavendish is in print again, in Penguin. There is an International Margaret Cavendish Society, with professors from more than 70 countries, many of them men. One day—says I, looking firmly to the north-east—we will have a female Lucasian professorship of mathematics.

I find myself looking at my daughters with great pleasure, knowing that they can stand in this world as equal in any way to a man, that they see that in themselves, and that in many parts of our society that is fully acknowledged. But there is a lot left to do. I am conscious of how hard it is for women in particular to return to their careers having taken time out to look after children. At the other end of the spectrum is the old ogre of the Royal and Ancient. One day that will fall—my father played his part in the MCC admitting women. I am sure that we will get around to golf. A fascinating study was done the other day by Harvard Business School on gender equity among its students, which showed how much of a problem we still have. I know that this House concerns itself with the representation of women on boards of major companies.

There is a lot left to do but, as with the past, this will be a slow process of small, persistent but absolutely determined progress. In that context, this Bill has an important part to play, because history, symbols, respect and, to some extent, privilege, go with titles. It is important that we should play our part in the progress of the equality of men and women and should not shrink from following the example set by Her Majesty the Queen in making the succession to titles an equal thing between men and women.

This is a permissive Bill. It does not seek to compel Peers to change the pattern of inheritance of their titles. Peerages are complicated things. In many families, there is a pattern of legitimate expectation that a younger son will be the one to inherit. He may have settled his life on the expectation that he will take on the rights and obligations that go with a particular title. Still in many families there is a pattern of property and the arrangements made for the preservation and succession of that property, which would be disrupted by a Bill that was sudden and compulsory. My noble friend Lord Jopling has written to me saying that he would very much prefer the idea of compulsion. I see the advantage of it, but if it was to be part of a Bill like this it would have to be long delayed. Eventual certainty would be liveable with. If one knew that this Bill would be compulsory in 100 years’ time, people could plan towards it and we would get there in the end. But for the moment, in order not to cause great disruption to already settled lives, we are best to respect the slow march of history and say that making this Bill permissive rather than compulsory is the best way to go about things.

My noble friend also raised the question of whether the arrangements in the Bill would lead to family quarrels. Clauses 3 and 4 require that a Peer apply for permission to make changes to the pattern of inheritance and that he carries his family with him in doing so. Looking at my own family, I can see that we will have some interesting discussions on how the pattern of inheritance should be organised, should this Bill go through. That is not something that we should shrink from. We have a greater responsibility to make the world a more equal place. Having to take a decision is not beyond most of us, even if it is a difficult one. Many of us have taken harder decisions in our lives.

There is also a provision in the Bill for special remainder—that a son with expectations can be allowed to succeed on the basis that, after his succession, any future succession will be to the oldest child. For many families that will provide a way in which the reasonable expectations of living children can be properly accommodated while allowing the whole family to make the change which I think it is time to make.

I am sure this Bill could do with some polishing despite the best efforts of Megan Conway and Simon Burton in the Legislation Office, for whose help I am immensely grateful. I hope for support from the Government and that they will be willing to see this Bill taken forward. In that case, I shall be very grateful for the opportunity that that will provide to gain their expert help in polishing some of the corners of inheritance such as heraldry in a way which will not upset the college too much.

I also have great pleasure in including in the Bill Clause 10, which to my mind rights an old inequity which it is high time we dealt with. Why should the wives of Peers have the right to a courtesy title when the husbands of Baronesses do not? That proposal came from my honourable friend Oliver Colvile in another place. He had his own Bill on the subject and with his permission I have picked up his wording. I am persuaded that it is perfect as it is. However, I should be interested to hear what noble Lords have to say about that. I beg to move.

Photo of Viscount Simon Viscount Simon Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:28 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has set in motion a change in the way that hereditary titles and various other matters are passed from the male route to the first born. Of course, only a few hereditary Peers are still Members of this House and any change will have little effect in this Chamber.

So what effect will this measure have? A Peer whose titles might go back many centuries might not have a son and, in order to find the closest male relative, it might be necessary to proceed to, let us say, a seventh cousin twice removed who is totally unknown to the immediate family. However, that Peer might have a daughter who could succeed and in this modern age this would make so much more sense.

