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.