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.