Family heirlooms often have a sentimental value rather than a monetary one. They can be passed from one generation to another regardless of the gender of the recipient. Following the House of Lords reform and the reduction in the number of hereditary Peers who sit in this House, a family title is now often no more than an heirloom—however, one that the custodian has no choice in who to pass it on to. In addition, when there is a monetary value gained through the land, property and chattels, why should this not be passed to the next generation in the immediate bloodline?

My title dies with me, but I have a child, a daughter. Should she inherit my title? Most definitely. I am going to get personal. My daughter has risen to the top of her career in an age when we are encouraging more gender equality in the boardroom. Her experience has included working in government departments in countries where there are distinct segregated societies where women have only recently been allowed to have formal education, drive a car and have the right to vote. She is often asked whether she has faced any issues based on her gender during her international work. She has the skills and expertise and can rightly say that she has not. The only place where she faces equality issues based on her gender is here, in this House.

However, we now have female MPs and Ministers of the Crown and have had a female Prime Minister. The successor to the Crown can now be a female if she is the first born of the monarch, and it was announced only this week that a stumbling block has been removed for women thinking of applying to be part-time High Court judges. Things change and the succession to hereditary titles needs to catch up in the name of equality. I look forward to seeing this Bill being passed.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 12:32 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, any hereditary Peer who speaks on this Bill probably has to declare a series of interests. My interest is that my only child is a daughter. I have checked under all the beds and cannot find anybody else in the house; and she is definitely a daughter.

Would I like my daughter to inherit my title? Yes, I would. Do I think my younger brother, or either of his two sons would do a particularly bad job if, by some miracle, the hereditary peerage process is still going by the time it comes round to them? I touch wood in saying that and will ensure that I cross the road carefully when I leave the Chamber. Would they be any good at the job? Who knows? My two nephews are still far too young to even consider this as a realistic prospect as you cannot sit in this Chamber before attaining the age of 21. But, would my daughter be any worse? I do not think so. Would my older sister have performed worse than me, had she sat in this Chamber? She would have done things differently, but would she have been worse than me? I doubt it. However, we are talking about history here. I am a direct descendant of the first Lord Addington through the younger sons’ line. Had this Bill become an Act in an earlier era and been implemented, I would be very surprised if there had not been a few females succeeding to the title. The fact that it has always been done and chance has always worked in that way is not a good reason for carrying on with the present system. The fact that things can change and there is a pool of talent out there that could add to this place is something we should embrace.

If hereditary Peers’ automatic right to sit in this Chamber is cut within the next few years—we have been waiting a decade and a half and there does not seem to be any great hurry to reduce it—it would be merely a courtesy that should be carried on in the fairest way to reflect society. It is a bit of history that does not hurt very much. We should embrace the fact that history is living and changing.

I have a good memory for previous arguments on this issue that I have listened to, and my noble friend has probably found a way forward that will allow us to take that important step. It may not be the end of the argument but it is a step forward. In embracing the idea I suggest that if we pass this measure the world will carry on turning. There will probably be a few family squabbles but there always will be, some of which are quite entertaining, provided that you are out of punching and throwing range at the time. We should take on this part of our history, make it slightly more up to date and let it carry on. While we still have an entrance into this House, it is absurd not to do this, given that we have the opportunity. This measure will not hurt anyone and I totally support it.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 12:35 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, there are two elements to this Bill. I am personally affected by only one but there is a common thread that joins the two parts and lies at the root of this very welcome Bill, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—the equality of men and women. We in this House are very ready to impose equality obligations on others and must therefore be equally ready to accept them ourselves. The origin of this debate goes back further than the recent change that gives royal girls equality with royal boys in the succession. For a long time now there have been well founded concerns about primogeniture, title and inheritance of estates; and for more than 50 years the husbands of noble Baronesses, Ladies fortunate enough to be seated in this House, have received second-class treatment compared with the wives of noble Lords. What a contrast that makes with the egalitarian behaviour accorded in practice in this House.

