23 February 2024
Harriett Baldwin tables Bill to enable succession of female heirs to hereditary titles

Harriett Baldwin opens the Second Reading debate of her Private Member’s Bill that would make provision for the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles.

Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill

Second Reading


Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I think this is my third attempt to make progress on this issue in this House. I want to end the constitutional sexism that means that an eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men only. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who tried to introduce the Bill in March 2019; he is a champion of true equality. I pay tribute to Charlotte Carew Pole of Daughters’ Rights, who helps to keep this just cause alive in this place. Our former colleague Mary Macleod also tried to bring in a similar Bill. Even though this is this Bill’s Second Reading, it is not the second time that the issue has come up in the Commons, and it will keep coming up until things change.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for her good, kind words. This has been a long battle. I thank her for her persistence on the issue. It is a battle worth fighting, and I hope that she will continue to fight for it. Does she agree that the issue we are discussing is completely and utterly unacceptable—one of the last bastions of unacceptable discrimination—and that this House should have nothing to do with it any longer?

Harriett Baldwin 

I thank my hon. Friend for his endorsement. I agree, as does almost everyone I have met, and I will go through some of that agreement in my remarks.

As someone who has had the privilege to be both a Foreign Office Minister and the chair of the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union, I found it hard to meet parliamentarians from other parts of the world and say that our unwritten constitution had created a great outcome for women in this Parliament, because we still have this anomaly of inbuilt sexism. For over 70 years, our country was graced by a female sovereign, who was the perfect embodiment of the benefits of female succession. That is probably one of the reasons why this place changed the succession to the Crown in 2013.

The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 meant that the firstborn child of Prince George will be in line to succeed him. The Act ended male primogeniture for the Crown, but we left undone any wider reform to make male primogeniture in the United Kingdom a part of history. As a result, in this very Parliament, a quarter of the way through the 21st century, we still have a situation where an eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men only. I will repeat that because I find it so shocking: an eighth of the seats in the upper House of this Parliament are permanently reserved for men only, through the system of reserving 92 seats for hereditary peerages.

Whatever our views of the other place or of hereditary peerages more generally—personally, I value the contribution that they make and the perspective they bring, but I understand that there are other points of view—I hope we can all agree that, in 2024, embedded sex discrimination is simply not acceptable. Women are being treated unfairly for no reason other than that they are women. That has terrible real-world consequences. In fact, 13% of the land in the UK is owned by women and 87% is owned by men. Boys are twice as likely as girls to inherit the family business. If we cannot change inequality at the top of our society, we will never be able to change inequality for the whole of our society. Put simply, daughters should be treated the same as sons across society. If it is good enough for succession to the Crown, it should be good enough for everyone else. Hereditary peerages in the other place should go automatically to the eldest child, which at the moment very rarely happens.

I have listened to many points of view on this topic since I first introduced the Bill, and I have reflected on those comments and changed it; it is not the same Bill that I presented last time. I hoped that by making these changes, I might persuade the Government to support it. Clause 1(1) provides that succession to hereditary peerages only does not depend on sex. I have deliberately narrowed the scope of the Bill to focus on peerages because of the constitutional implications, as they are eligible to be elected to our upper House. On the register to stand as hereditary peers, there are 210 people who wish to put themselves forward should there be a by-election, and I understand that of those 210 people, only one is female. That demonstrates that it is already possible to be a female hereditary peer, but under the current system it does not happen as routinely as it does for men.

Unlike my earlier Bill, the scope does not include baronetcies and other titles, in order to address the objection that the Bill has too wide a scope and would intrude into the private lives of those 1,500 to 1,800 families who would never be in our legislature. I have done that with some reluctance, but in order to get the Government to support my Bill.

Clause 1(2) would phase the provision in gradually and—again, listening to comments from people—when there is already an identified male heir in the line of succession, the change would take place at the next point of succession. That would gradually phase in the change, which is another concession I am making to get the Government’s support.

Clause 2 makes it clear, again in response to objections, that the Bill is entirely about the titles and that any decision about wills, property or inheritance is completely distinct from the issue of the title. Clause 4, again addressing an objection, would exempt the peerages and titles that are still held by the Crown. I have, therefore, gone a long way in this new version of the Bill to address the concerns I have heard. As a Conservative, I stand for equality of opportunity. We should want every person born in this country to enjoy the same chance to make a difference, to thrive and to prosper. I personally will not give up until this posh glass ceiling is broken.

Another concern that I heard raised was, “What about their lordships? What might they do if, Lord forbid, this Bill should reach the other place?” I want to put on record my gratitude to the Earl of Devon, no less, who has agreed to take the Bill through the other place. Fortunately, we have some recent comments from Hansard that reflect the mood in the other place, because on 9 February, Lord Northbrook secured a Second Reading of his Succession to Peerages and Baronetcies Bill, which takes a different approach; it would allow female succession only if no man was available—no comment needed.

Lord Northbrook said,

“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.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2024; Vol. 835, c. 1915.]

Male primogeniture could therefore be illegal anyway in some cases, if tested by the courts.

