Second Reading

Part of Equality (Titles) Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 25th October 2013.

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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.