All women in positions created by birth or elevation to a status should be treated as well as the royals and as well as their male peers. If titles matter—and they certainly do when linked to the inheritance of an estate—they must be inheritable by women. If they do not matter, if as no doubt some will say they are trivial and snobbish, then for the sake of equality the only answer would be the removal of the titles borne by the wives of knights and Peers. I rather think there would be something of an outcry if that were to be done, which proves my point.

In relation to primogeniture and estates, there is no reason to think that women are any less capable of managing estates than men, and noble Lords will forgive me for mentioning the alleged incompetence or spendthrift traits sometimes said to have been found in their male ancestors. The dilemma of “Downton Abbey” should be fiction only and not real life, for women’s livelihoods and the future of great estates may depend on inheritance. Moreover, equality in succession would have the welcome side effect of bringing some more women into hereditary Peer positions in this House. So the changes proposed in the Bill must be supported by the Government.

The other part of the Bill that is close to my heart is about an issue that I have addressed before—namely, that the husbands or partners of dames and noble Ladies do not have a courtesy title, while the wives of knights and noble Lords do. Dames and noble Ladies have earned their titles, not inherited them. Yet they receive worse treatment than the Ladies who are married to noble Lords. If a male Peer’s wife is always a Lady, and his divorced wife retains that title, should not the same courtesy be extended to the husband of a woman Peer? Husbands will have done as much, if not more, to support and partner their wives as the women married to noble Lords. When I brought this issue up in 2009 many noble Lords treated it as amusing, but there is a serious point. It is discrimination that a man may confer on his wife an honour that a wife may not confer on her husband or civil partner.

Thus all members of our Supreme Court are Lords with Lady wives, save the one female Supreme Court justice whose husband remains “Mr”. Thus we have the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Lord and Lady but Mr and Baroness or, in my case, Dr and Baroness. There are two possible theories behind this anomaly. One is that there is support of one spouse by another—as they used to say, behind every great man is a great woman—but surely what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Support works both ways. I guess that many is the husband of a noble Lady who has gone out of his way to help her do her work, support her and manage without her company, maybe even more so than the other way round, and they deserve equality of treatment.

The only other possible reason for retaining discrimination is that women, but not men, derive their position in life from their spouses. Indeed, many women have given up the title “Mrs”, preferring “Ms”, precisely because it is the married woman who is marked out by title as the dependant of her husband and not the other way round. Unfortunately, many elements of our family law treat wives as having a place in life wholly dependent on their husbands conferring that place on them, as though the women were piggybacking through life. In many respects, our unreformed family law suggests that a woman is not expected to make her own achievements in life but to rely on her husband or partner for status and financial support. That cannot remain the case. As Aretha Franklin sang:

“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, Standin’ on their own two feet ... We got doctors, lawyers, politicians too”.

The truth is one of mutual support and so the titles must be equal. In these times of change, gender equality is a given, and it should not have taken 55 years for this to be recognised by and in this House. I urge the Government to take up this worthy Bill, which will do a great deal of good and no harm.

Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Conservative 12:42 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, first, I must declare an interest as a hereditary Peer, and the father of three daughters and no sons, whose title will become extinct after my death as I am the last male descendant in the male line of the first Baron. Should my eldest daughter inherit the title? Certainly, yes.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lucas both on this Bill and on his previous attempt under the Hereditary Peerages (Succession) Bill. It is clear to me that in the 21st century the fact that a daughter, except in a few peerages, may not inherit a title is an anomaly and completely wrong.

On researching my noble friend’s ancestors, I discovered with interest the history of his title and noted how a Lucas barony has been created twice—of Shenfield and Crudwell—and how the Lucases of Crudwell have descended through the female line no less than five times since its creation.

I note that a key principle of my noble friend’s permissive Bill is that in Clause 1, by petition of the incumbent, a female heir may inherit a hereditary title. Knowing hereditary Peer friends who have very able daughters but no sons, what is being proposed is in many ways an interesting evolution of our current system, which the popular TV series “Downton Abbey” has put under the spotlight.