On Second Reading in the other place, the following supportive points were made about my Bill. The Earl of Sandwich said,

“The campaign for female succession must be encouraged, and has had approval, if not support, from within government at a high level. Harriett Baldwin’s Private Member’s Bill in another place attracted a lot of attention, while, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned, Penny Mordaunt”—

the Leader of the House—

“referred to this as a ‘posh glass ceiling’. Even our own noble Lord, Lord True, seemed to be sympathetic, though could not actually support the Bill. Let us see if His Majesty’s Government can look more favourably on it this time.”

Viscount Astor said that Lord Northbrook’s Bill

“does not go far enough… it should be a Bill that brings the peerage into line with the Crown.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2024; Vol. 835, c. 1919.]

Lord Lucas said,

“I share the vision that…women are equal with men in every respect…and I would very much like to see that applied to peerage inheritance.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2024; Vol. 835, c. 1920.]

Lord Addington said,

“However, if we are going to do this, we should follow the example of the Royal Family. The oldest child is the only way you can really make this equal going forward. It”—

Lord Northbrook’s Bill—

“could be interpreted as an attempt at a small step forward, but it is out of date and out of time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2024; Vol. 835, c. 1921.]

Baroness Noakes was supportive of the way forward being inheritance by the eldest child, and of course Baroness Chapman for the Opposition was supportive, too. In fact, I have personally contacted every single one of the 92 hereditary peers and not had a single person object. If there are objections, they are well hidden in the other place.

In fact, I have had the following supportive replies. Lord Hampton told me that he supports the principle behind my Bill. Earl Howe said,

“I am very much in favour of the principle behind your Bill.”

Lord Willoughby de Broke said,

“I will certainly support it, if only because two of our best monarchs have been Queens and it’s absurd that girls are excluded by male primogeniture.”

What are the Government’s objections and why are they not supportive of the Bill, because I fear that I will be talked out? Many members of the Government are supportive, and I am sorry that the collective decision of the Government is not a supportive one. This is a missed opportunity for the Government to champion wider support for women with another step forward.

Philip Davies 

I commend my hon. Friend for all her extensive consultation on this issue. It seems from what she says that no logical reason has been given to be against the measures in the Bill other than self-interest and pure old sexism. Those seem to be the only two possible ways someone could oppose the Bill. Given that, I encourage her to keep going with this Bill and to find further dates down the line. In the meantime, we can hopefully encourage the Government and Opposition to find their way to supporting the Bill, and it can then be nodded through at a later date.

Harriett Baldwin 

Such wonderfully encouraging words from my hon. Friend! I believe that by making the changes I have to the substance of the Bill, I have addressed any substantive concerns that the Government might have. I have heard the objection that it is just too complicated, too time-consuming—basically, a faff for which there is not enough parliamentary time. I have been told that it is not a doorstep issue or retail issue, and it is true that few people would ever raise it with me on the doorstep. I am sure that colleagues would say the same. However, it is important because when we mention what it is about, people immediately understand how pernicious it is if sexism is embedded in our legislature in this way.

Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab)

May I take this opportunity to put it on the record that the hon. Member is doing an amazing job on an important subject? It is quite depressing, as a relative newcomer to this House, that in 2024 we are still having to make these arguments.

Harriett Baldwin 

Perhaps 2024 will be the year when these things are finally heard. I have heard concerns that the Bill could be used to abolish hereditary peerages altogether, with an amendment in the other place, but the primary advocate of that—Lord Grocott—has assured me that he will not use this Bill for that purpose.

I will conclude my remarks by saying that my only interest in the issue is as a female parliamentarian—the 341st woman ever elected to this place in our nation’s history.

Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble) (Con)

My hon. Friend refers to the number of female MPs ever elected. I was elected in 2019 and I am No. 523—her experience shows in the number she attributes to her name. There are 650 MPs in this place, yet we still have not got to 650 women ever sitting on these green Benches. Does she agree that that is the context in which her speech should be seen?

Harriett Baldwin 

I am encouraged to hear a Government Parliamentary Private Secretary, no less, making supportive remarks in this debate, and I agree with my hon. Friend. I want to say for the record that I am not posh. This Bill does not affect me at all. I care passionately about equality, equality of opportunity, girls getting a great education, women succeeding in the workplace and in their lives, and achieving a 50:50 Parliament in my lifetime.

Mr Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this Bill. Lord Trefgarne, one of the most distinguished peers living in my constituency of Woking, is a long-standing opponent of my hon. Friend’s proposal, but he is a very agreeable and thoughtful man and I am sure he would be delighted to meet her to discuss it.

Harriett Baldwin 

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for finding someone who objects to the principle of the Bill. I have not yet had a reply to my inquiry of Lord Trefgarne, so I will certainly follow that up in due course.

I want to end my remarks with an inspiring quotation that I heard this week, which sums up why am persisting with this issue. I was very inspired to hear these words by Nora Ephron, the great US screenwriter:

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”

So I say to my Government: “Come on. I will continue to make a little trouble on this subject until you let this Bill pass.” Alternatively, we could agree today to make this small and symbolic change for our country’s sake and for the sake of equality between future generations of men and women.