HL Deb 31 July 1984 vol 455 cc647-50
Lord Diamond

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they intend to ratify the United Nations Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and whether an attempt at that time to exclude the legal effect of its provisions in their application to the United Kingdom with regard to the succession to the peerage would be proper and in accordance with international law and with the undertakings and obligations of the United Kingdom as a member of the United Nations; and how many other member states are known to be unwilling to ratify this convention in full.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Young)

My Lords, we hope to take a decision on ratification soon. We are satisfied that a reservation on the subject mentioned by the noble Lord would not be incompatible with the object and purpose of the convention and would therefore be effective under international law. Our obligations as a member of the United Nations are not in question. So far, 56 states have ratified the convention: 24 have made reservations of various kinds.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, may I first of all thank the noble Baroness for that Answer? May I also ask her, in view of her statement that the Government have not yet made up their mind, what the justification is for insisting that the eldest daughters of hereditary Peers are more capable than the younger brothers of serving Her Majesty in Parliament?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, is that the world is full of injustices and unfairnesses. I think that if one were to ask someone like my husband he would say how unfair it was that, when I was given a Life Peerage, he got nothing, whereas if he had been given a Life Peerage I would have got a title.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that if my information is correct—it may not be, but I hope it is—the English peerage law lays it down that (and I quote): From the Conquest down, women have been regarded as capable of inheriting all kinds of hereditaments"? In view of this, does it not follow that a Bill to give effect to the desires of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond—and, indeed, of many other Peers, I should have thought—by equalising the position of men and women in this respect would be no great break in the traditions of the British peerage?

Baroness Young

My Lords, whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, chooses to introduce a Private Member's Bill on this subject is, of course, a matter for him.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, would not the simplest solution be to grant all hereditary Peers who attend this House regularly a Life Peerage, and to abolish hereditary peerages for the rest?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, is that it is not my own view that that would be the case; nor is it the Government's view on this matter.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, while welcoming equality of opportunity for women, are the Government aware that the convention itself discriminates heavily against one class of women— that is to say, those who choose to support their husbands and families rather than go out to work—in that all specific health and social security benefits called for relate to women who are members of the labour force? Would the Government not agree that women who choose to do so play a very valuable role in the community in support of their husbands and families, especially when, as now, family life is under stress and when there is already very high unemployment in this country? Will the Government protest most strongly against this discrimination by the convention?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to assure the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, that the Government will do nothing that could undermine the family. I have seen the arguments that he has adduced and I should like to say to him that we agree with certain of the doubts that have been expressed about the convention. We would intend to deal with these by a declaration of interpretation or by reservations.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble Baroness, when looking into the complexities of the matter of Life Peerage. bear in mind that Life Peeresses have an unfair advantage over Life Peers in that it is well-known that they live very much longer?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord is right in referring to anyone as a Life Peeress. I look on myself as a Life Peer. But I agree with him that, far from talking about equality, I have always believed in the natural superiority of women over men.

Baroness Wootton of Abinger

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that my late husband claimed, with justice, to be the first male Peeress and might that title now be confirmed? Unfortunately, it was not recognised at the time.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I cannot possibly, of course, speak for the noble Baroness's husband, but I am not sure that all husbands would wish to be so described.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, the noble Baroness speaks about the ladies being superior, but is it not a fact that Bernard Shaw once said that the only protection man has against a woman is a flat iron and a pair of hobnail boots? Perhaps I ought to draw attention, too, to the fact that, like her husband, when my wife received a Damehood I suffered.

Baroness Young

Yes, my Lords. I think that George Bernard Shaw drew attention to this point in his play Man and Superman.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, is extraordinarily serious to millions of women, not only in our country but throughout the world, and particularly in the developing countries, as they are called? Would it not be a good thing if our nation could, at the United Nations, make the point that the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, has made, so that there could be a reasoned amendment to the present practice of the United Nations in relation to this issue?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the Government take seriously the points that have been raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby. It is for that reason that we are considering them and we would enter a reservation on those points before ratifying the convention.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, will the noble Baroness help me with my Private Member's Bill, to which she has made reference? Does she know how many Peers would not be here but would he Peeresses, if I am not misunderstood, if, instead of succeeding to the title, their elder sisters had so succeeded? Does she happen to know the figures?

Baroness Young

My Lords, that is something that would take a very long time to ascertain and a great deal of historical research would be required. I think we should find that it cost more than the amount which is usually allowable in answering parliamentary Questions.