The method set out in Clause 3 is certainly ingenious, and the method of objection is also set out in Clause 4. However, I can see problems in Clause 4. A major issue will arise if the family situation gets nasty. Then the light shines upon Clause 4(3) and (4), where the reasons and the Lord Chancellor’s consideration of the objection are set out. Clause 4(4)(b) says that the Lord Chancellor,

“shall have regard to whether it would be grossly inequitable to allow the provisions of section 1 to apply to the peerage or title … and in particular to … the financial consequences of so doing for the child making the objection; and … whether or not the succession had previously been promised to the child making the objection”.

I am no lawyer but I can see that the vagueness of the phrases “grossly inequitable” and,

“whether or not the succession had previously been promised to the child making the objection”, could cause all manner of problems, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would have swooped on had some someone else promoted the Bill.

As I read it, Clause 8, “Provision for special remainder”, states that special remainder can be granted for one generation to override the provisions of the Bill. From what my noble friend Lord Lucas has said, I think I now understand that the purpose of this clause is to not upset existing family arrangements. Clauses 9 and 10 are sensible changes to existing law to recognise the role of partners or civil partners with courtesy titles.

In conclusion, rather than the solely female inheritance proposed by the lobby group the Hares, I am rather more attracted by a change from a Salic to a semi-Salic solution whereby if all relevant males become extinct then the closest female heir inherits, but that if she has a son it then reverts to male succession. I believe that this could be implemented in statute by the simple procedure of allowing peerages to alter their letters patent so that heirs general rather than heirs male can succeed, as in the cases of the titles of my noble friend Lord Lucas and a few others. An individual peerage precedent exists for this in statute, the Duke of Marlborough Annuity Act 1706.

Another possibility which I like much less would be to follow the recent Succession to the Crown Act principles; namely, that the eldest child inherits regardless of sex. Do Her Majesty’s Government plan to legislate similarly to the Succession to the Crown Act with regard to encouraging or supporting a Private Member’s Bill on this theme? A practical influence on future legislation may be Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. I have discussed this informally with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and he suggested that the way forward would be a petition by a relevant potential female heir.

If we are to preserve the peerage system then it needs to adapt to modern times. Allowing a form of female inheritance, although not necessarily the form in this Bill, would show that we are in touch with the reality of equal opportunities for females that still do not exist in everyday life. At the very top level, Her Majesty the Queen has shown a shining example throughout her reign. The great strength of our British system is its ability to evolve with the times and thus be relevant. These qualities which are inherent in our system have allowed us to avoid the type of shocks that have left such an enduring mark among noble families in many continental European nations.

Photo of The Earl of Clancarty The Earl of Clancarty Crossbench 12:47 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for allowing us to speak on this matter today. I have two interests to declare. First, I have a daughter who could inherit a title if the law was changed; and, secondly, my wife, the journalist Victoria Lambert, is a leading light in the group largely but not wholly made up of women who are campaigning for equality for women in the peerage and the baronetcy. They have called themselves the Hares after the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in April during Third Reading of the Succession to the Crown Bill. He said:

“This Bill has also set running the hare of what happens to the hereditary peerage with regard to the succession arrangements for hereditary Peers”.—[Hansard, 22/4/13; col. 1229.]

He is right: it has.

It will not be a surprise to many of your Lordships to hear that I am no great fan of the aristocratic system, male primogeniture of course being a component of that. Part of me thinks that perhaps what is required is more fundamental social reform in the interests of a more classless society than we have at present. Of course, I am not alone in this House in thinking that, even perhaps among hereditary Peers. But, and this is a big but, as long as the Queen and the Royal Family command such a central role in our society—the last Ipsos MORI poll in November of last year gave the monarchy a 79% popularity rating—this is not going to happen since the Royal Family is the core of the aristocratic system.

The public do a very good job of mentally separating the Royal Family from the rest of the aristocracy but that is not the reality, something which constitutional experts and republicans equally recognise. That is why I support equality for women in the peerage, however much the peerage itself represents an inequality within wider society—and perhaps arguably now not even the main one.

