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Gender-balanced Parliament and Male Primogeniture

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Prime Minister’s statement on 20 November 2020 supporting a 50:50 gender-balanced Parliament, what plans they have to amend male primogeniture.

My Lords, as the Prime Minister has made clear, we want to see more women in Parliament. That is a much wider issue than male primogeniture, but reform of the succession to hereditary peerages and baronetcies raises a variety of complex issues, and therefore any changes need careful consideration and wider engagement.

My Lords, I am very grateful for my noble friend’s reply. Does he agree that small, symbolic issues matter in our gradual progress towards female equality? The monarchy having shown the way in the matter of the inheritance of titles, will Her Majesty’s Government take whatever opportunity next presents itself to engage in the detailed consideration to which my noble friend refers?

My Lords, many proposals have been put forward, and many have failed to find support. I know that my noble friend put forward a Private Member’s Bill in 2013 for a voluntary approach, but the issues are, as I say, complex.

Is the Minister aware that, since 1958, only 326 life Peers created have been women, representing 21% of the total? Not one woman hereditary Peer sits in this House today, and that is why I fully agree with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Does the Minister agree that in any other place this would be regarded as totally unacceptable and could be reported to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as blatant discrimination?

My Lords, hereditary peerages are not currently created. There are life Peers in your Lordships’ House and the life peerage is gender-blind. There are 223 female Peers currently, 28% of the Members of the House of Lords. The Government’s aspiration is, of course, to see more.

My Lords, do the Government accept that the simplest and quickest way to make progress in this direction, so far as this House is concerned, without complex legislation, would be to abolish the by-elections for hereditary Peers, since all the candidates are male? This temporary political fix of more than 20 years is well past its sell-by date. Will the Minister undertake to communicate to his colleagues the overwhelming view of this House that this should be included in the Government’s legislation for the coming Session?

My Lords, it is not for me to comment on legislation in the forthcoming Session, but I would advise the noble Lord not to be a betting man.

My Lords, my noble friend will be totally aware that I am a product of male primogeniture, and he will realise, no doubt, that I have an interest in the whole subject. What plans, if any, do Her Majesty’s Government have to amend male primogeniture in the hereditary peerage and baronetage?

My Lords, a review is not currently under way. As I have explained, this is a complex issue and careful consideration will be needed.

While it is encouraging that the Prime Minister supports a 50:50 gender-balanced Parliament, it is very disappointing that progress has been so slow, and we still have a law that discriminates against women. What steps will be taken to ensure that women from minority communities are not left behind in whatever initiative is taken in this direction?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. Improving the diversity of Parliament is something to which I believe all political parties assent, and this Government no less than any other. Beyond your Lordships’ House, where we must sometimes look, there are now 220 female Members of Parliament; that is more women in the House of Commons than ever before. That is surely progress.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raises the issue of male primogeniture, which is clearly unfair, but I have to say that, of all the issues of gender equality where I would seek to make a difference, it is probably not top of my list. I bring the Minister back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. Hereditary by-elections have had their day; the legislation is outdated. If we want to address what is clearly an inequality, in that there are no female hereditary Peers in this House—the issue of peerages outside the House is a completely different one—surely the Government should support the Grocott Bill when it will undoubtedly come before your Lordships’ House again, and not let it be wrecked by a few. It is time for the Government to show some courage on this issue.

My Lords, the Government assent to the rule of law, and I believe that the law as is should be applied in this respect.

My Lords, I have to declare an interest as a hereditary Peer but one who has only a daughter. I suggest that the Government will lose nothing by bringing forward something that allows this to happen. As for hereditary by-elections, given that people who were conceived after the system was instituted are now voting adults, surely it has had its day and has not worked as a stimulus to further reform.

My Lords, I think we have discussed the issue of hereditary by-elections. On the matter of succession to titles, any change would affect many families, many of whom have no claim to be Members of your Lordships’ House, and all those issues and interests would have to be considered.

My Lords, male primogeniture is indefensible and damages our striving for equality and justice. Ever-increasing numbers of Members are being appointed to this House and, continuing in the time-honoured tradition, men are favoured, leaving just 223 female Members in this Chamber, as the Minister indicated. I welcome the Minister’s assurance and the Prime Minister’s promise, but, given the perceptible resistance to recognising institutional gender and race discrimination, what plans are in place to remedy this?

My Lords, until we have full reform of your Lordships’ House, if Parliament decides on that, recommendations for life peerages are in the hands of leaders of political parties. Of Peers appointed by the current Prime Minister, 32% have been women, as against 29% under Gordon Brown and 23% under Mr Blair. Again, I suggest that that represents progress.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a hereditary Peer. My noble friend the Minister said that this requires careful consideration and is a complex matter: that is everyday meat for any Government. Will my noble friend encourage his right honourable friend the Secretary of State to undertake a review of this matter once and for all, so that the eldest child can inherit a title where that is applicable?

My Lords, I am sure my friends and I will read the views of my noble friend, and indeed all others who have spoken, with due respect. However, I believe that, at the height of this pandemic, and given the need we have to recover, it may well be that some people in the country have other priorities.

Whether or not hereditary peerages remain, it is time to get some sex equality into this House. The husbands of noble Baronesses get second-class treatment, and this is highly symbolic. Only a few days ago, the entire nation noted the essential support given by Prince Philip to his wife, but the support given by the husbands of noble Baronesses is ignored compared with the recognition, by the title “Lady”, of the wives of noble Lords. Does the Minister agree that our husbands should be given a title equivalent to that granted to the wives, or that the latter should lose theirs?

My Lords, the noble Baroness touches on another issue which has its own sensitivities. Reform of courtesy titles in the honours system as well as the peerage system—this is not a matter of heredity—may not be straightforward, but there is a need to consider how to deal with existing entitlements.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was deputy to two women Secretaries of State—Clare Short and Helen Liddell, now my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke—who were both excellent Cabinet Ministers? Since Boris Johnson has only five women in his Cabinet, could the Minister use his undoubted influence and have a word with him to appoint more women instead of old Etonians and male clones?

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord does not see in me a clone of the Prime Minister—my hair is a different colour, for a start. I would love to have the noble Lord as my deputy. I repeat that the aspiration of the Prime Minister, reflected in peerage creations and the number of MPs in the House of Commons, is to see more women in Parliament.