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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:09 pm ar 9 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Ceidwadwyr 3:09, 9 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, today’s Second Reading is one of those occasions when we can reflect on the balance between preserving tradition and allowing the sort of gradual evolution that has characterised our constitution. I believe that this House has the opportunity to send a signal about our values as a country, as it did while passing the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which amended the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement to end the system of male primogeniture under which a younger son can displace an elder daughter in the line of succession.

Succession to the peerage no longer confers automatic rights and privileges. However, for now, succession to a peerage entails the possibility of becoming part of your Lordships’ House and, therefore, part of the legislature of this country—so there remains some constitutional importance about this matter. I am on record as saying that this House is too big, there are too many people here and too many Peers, and the question of the right of hereditary Peers to stand in by-elections should be dealt with—but as part of a larger reform, perhaps including retirement ages, length of service or both.

We must concede that the current succession rules governing peerages and baronetcies are archaic. The Bill seeks to eliminate gender-based discrimination, ensuring that gender is not a path to succession. This legislation could represent a crucial step forward in modernising our system of inheritance of titles, aligning it with the principles of equality and fairness that underpin our society. Our commitment to equality should be reflected not only in our laws but in the institutions that form the bedrock of our society.

However, I have one objection to this Bill. If its aim is to remove gender-based discrimination, Clause 1(4) does not go far enough. It still gives males in the line of succession preference over females. I believe that it falls short in addressing the fundamental issue of gender preference in the order of succession. I do not believe that any Bill seeking to address this issue is credible unless it creates a level playing field. As it stands, it is really a Bill that has as its only objective preservation of peerages and baronetcies that would otherwise fall into abeyance, having no male heir. As such, it is liable to be seen as a self-serving Bill that seeks merely to preserve titles and entrench a so-called elite, which otherwise would slowly reduce in number. It prevents an abeyance rather than promotes equality. Rather, it should be a Bill that brings the peerage into line with the Crown.

It is my firm conviction that there should be no discriminative distinctions based on gender in matters of inheritance. The principal primogenitor should be redefined to prioritise the oldest child, irrespective of their gender. I note that, in the matter of baronetcies, it is more complex and less pressing than it is for peerages, as there is no link between baronetcies and membership of your Lordships’ House. Perhaps this Bill should be dealing with peerages alone for now, and any baronetcy issues should be dealt with in a separate Bill.

I declare an interest, in that my eldest child is a daughter. The change in the rules in this Bill was on the face of it intended to promote equality but it actually does not change the position of the oldest girls. It is the worst of both worlds, because she has two younger brothers. I suggest to your Lordships that we should amend Clause 1(4) to reflect a more egalitarian approach, ensuring that the oldest child inherits the title, regardless of gender. That would enforce our commitment to a just and progressive society, where opportunities and responsibilities are bestowed without prejudice.