I feel that there are two principal arguments to be made. The most powerful argument is, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, that there should not be gender discrimination in Britain, full stop. The Equality Act 2006 created a public duty to promote equality on the ground of gender. Modern British law states clearly that men and women are equal in every aspect of life. Male primogeniture is the cornerstone of old-fashioned patriarchy. No duke or earl should consider that he is a special case; we are not. Gender equality should mean that you have the potential to inherit from birth regardless of gender, and that that should automatically come into effect as soon as the Bill becomes an Act so that a living heir of whatever age may inherit without any permission being necessary. The Bill would not be retrospective, as I think we all agree that no current substantive titles should be dispossessed. In these respects, the Bill before us today is perhaps a little too modest and could be simpler, because contrary to what some people have said, in principle this is not a complex issue. A single blanket law to cover all families is what is required.

The second argument I would make is that if the aristocracy remains at least socially, and indeed still to some extent politically, a significant source of influence in this country, it should be reformed just as its core part has been. It may be argued that that has happened so that the Royal Family has been brought more into the 21st century, but it is also true that the Royal Family and the aristocratic system as a whole should together be the best model of behaviour possible, giving the right signal to those non-aristocratic families who still believe that the eldest males ought to inherit the estate, whatever size it may be. There is no doubt, even in these generally more enlightened times, that this is still so.

Only two of the 92 hereditary seats in this House are held by women, a significant argument of course for removing the hereditaries, which will happen, whether in the longer or shorter term. Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that campaigners have calculated that with a change in the law, if you go forward just one generation, there would be 41 men to 51 women occupying hereditary seats, a considerably better ratio indeed than either House has at present, or indeed for the conceivable future, and an effect that no doubt would be replicated throughout the aristocracy as a whole.

If this Bill were to be refined further, I think the Hares’ recommendation that one should not reach back more than one generation—that is, to the generation before the deceased—to find the next heir is a very good one. In this, I perhaps differ rather from the opinion of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. It is unacceptable that some distant relative should inherit a title and an estate which that person had perhaps hardly known about let alone visited, displacing close family, as has indeed happened. In the memorable words of campaigner Liza Campbell, “No more cousins from Pluto”.

It is in these various ways that this issue is of greater significance for the public than many people realise. A call for a change in the law has wide cross-party support in both Houses. In May, Mary Macleod MP introduced a ten-minute rule Bill in the other place to remove male primogeniture. It is an issue that is not going to go away, and the Government would be wise to deal with it. Indeed, it has this year already generated a huge amount of coverage in the press, on the radio and television both here and abroad, including front page coverage in the New York Times. The issue has been championed by the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times.

A number of potential beneficiaries of this change in the law have now written to the Crown Office stating their intention to take their cases to Strasbourg. I think that the Government should accept the underlying principle of this Bill or bring in their own legislation. After all, it is simply logical that what the Government have done quite rightly with the Succession to the Crown Bill were to be extended to the rest of the same system of which the Royal Family is a part.

Photo of The Bishop of Guildford The Bishop of Guildford Bishop 12:55 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, I am grateful for the courtesy of the House in allowing me to slip into the gap, as it were. I shall, I hope, be courteous in return by being very brief in so doing.

Members on this Bench have no direct interest in the content of the Bill, for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, I express support in principle and, indeed, in practice for the Bill before your Lordships’ House and hope to hear that the government Front Bench is also sympathetic. I will not rehearse what has already been said in the House in support of the Bill, which I fully agree with, but am sorely tempted to slip in an amendment to the effect that women bishops could be ordained in the Church of England.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of The Bishop of Guildford The Bishop of Guildford Bishop

That would allow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to add bishops to her list.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 12:56 pm, 25th October 2013

Hear, hear to that. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for his introduction of the Bill. No one is more qualified than the noble Lord to raise the issue of male primogeniture and the related matters in the Bill.

