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 the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles; and for connected purposes.
Mr Speaker, you will know that I often argue that the law should treat everyone equally, irrespective of their sex, and where that does not happen, I speak out. For example, I have spoken out to highlight where men are treated much more harshly in the criminal justice system and about how badly women are treated by sharia councils. This Bill would deal with another area where women are treated unfairly for no reason other than that they are women. That is unacceptable and indefensible.
In 2013, male primogeniture was changed to absolute primogeniture in the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, following a report on the rules of royal succession prepared by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in 2011. The report also noted that women continued to be ineligible to succeed the majority of hereditary peers. My Bill would seek to extend the Succession to the Crown Act to include all hereditary titles through a straightforward piece of primary legislation consisting of just a few clauses. It would quite simply mean that daughters would be treated the same as sons for the purposes of succession. It seems to me to be a very natural step to take after amending the same principle for the royal family.
As a Conservative, I obviously resist change for change’s sake, but this amendment both should and could be made. Similarly, I was more than happy to see the ending of the centuries-old defence of marital coercion in criminal proceedings—a legal defence that had been available to married women only in one guise or another until recently.
As drafted, the Bill would not apply immediately where there is already a son due to inherit a title, and it would certainly not be retrospective. If there is currently a son in line for succession, that would remain the case.
I want to take the opportunity to thank Charlotte Carew Pole of Daughters’ Rights, who is the Public Gallery today, and Sir David Beamish, the former Clerk of the Parliaments, for their help in bringing this matter to its present state. They should both be commended for the immensely important roles they have played and the time they have spent putting together this legislation.
This modest change would obviously not affect huge swathes of people. According to Debrett’s peerage reports, there are at present 803 hereditary peers, including 24 dukes, 34 marquesses, 191 earls, 115 viscounts, 426 barons, and four countesses and nine baronesses in their own right. They could all potentially be one of the 92 hereditary peers, or on the register to stand as a hereditary peer in a by-election to the House of Lords. I understand that the register of peers for the election currently has 210 peers on it, only one of whom is female—Baroness Dacre. As this demonstrates, it is already possible to be a female hereditary peer, but clearly, because of the current system, it is not as routine as for males and clearly not as fair. The eldest of the four female descendants of the Earl of Balfour, Lady Willa Franks, commented in an article last year that she had had a very tongue-in-cheek suggestion from her father that she could consider a sex change to overcome primogeniture. I should add that the article went on to say that this was clearly a very light-hearted comment from the earl.
I accept that this is not the most important issue facing the country, but that is no reason not to put right this particular unfairness. Some people might look at this as a game of numbers—this change is needed to get more female hereditary peers into the House of Lords—but I want to be clear that this is definitely not where I am coming from. I refute the notion that any institution should have a particular number of men or women in the pursuit of what I believe to be unrepresentative representation by tick-box. I have often said that I could not care less if the House of Commons, for example, was 100% female. As long as people are here based on fairness and real equality of opportunity, their sex should be irrelevant; it should be their views and their contribution that count. That is arguably in the same vein as the change I am proposing today. As long as people fairly inherit titles regardless of their sex, I could not care less how many men and women it affects—that is not relevant to me at all; it is what they do with that title that should be of primary interest.
The Bill is not about men versus women, but about true equality between men and women, and I therefore commend it to the House.
I thought I lived in the 21st century, and although I can commend those sitting in the Public Gallery who are seeking equality within the peerage, and although I understand their frustration, it would be disingenuous of me, belonging to a political party that fundamentally believes in the abolition of hereditary peerage in the House of Lords and of the House of Lords as it sits, and as an individual who is fundamentally opposed to the principle of state-sanctioned privilege, to allow this issue to go undebated on the Floor of this House.
If the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) believed in equality, he would not have given a 91-minute filibuster against the Istanbul convention on combating domestic violence. It is disingenuous, to say the least, that he should take 10 minutes on the Floor of the House of Commons to debate a so-called principle of equality in relation to privilege and the hereditary peerage. How are we to say to the women of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially those in their 50s seeking equal pensions, that we are giving equal rights to the privileged members of the peerage but not to them in seeking the money they paid in for their pension? I have sat in WASPI debates in Westminster Hall and listened to Members—predominantly Government Members—say that they should look to their husbands to help them out. What about women who happen to be married to other women born in the 1950s? It is disingenuous to the core in terms of the principle of equality.
