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Honours (Equality of Titles for Partners)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for husbands and civil partners of those receiving honours to be allowed to use equivalent honorary titles to those available to women; and for connected purposes.

The aim of this Bill is to ensure that husbands and civil partners of dames and baronesses should be allowed to use a title of some sort if they wish to do so. I feel that the position regarding honours should and needs to be reviewed. I became aware of this anomaly in 1992 when, as a Conservative party agent in Mitcham and Morden, I was working for Angela Rumbold. After a long and distinguished ministerial career, and on ceasing to be the Minister of State at the Home Office, Angela became the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, was in charge of candidates and was created a dame by the then Prime Minister and hon. Member for Huntingdon, the right hon. John Major. I remember that being an enormous honour for my friend, whom I had served for nearly 10 years at that time, but I felt some sorrow for her husband John, who received no recognition for his support—and his finance—throughout her time as a councillor in the royal borough of Kingston upon Thames and her 10 years as the Member of Parliament for Mitcham and Morden.

At the time, I felt that that was unjust, and I vowed to try to correct the anomaly should I ever have the opportunity to do so. Just recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) became a knight bachelor in Her Majesty’s birthday honours list, and I am delighted that his work in this House has been recognised. Although his wife is rightly allowed use the term “Lady” as a prefix to her name, the late John Rumbold received no acknowledgment on his wife becoming a dame of the British empire. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) was not recognised while his wife sat in the other place as the Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, until he was made a knight bachelor.

I am not going to argue that wives of peers or knights should be forced to give up their ladyship titles. I fear to do so would get me into a great deal of hot water, not only with the readers of The Daily Telegraph, but with my dear Aunt Juliet. Although I have concentrated on Members of this House and the other place, this issue is replicated in other walks of life. My solution to sorting out this anomaly is that the husbands of dames and baronesses should be allowed to call themselves “honourables”—this is similar to the arrangements for children of peers—should they want to do so.

The honours system has evolved over the years. Although the Anglo-Saxon monarchs are known to have rewarded their loyal subjects with rings and other symbols of favour, it was the Normans who introduced knighthoods as part of their feudal government. The first English order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter, was created in 1348 by Edward III. Since then, the system has evolved to address the changing need to recognise other forms of service to the United Kingdom. Interestingly, until the l7th century wives of knights were called dames, but that was replaced with the “Lady” prefix, which I suspect was introduced to avoid confusion. Until 2004, the adopted children of peers had no right to any courtesy title. Pursuant to a royal warrant dated 30 April 2004, adopted children are now automatically entitled to the same styles and courtesy titles as their siblings. However, like biological children, they cannot inherit peerages from an adopting parent and so, as they cannot be heirs apparent, adopted sons may only use the styles of younger sons.

I understand that although in the 19th century Scottish judges were allowed to use the honorary title “Lord” and would often take the name of their estates, their wives had to remain “Mrs” and would not be allowed to use the prefix “Lady”. On one occasion, a Scottish judge booked himself and his wife a double room in a Paris hotel and, when he signed in as “Lord and Mrs” whatever, the general manager of the hotel refused to take their booking because he thought that the judge was there with his mistress. He said he did not mind what happened in Britain, but such shenanigans were not going to be allowed in France. Very annoyed, the Scottish judge wrote to Queen Victoria, who pronounced that in future wives of Scottish judges should be allowed to call themselves “Lady”, thereby stopping any confusion.

I ask this: if wives, children and adopted children of knights and peers are allowed to use their titles, why should dames’ and baronesses’ husbands be subject to such overt sexual discrimination? Similarly, surely we need to update the honours system for those who are in a civil partnership. That is why I commend the Bill to the House.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) is such a nice chap that it is awfully difficult to disagree with him on most things—[Interruption.] Unfortunately for the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who is not quite such a pleasant Member of the House, I do disagree on this point. Are there not too many titles already in this country for us to want to dole out a whole load more? We have more than 800 peers, plus the countless hereditaries—the Scottish hereditaries, the Irish ones who still have rights in this country and the English hereditaries. On top of that, we have all their heirs, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned, who have subsidiary titles and are referred to as “Lord This that and the next thing”, “Viscount This that and the next thing”, “Earl Something” or whatever else.

I checked this earlier and it is even possible to buy a plot of land that gives a person the right to be called a laird, lord or lady from www.highlandtitles.com. I see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) nodding; she has obviously done it already. The website states:

“Many of our customers choose to update their driving licence, credit cards and such like to reflect their new status.”

