HL Deb 06 June 1994 vol 555 cc943-6

2.37 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked the Leader of the House:

Whether the use of the term "My Lords" to address a chamber of men and women Peers of equal status is a breach of the: Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, no. The Sex Discrimination Act does not apply to terms of address, nor to proceedings in Parliament. It covers discrimination on grounds of sex in employment, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services and the management and disposal of premises.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Will the Leader of the House agree that at the very least it violates the spirit of the 1975 Act, which in Section 38 opposes and outlaws sexual connotations in advertisements for jobs as encouraging discrimination? Does he not agree that it is time that we followed the lead of the Master of the Rolls, who recently declared that the practice of addressing a woman judge in the Appeal Court as "my Lord" was, in his words, plainly absurd and should be discouraged? Cannot we have the same approach?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the whole House of course will respect the achievements of the noble Baroness in reducing sex discrimination. Those of us with long memories will remember her success in another place 25 years ago in introducing legislation dealing with equality in pay between the sexes. That was a real issue and the noble Baroness deserves full credit for her part in those advances. However, I wonder whether this is an issue of similar magnitude.

These are questions for your Lordships' House. However, my briefing tells me that, although the word "lord" can have a gender specific meaning, it can also have a non-gender specific meaning. Thus the term "my Lords" should be regarded as applying to all Members of your Lordships' House regardless of sex.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that as a matter of strict construction the male embraces the female, even on the Floor of your Lordships' House?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for having pointed that out so clearly. Of course there are nothing like as many noble Baronesses in this House as there are noble Lords. However, looking at their contributions to our proceedings, the noble Baronesses certainly make their mark in virtually every area of this House's activities. As one who spent the bulk of his political career with a woman as his boss, at one time one wondered whether a man would ever achieve the top job again.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, does the noble Lord by any chance know upon what occasion my father—he was a stickler for correct procedure—having been taken to task for referring to a noble Baroness as "the noble Lord", said that he was perfectly correct because this was a House of Lords and not a House of Lords and Ladies or a House of Lords and Baronesses?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I knew the quotation but I am afraid I do not know the date of it. However, my noble friend is right to draw it to the attention of the House.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, all being well perhaps we shall soon be addressing each other as "senators", a title which I take to embrace both sexes. However, I suggest quite seriously that your Lordships consider introducing the term "my Peers" as a temporary measure.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, whether this House will be converted to a senate or some body of that kind is an issue which would have to be debated extensively; the question of whether we change the title with which we address ourselves does not seem to me to rank in the same order. As a matter of fact, technically speaking I am advised that Bishops are not Peers, although they are in the House. Even the noble Lord's suggestion runs into some technical difficulties. I believe that he would be wise to join with me in leaving matters as they are.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the. noble Lord is a highly respected Leader of the House. However, is he aware that with his pedantic circumlocution he sounds like a second-rate lawyer?

Noble Lords


Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, he sounds like a second-rate lawyer; I do not say that he is.

We are not arguing about the use of language as such but about the spirit of the language. That is what my noble friend seeks to change. I should have thought that the noble Lord, being such a splendid Leader of the House, would accommodate her in some way and, instead of dodging and weaving and evading the issue, find a way of dealing with a legitimate question.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord and I have been friends for many years. He has, never said anything remotely disagreeable to me up to this moment. I am glad that he referred to me as a second-rate lawyer and not as a first-rate lawyer. That is something that I could not have tolerated.

In relation to this Question there are some major issues. I have done my best to say to the noble Baroness —for whom I have a great affection because for many years she and I used to pair together in another place —that the term "Lord" in your Lordships' House covers noble Lords of all genders.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend remember from his gender rhymes that there are certain words which, like opifex and artifex, are common to either sex? Is not the salutation by which we know one another one of those words?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is right to come in at this moment. I happen to have a briefing which includes an extract from Hansard of 17th March 1994, when this matter last arose. On that occasion my noble friend also said some wise but different words. I am glad that he is still of that consistent view.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, as the word "Lord" has a non-gender-specific use, as the noble Lord the Leader of the House has just stated, why is it that we refer to colleagues who are women as "the noble Lady" and not as "the noble Lord"? Would it not be less cumbrous if we addressed them as "the noble Lord"?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, if the noble Lord makes a proposal I shall see to it that the Procedure Committee looks at the matter. However, I am not sure that he is making such a proposal. I am perfectly content with the present arrangement. If others want to change it there is an appropriate way of doing so. It is entirely a matter for your Lordships as to how the matter should be dealt with.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether Her Majesty has ever been asked to exercise her prerogative regarding the status of the husbands of Baronesses and Dames, because when a man holds a title the wife shares the title of the husband? I declare no interest. My husband is not interested in that aspect. He says that having the parking space is more than enough for him.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, in her final remark my noble friend shows a practical touch which I suggest is of much greater value than some of the theorising about these matters.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that some of us who have difficulty with legislation in which the Secretary of State is always referred to as "he" tried to follow the example of several states in the United States which call their equivalent to the Secretary of State "it"? Is there not a lesson for us in that?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, so long as spokesmen for the Opposition are content to be called "it" as well I am sure that the House would not object.

We should allow the noble Baroness to have a final word, but then perhaps we should move on.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is the Leader of the House aware that he is becoming more sexist by the minute? How would he and his male colleagues like a situation in which in every speech and every debate they were addressed as "my Ladies"? Can he not therefore say why he considers that the word "Lord" embraces women but "women" cannot embrace Lords?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I did not say that it did. For what it was worth, I responded with the briefing that I had. I was not sure whether it was sound or whether it was not. I do not believe that this is an important issue. The achievements of the noble Baroness over a lifetime of distinguished public service in improving the status of women are something which we shall all remember and admire. But this is not an issue of anything remotely like the same order of merit.