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
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.