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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 10th March 2020.

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Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 5:30 pm, 10th March 2020

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Ranger on his maiden speech. I welcome this opportunity to take part in the debate today, especially as the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is, “An equal world is an enabled world.”

When my noble friend Lady Jenkin suggested that I take part this evening and raise the subject of the hereditary peerage and male primogeniture, it made me think that I might be on a hiding to nothing with my hereditary cousins, kinsmen and colleagues, and especially my sisters, who are older than I am. I am fully aware of the gender imbalance within the hereditary peerage and the need in the modern day for that to be addressed. I believe that the hereditaries are important to this House and that we are legitimately here following the House of Lords Act 1999, but because of the way titles are inherited currently, our numbers largely exclude women. Please indulge me while I explain.

To begin with, I have four older sisters. My eldest child is my daughter, Victoria. My eldest son, James, has three daughters and a son—my grandson, George, who is the youngest. My father had three elder sisters, so male primogeniture and older sisters is a subject with which I am somewhat familiar. I am also fully familiar with Settled Land Act trusts as my family used to have one in the days when we owned estates, and with “entail male only” laws.

Some Noble Lords will remember the late Lord Diamond. Jack Diamond was a most decent man whom I respected greatly. Back in 1994 he promoted his Hereditary Peerages Bill, the intention of which was to end automatic male primogeniture and to enable the eldest child, whether they be male or female, to inherit the title.

Allow me to quote from an article in the New York Times dated 5 March 1994, some 26 years ago, entitled “The British Lord who is taking on History”:

“The amended version” of Lord Diamond’s earlier, 1992 Bill, which was unsuccessful,

“provides that the eldest lawfully begotten child shall succeed or, if the letters patent permit the peerage to pass to some other relative, this relative will succeed, whether female or male.”

It continues:

“Even so, Diamond knows he faces strong opposition and expects Lord Shrewsbury, the premier Earl in the peerage of England and Ireland, to move that the Bill be shelved when debate opens on Monday.”

The Bill was duly disposed of. I received a substantial bag of unpleasant mail referring to me as a misogynist who knew nothing apart from a male-dominated world, and more, in the main from correspondents who had not one idea of what I had actually said, and even less about the effects and difficulties that, if passed, the Diamond Bill would cause for many ancient, private Act of Parliament trusts, estates and much more.

But to me, far worse was the intention of the Bill —and I had many conversations with Jack Diamond about it: to disfranchise those already born of their title expectancy under the law as it stood. He was insistent that the consequences of his Bill should be retrospective; I felt that, if successful, the change to inheritance must affect children born only after Royal Assent. Because he refused, I decided that to kill the Bill at Second Reading was my only course available to protect the rights of the already born. That is what happened—not what it says in the newspapers.

We are now in 2020 and the whole world has changed, even though my loathing of political correctness has not, as my friends will confirm. In my view, male primogeniture is one of the remaining bastions of the hereditary system which should and must be changed. We hereditaries were forced to accept change in 1999 and I believe that, in many respects, that has made those of us fortunate enough to be elected and remain in this House a good representative body of our hereditary predecessors in Parliament. Perhaps it is similar to the old system by which the Scottish Peers elected their representatives to sit in this House. That system worked admirably.

The role of women throughout society and business has changed beyond anything one could have possibly envisaged 40 years ago, and for the better too. Women are to the forefront of every walk of life: business, commerce, sport, the legal profession, the Church and, indeed, politics. We all benefit from their capabilities, their great knowledge and their great sense. It is widely thought that businesses with women on their boards are more productive and successful than those without such a presence.

I applaud the role that the Daughter’s Rights movement continues to play under the leadership of Charlotte Carew Pole. I am pleased that my right honourable friend Penny Mordaunt says that she is a supporter of ending male primogeniture and remains so at the Cabinet Office; she has said that “any organisation that has diversity of thought is stronger for it”. I believe that the time has come when change is bound to happen.

To those of my hereditary friends and colleagues who may well think that I and others who support my views are potentially swinging a wrecking ball towards the hereditary aristocracy, I say this: far from it. In 1857, the Catholic earldom of Shrewsbury’s male line failed, and my Protestant junior branch of the family—10th distant cousins, indeed—succeeded, following a case brought before the committee of privileges in your Lordship’s House. Heaven forbid: both 10th distant cousins and Protestants! In those distant days, should the title have been able to descend through the female as well as the male line, the then vast Shrewsbury Estates may well have remained intact.

Maybe the Government, with their appetite for diversity and equality, should take the lead and support a Private Member’s Bill. Indeed, should the Minister indicate her support for this initiative, I will move the matter forward to try to secure a Question for Short Debate in order to gauge the opinion of the House before moving forward.

The opportunity exists to progress this matter. Let us grasp it with both hands.