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Courtesy Titles

Volume 752: debated on Monday 24 February 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to promote equality in the use of courtesy titles.

My Lords, while the Government recognise the equality issues surrounding the use of courtesy titles, we have no plans to alter their use due to the complexity of the system and the likelihood of confusion arising from alteration to the long-standing custom and practice governing this matter.

I can assure the Minister that, having looked into the issue, it is not as difficult as he imagines and that there could be change. Does he not agree that equality has to start in this House and that the use of the title “Lady” by the wives of knights and noble Lords is discriminatory unless a title of some sort is also accorded to the husbands of noble Baronesses and dames? Either the title should be used only by those to whom it was awarded, or husbands and wives and partners have to be treated equally.

My Lords, I think the statement that equality must start in this House is one which will be received with surprise by a number of those outside. I thank the noble Baroness for encouraging me to read Debrett’s for the first time. Having read Debrett’s for the first time, I know this is a highly complex issue. I recognise that the use of courtesy titles and titles for the spouses of Peers—which are apparently legal titles, not courtesy titles—has grown up over the past 500 to 600 years. The rapid changes in the relationship between the sexes and in marriage over the past 50 years have, of course, left us with a number of anomalies, of which the Government are well aware, but we are not persuaded that it is urgent to adjust them now.

My Lords, now that same-sex marriage is on the statute book and will be implemented before long, has the Minister given any serious thought to the award of knighthoods—or damehoods for that matter—to people who have entered into such relationships?

My Lords, that is taken care of within the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. I understand that exceptions have been made for this in that Act and in the earlier Marriage Act. The coalition Government and, I am sure, all parties are much concerned about the weakness of social mobility in Britain. I am not sure that we should spend too much time concerning ourselves with the subtle finesse of social stratification.

My Lords, that was a truly Conservative answer. The noble Lord has spent far too long on that Bench. My question is entirely relevant to the question of courtesy titles. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are intending to introduce yet another list of new Peers to your Lordships’ House? Can the noble Lord reassure me that that is not the case?

My Lords, I am not informed on the subject so I can neither assure nor reassure the noble Lord. I have asked some female colleagues in this House how much their husbands care about not having a title and a number of them have told me robustly that their husbands not only do not care but positively do not wish to have them. I am aware that a number of wives of Members of this House do not use their courtesy titles either.

My Lords, given that we changed the law of succession for the sovereign only last year, are there any plans to change the law of succession for hereditary peers rather than the question of courtesy titles?

My Lords, we spent some time on Fridays on a Private Member’s Bill on this very question. The House was some way from consensus on it the last time we debated it.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a precedent? In 1392 and 1408, when there were two Countesses of Mar in their own right, their husbands were made Earls for their lifetime on the basis that the women could not go to war or sit in Parliament. However, I have asked my husband and he said that he does not want to be Earl of Mar because he neither wants to go to war nor to sit in Parliament.

My Lords, I am very grateful for that remark. I was aware of that precedent and I am told there was another Scottish precedent, from the 16th century, in which the husband was refused the appropriate title.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I have actually killed off three husbands so perhaps the question does not arise for me? Are there not much more important matters that the Government should be concerned with?

My Lords, when the Opposition Front Bench accused me of being Conservative it was precisely because I was saying that the Government think there are other more important things. I would have thought that the Opposition Front Bench might agree with that.

My Lords, I accept that there may be more important things to contend with at the moment, but this is a question of equality. I was concerned by the noble Lord’s reply that it was too complex. Does he remember that, at one time, it was too complex to give women the vote?

My Lords, the British constitution is extremely complex. If we attempted to redesign it on a rational basis this House would certainly not exist. Whether or not the monarchy would exist is another question. We live with odd elements of tradition and history that are part of the rich tapestry of the country. These do evolve. I doubt whether very many children of newly appointed life Peers now accept or use the title of “Honourable”. We are moving slowly and we adapt as we go on.

My Lords, is the Minister aware, having read Debrett’s, that the way we are constantly referred to in the press as “Lady Sue” someone or “Lady Joan” someone is totally incorrect? The woman’s Christian name is always printed with “Baroness Something”, but this does not apply to the men. By doing that, the press is elevating us and making us the daughters of someone with a much higher, hereditary, title.

My Lords, I am much better informed on that issue than I was a week ago. Perhaps I may have forgotten in a week or two’s time.