The hon. Gentleman talks about equality for those in the peerage. That would be the monarchy, princesses, duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses and baronesses—big dames and ladies. They are few and far between in West Dunbartonshire, I can tell you that, Mr Speaker. The women of my community—the women who elected me and have participated in votes for women candidates in my constituency—would be appalled at the disingenuous nature of this equality. He talked about equality for all.
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to develop his argument, which he is doing with considerable eloquence and passion, but I have been unhappy about the frequency with which he has used the word “disingenuous”. I say that to him because it entails an attribution of dishonour to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). It would be better if he confined his argument to reasons why the Bill is a bad thing. He should not impugn the integrity of the hon. Member for Shipley. He has a dextrous facility with words and a versatile vocabulary, and he can express himself in other ways that would not incur the displeasure of the Chair.
I did not mean to attribute dishonour to the hon. Member, who is of course entitled to their opinion, as is every other Member of the House—but, for the record, I think he is talking tosh.
There is no equality when we embed privilege for those, be they men or women, who sit in the honoured position of their father—predominantly—being descended from someone who walloped somebody else’s head off in the 1100s. It is an extraordinary position that we should seek to enshrine privilege, whether it be on a man or a woman, in the hereditary peerage. It would be extraordinary in the 21st century if I and many other Members across the House, not just on the Opposition side, were to go unheard in their opposition not just to the peerage in that other place but to the principle of privileged state positions. It would be disingenuous—I use that word about myself, Mr Speaker—of myself and many Members in this House who fundamentally agree with me.
How has it come to pass that unaccountable, unelected Members of the House of Lords, be they male or female, and even—forgive me—members of the Church of England, can bring in legislation while being unaccountable to the citizens of this political state? This is not a matter of equality; it is a matter of inequality. They are unaccountable not only to the men who participate in votes but to the women of this country who fought and died for the right to participate in parliamentary democracy. It is an affront to parliamentary democracy for Members of that other place to have that state-authorised privilege.
I cannot stand here in all good conscience, or even sit on these green Benches, and not articulate a position with which many right hon. and hon. Members—and learned Members—agree. I am talking about Members on the Scottish National party Benches, in the Labour party and even in the Conservative party. How can I look my female constituents in the face and say we are fighting for equality for a privileged class? If we believe in creating equality, let us abolish the hereditary privilege of hereditary peerage. That would create a level playing field for every man and woman, however they identify—that might confuse the hon. Gentleman even more—who is a citizen in a liberal democracy.
The Bill cannot go unchallenged. We cannot sit here in the 21st century, 100 years after women gained the right to vote, and say that this is what equality is about. Equality should exist for us all. I show due regard to those who have campaigned for their rights as women in the familial position of the peerage. I understand their situation—it is an absolute outrage that they should even be in this position—but the principle still exists that privilege, no matter someone’s gender or gender identity, state-sanctioned against the majority of their fellow citizens, is not equality. It is fundamentally a position that none of us should agree with in the 21st century.
I know that you are keen to move on, Mr Speaker, so I will sum up. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that I will not push this to a vote, because I fundamentally understand the principle of those who have campaigned for the Bill. However, as I said earlier, it cannot be that, in a parliamentary democracy, we believe that someone whose father, in the 12th century, chopped somebody’s heid aff—not “head”, for Hansard’s benefit, but heid—should have a place of honour and economic privilege and political leverage in a parliamentary democracy. That is an affront to those who have campaigned to ensure liberty and dignity for all.
I belong to a political party that believes that citizenship, and equality of citizenship, should not be based on who your father was. It should not be based on your economic privilege. It should be based on the fact that you were born free, male or female, perhaps have a disability, or perhaps come from a minority ethnic community. Those who are part of a privileged society who are unaccountable, and held to be unaccountable, to the citizenry of this state should have no truck with telling me otherwise. They should get no inch, and they will not, from me or from my political party.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Philip Davies, Ms Harriet Harman, Sir Christopher Chope, Jess Phillips, Esther McVey, Christine Jardine, Tim Loughton, Mrs Maria Miller, Vicky Ford, Sarah Champion and Jo Swinson present the Bill.
Philip Davies accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March and to be printed (Bill 349).