What a delight! I do not want to praise just one company; there is also www.lordtitles.co.uk. For £18.95, or for an additional £6.95 for a premium title, a person can get their own title. The website effectively guarantees that they will be

“offered the best seats in restaurants”

and get

“airline upgrades and top-notch service.”

We know all that is true because the editor of GQ, Dylan Jones, who wrote an ironic, I hope, biography of the Prime Minister, which I am about to read now, wrote:

“At last my chance to lord it over you. Ladies and gentlemen, please grab your forelocks and give them a good old tug. Because I have just become a Lord of the Manor…the title I have was purchased from a website called lordtitles.co.uk…and I intend to lord it over everyone I know…I look forward to…flashing my credit card at impressionable waiters in New York and Los Angeles.”

This is all, of course, a pile of nonsense. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that in 2004 the Earl Marshal finally caught up with the fact that some peers had adopted children and allowed by warrant that they could use their courtesy titles but not inherit. That seems more scandalously unfair than anything else mentioned by him. It means that Andrew Tottenham, the adopted son of the Marquess of Ely, has to be called Lord Andrew Tottenham, not Viscount Loftus.

I note that Debrett’s, which is where the hon. Gentleman’s speech seems to have come from, states:

“It is very important that anyone corresponding with a member of the peerage is aware of the rank and precedence of the person he or she is in contact with, so that the correct form of address may be used.”

To be honest, it is not important to my constituents in the Rhondda. We have only one person with a title that I am aware of living in the Rhondda, Baroness Gale of Blaenrhondda. She is from Blaenrhondda, and the people of Blaenrhondda love her, but she does not own Blaenrhondda as the titles were originally intended to denote.

There is no need for legislation to change the courtesy titles—no need at all. These courtesy titles are no different from the fact that we call one another Mr, Mrs, Esquire, the Reverend or the Honourable. They are merely courtesy titles, and all we need to do, if we want to, is change our custom and practice. There is no need for legislation. The courtesy titles that have applied to the wives of people who have peerages, knighthoods or baronetcies have made sense only when those wives have chosen to take the name of their husband, so that, for instance, Mrs Prescott becomes Lady Prescott and Mrs Meale becomes Lady Meale.

If I were ever to marry a woman—I know that is unlikely, but I very nearly got there a long, long time ago—I certainly would not be marrying the kind of woman who would want to take my name. Many women today choose to keep their own name. Consequently, there is an additional layer of prejudice that the hon. Gentleman’s Bill would introduce against people who choose not to take their partner’s name. That applies to those who enter into civil partnerships as well.

What the hon. Gentleman is suggesting would devalue those who get honours in their own right. For instance, take Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone. I have no idea why she is “of Nettlestone” because she was born in Dunoon, and Nettlestone is a place in the Isle of Wight, which is nowhere near the place where she was formerly a Member of Parliament. Her husband—the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley)—was knighted in 2011. I am delighted that he is a knight of the realm but I think it is unfair that his knighthood should be eclipsed by his wife’s peerage and, therefore, the title that he would get as a courtesy title under the proposed Bill.

Similarly, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) is now a dame, but I hope very much that her husband, who is the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), will also at some point get a knighthood in his own right and not have to rely on a courtesy title.

The custom is a relic of a bygone age when women were merely adjuncts. In effect, they were referred to as the chattels, along with the household chattels, of a peer or a knight of the realm. I know that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport thinks his Bill will bring greater equality and that, for instance, for lesbian couples and gay couples it will mean that they will suddenly be able to provide a courtesy title for their partner, but think of the complications likely to occur when Lord Alli’s partner is suddenly able to acquire a title which bears no relation to his own title. If the hon. Gentleman were going to do something for the LGBT community that would increase equality, he would be far better off supporting marriage equality than introducing this rather futile piece of legislation.

Finally, if Conservative MPs have to rely on introducing ten-minute rule Bills of this kind, it seems to me that they are a party increasingly out of touch with the modern world.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Oliver Colvile, Mrs Eleanor Laing, Sheryll Murray, Dan Byles, Mr Marcus Jones, Mr Lee Scott, Jack Lopresti, Ian Paisley, Caroline Dinenage, Keith Vaz, Sarah Newton and Stephen Gilbert present the Bill.

Oliver Colvile accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 55).