Succession to Peerages and Baronetcies Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:50 pm ar 9 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Northbrook Lord Northbrook Ceidwadwyr 2:50, 9 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I preface my remarks by saying that the Bill has nothing to do with membership of your Lordships’ House. It concerns only the specialist topic of the arrangement for succession to hereditary peerages and baronetcies by making a small step towards modernity.

Noble Lords will be aware that in most cases, hereditary peerages can descend only through the male line. Thus, it follows that in some cases, where there is no male heir, the peerage dies out. I declare an interest as being in this situation: I have a very capable daughter who could inherit my title under this Bill. There are a few cases—mostly Scottish, like that of my noble friend Lord Lucas, or very ancient ones—where the Letters Patent specifically allow descent through a woman.

I know that some speakers, including my noble friend Lady Noakes, will ask why peerages should not now descend via the eldest child. I can only quote from a peerage expert, my noble friend Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, in his speech of 2015 on a similar Bill. He said that

“there have been several attempts to encourage some interest in the idea, but it never gets off the ground, and the reason is simple. An immediate change now to eldest child inheritance would mean that a great many men would be stripped of their courtesy titles and the names they have lived under for years, and so would their children. It would mean that the financial arrangements”,

especially trusts,

“that have been designed to protect a large number of families’ interests would be wrecked, and that those same families would be facing an intolerable position, dividing siblings and bringing real unhappiness”.

In 2015 my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, on the eldest child only being able to inherit the title, said

“the plain fact is that that proposition has been before Parliament on several occasions and has on each of those occasions failed to attract your Lordships’ support”.—[Official Report, 11/9/15; cols. 1618-21.]

If noble Lords feel that my noble friend Lord Fellowes’s sentiments are a bit melodramatic, I point out, more prosaically, that the stability of trust arrangements in particular have allowed great houses and estates to remain in the same hands. It gives the UK a huge advantage from a tourism viewpoint—unlike France, where the Napoleonic law means that equal division of assets on death has split family assets up, with the result that the privately owned stately home offerings for visitors are much more limited. Such a problem could occur if peerage descent went to the firstborn child only.

Turning to the subject of extinct peerages, I repeat the observation of my noble friend Lord Fellowes in the 2015 debate in relation to his wife’s family. He said that if the Bill were allowed to pass, the Kitchener title and others would be able to be revived, which I think is rather special for such a famous name. I am aware of Harriett Baldwin’s Bill on the matter in the other House, which will come to your Lordships in due course. While I will personally not seek to obstruct it, I believe a more gradual approach is required to get full approval in your Lordships’ House.

As I said in 2015, I understand that Section 14 of the Human Rights Act 1998 now makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex where both sexes may perform the function required. This would apply to peerages. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, mentioned to me at the time that if a legitimate female issue, where the peerage would otherwise become extinct, referred a case to the European Court of Human Rights, they could well have a chance of success. I would perfectly well understand if some heirs might wish to take this route.

In summary, while some noble Lords might believe that this Bill does not go far enough, peerage succession is a complex subject that needs to be tackled gradually, and I hope it will find favour with your Lordships. I beg to move.