I intend to be brief. As the party that has, for more than 50 years, introduced almost all of the legislation that addresses inequality and discrimination, how could Labour be anything but in support of the principle behind this Private Member’s Bill? I agree that it is really quite a modest Bill and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, when he says that the world will not stop turning if the Bill is agreed. My own personal views definitely lean towards those of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, when it comes to this whole issue.

The Equality Act 2006 created a public duty to promote equality on the grounds of gender. Can the Minister explain why our UK aristocracy should be allowed a special or protected status? Surely the law is the law for all of us. Male primogeniture is simply unacceptable. There is no justification for gender discrimination in our society. Other noble Lords have delved into the history of wealth and property that has led us to the unfairness of the current old-fashioned inheritance practices. Surely, after the successful passage of the Succession to the Crown Bill, which introduced gender equality into the succession for the head of state, this Bill’s objectives are most timely. Indeed, this issue peppered the debates on the Bill as it went through the House earlier this year.

I thank Victoria Lambert and others who have written to me about the Bill. I received a lot of letters from fathers and daughters about it and thought it might be worth putting on the record the names of some of those who have written, as it is a very impressive Bill. I thank Lady Willa Franks, Lady Daisy Fane, Sir Michael Leighton, Sir Nicholas Stuart Taylor and Virginia Stuart-Taylor, my noble friend Lord Simon and Fiona Simon, Liza Campbell, the Earl of Westmorland, the honourable Amanda Murray, the Duke of Leinster, Lady Francesca Fitzgerald, Aliki Currimjee—neé Boothby—and Rose Baring, to name but a few.

In the letters, the fathers explain that they wish their daughter, as the oldest child, to inherit the title and the female oldest children say that it is time to end this archaic practice. All intend to contest male primogeniture in the European Court of Human Rights under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, and Article 1 of Protocol 1, which confers the right to peaceful enjoyment of one’s possessions. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has considered these statutes and how they might apply under the circumstances.

I am the oldest daughter, albeit of a plumber, it has to be said. I think that my younger brother, who is the next one down of the seven of us—six girls and one boy—would find the idea that he would take precedence above me as ridiculous an idea as I would. I might therefore claim to be an honorary member of the Hares. I am told that the Hares have attracted some attention in high places and been told to desist from what they are doing. As a lifelong feminist, all I can say to them is, “Sisters, you are probably right and the ruder the opposition gets, the more right you probably are. Stick with it”.

I wish the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, success with this issue and will be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will support him in this matter of equal rights.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:00 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, perhaps I might start with one or two personal remarks. I was interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, say that she is opposed to male primogeniture as a principle. Speaking as a third child, I am not entirely an enthusiast for primogeniture as such. Sitting and listening to the debate, I have been ruminating on other forms of inheritance, particularly among aristocratic and ruling families. The Salic law has been quoted—we all remember that passage in Shakespeare in which the discussion about the Salic law and whether women can inherit comes up. In early Viking kingdoms, as I recall, it was the roughest and toughest who inherited, and the others just had to put up with it. The Ottoman succession went further than that: the most successful inherited and then killed off most of his brothers. The Saudi succession is extremely interesting: the family has now created a council to consider who shall succeed to the Saudi kingdom.

The modernisation of hereditary peerages is an interesting concept. Hereditary peerages are inherently non-modern. The whole series of grants and different rules for succession contained in ancient Scottish titles, some United Kingdom titles and elsewhere is part of the glory of the peculiar history of the British Isles and of our partly unwritten and considerably unmodernised constitution. When I receive letters talking about appeals to the European Court of Human Rights in order to modernise this principle, I feel slightly the same as I did when read on the front page of the Daily Mail on one day an attack on the European Court of Human Rights and a demand that Britain should leave, and seeing only two days later the Daily Mail join other newspapers in appealing to the European Court of Human Rights against the new press charter. There is something contradictory in the whole approach.

Belgian aristocratic succession, as I recall, has all sons of a baron with the courtesy title, baron, which is why so many people you meet in the Belgian diplomatic service are barons. There are all sorts of ways in which one might play around with all this; I am not sure that in a modern society we should be in favour of the proliferation of titles to which this might lead us.

However, the Government are committed to equality of treatment before the law, as evidenced by the legislation that they have already taken through this House, including the Succession to the Crown Act. The Government are therefore sympathetic to the motives behind the Bill, but they suggest that there are a number of areas where its approach does not present the best way to address equalities.

The Bill would not eliminate differences in treatment of the sexes, as discretion rests with the incumbent. Title-holders may therefore decide not to petition, and the practice of male heirs taking precedence would then continue—it is at the incumbent’s discretion whether to initiate any action. In taking such an approach, we would risk creating a patchwork of different treatment across the peerage and introducing uncertainty for those who currently expect or hope to inherit. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised a number of questions about property and inheritance which I shall not go into here, but I just mark that this is all part of a very complex picture.

While the Succession to the Crown Act could be given effect without disturbing the legitimate expectations of anyone in line for the throne, the same could not be said for any similar change of the rules governing the descent of hereditary titles. Clause 7 provides that, once a female heir has been allowed to succeed, females will be allowed to succeed in all future successions of that peerage and title. Is it right for the present Peer to make that decision for all future generations? If we were to make this minor constitutional change, surely it should be a conscious decision expressed through the will of Parliament rather than a decision left in the hands of each incumbent Peer. Before embarking on such a change, we would certainly want to undertake a full consultation—the pages of the Daily Telegraph would be full of letters for weeks, I suggest—and public discussion to ensure that the changes had no unintended consequences.

There are also a number of difficulties with the role envisaged for the Lord Chancellor. Reference is made to having regard to whether it would be grossly inequitable to allow a petition. However, it does not prescribe that the Lord Chancellor must grant that position unless that is the case. If the Lord Chancellor is not so confined, the basis for that decision is unclear, which could in turn put the Lord Chancellor in an invidious position.

Further, the Bill is not clear on what should happen where a Peer has a daughter and a son and the son has died, leaving his son in his place. Whether the daughter would displace the grandson is not entirely clear. There is also no provision for the daughter to make representations to the Lord Chancellor.

There were a number of interesting interventions on Clauses 9 and 10, including one from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. There is strength in the argument that it is inequitable for the wives of those honoured to be able to use courtesy titles while husbands and civil partners, whatever their gender, cannot. In terms of equality, there is an argument to dispense with that long-standing convention and to bring husbands and civil partners in line with wives of those receiving honours. I am interested that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, did not suggest that the way to make them equal is to remove courtesy titles altogether, but we will leave that for another time.

However, parliamentary legislation is not the traditional route to pursue any change, either extension or diminution, of courtesy titles. Courtesy titles are traditionally dealt with under the royal prerogative by way of royal licences. For example, the royal licence signed by the Queen on 30 April 2004 was the means by which courtesy titles were extended to adopted children of Peers. A royal licence was also the means by which justices of the Supreme Court were permitted to use the courtesy title of Lord or Lady in instances where they have not been created a Peer. So Clauses 9 and 10, while interesting, are not necessarily needed in the Bill. That is a question for the monarchy itself.

Having said that, the Government are studiously neutral on the Bill. We look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and seeing how far he will take it. We shall watch with interest how it proceeds.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 1:07 pm, 25th October 2013

My Lords, I am very grateful to all who have spoken, with some modification of that as regards the Minister. None the less, I take heart from the guidance he has given on the Government’s aversion to uncertainty in these matters. I think it is possible to look more along the lines that my noble friend Lord Jopling proposed of producing certainty in these matters. It may be useful to consider that in Committee to see whether there is interest on the part of the Government and the House generally in pursuing a Bill which made these matters certain but perhaps took longer to introduce that certainty than this Bill would.

I am interested in what my noble friend said about courtesy titles. I very much hope that he will find the opportunity to encourage change in that direction. It seems to me the right time to make such change. I hope that in giving advice to Her Majesty—or whatever is necessary to bring the matter forward—the Government will not be slow to suggest that this has the general assent of Lords Temporal and Spiritual. They might usefully consider making progress on that. However, for now, I commend the Bill.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 1.09 pm.