HL Deb 27 February 1998 vol 586 cc909-18

1.22 p.m.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

I should like to make it clear at the outset that I am a supporter of the Royal Family and a believer in this country having a monarch. There are no conditions in which I would favour a president for Britain. However, that does not mean that as we approach the 21st century we should not consider any changes to a system that has served us so well for centuries. So I ask the House to approach my Bill in a positive way. With that in mind, I will put forward my reasons for why I believe this piece of legislation deserves the support of your Lordships' House.

First, it is important to place on the record that this Bill will have little or no effect for at least two generations—in real terms, probably around 60 or 70 years. Therefore, there is unlikely to be a single Member of this House alive to see the results of the Bill. Her Majesty the Queen, if her mother is anything to go by, will surely continue to be our monarch for many years to come. In the fullness of time, she will be succeeded by his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, her first born, who in turn will be succeeded by his first born, His Royal Highness Prince William, who is only 15 years old. So the earliest the Bill could take effect would be if Prince William's first born was to be a girl. Indeed, if it were a boy the Bill would not be enacted until the 22nd century.

The Bill would have no effect on the present Royal Family, making no difference to the status of the Princess Royal, so it could hardly be described as a revolutionary concept. While I am on the subject of the Princess Royal, I would suggest that had she been the first born, this debate would not be taking place in a half empty House of Lords on a Friday afternoon, but in every household in the country. Although I am delighted by the prospect of King Charles III, I am not fearful of Queen Anne II. I might add that it was on the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, that I decided to ensure that the Bill would not take immediate effect.

I suspect that our great grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that this subject was even considered worthy of debate. I feel confident that the House has noted that since the publication of my Bill, it has been met with overwhelming public support and been welcomed by the press. Indeed, a leader in The Times went so far as to say that it was surprised that the then Conservative Government had not come up with the idea themselves, or at least it should have been suggested by the then Opposition rather than a Conservative Back-Bencher in the House of Lords.

During the past months, my letter bag has been equally supportive, with only two letters opposing the Bill. The first suggested at great length and in considerable detail that God had put men on earth because he intended them to be superior to women. If that is the case, I am bound on this occasion to think that God got it wrong. How many men in this House would dare to suggest that they are superior to their wives? And in that I include Members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet. In my own case, the subject is not even worthy of discussion.

Who among us would say that on balance our kings have more impressive records than our queens? I will happily be a standard bearer for Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II against any three kings my opponents might care to select. More important, history has shown us that more often than not queens have the advantage of longevity. That has made it possible for our present monarch to be able to advise nine Prime Ministers since Winston Churchill. Queen Elizabeth II is respected and admired from one side of the globe to the other. The idea that her great granddaughter should not be allowed to take the throne ahead of a younger brother is not only farcical, but insulting to half the population of this country.

The second letter that I received opposing the Bill I took far more seriously. The writer put forward the argument that it was dangerous to tinker with the constitution. But if that argument had great validity, this House would never have passed the great Reform Bill of 1842 or agreed to women's suffrage in 1928. Mind you, it was extremely difficult to get either of those Bills through this House because many of your Lordships' ancestors voted against them, so I shall not be surprised to face some opposition today.

Some of your Lordships have put to me the thin edge of the wedge argument; namely, that if the Bill became law, hereditary Peers would be the next in line. I know that many of your Lordships feel strongly about that. I shall not dwell on the subject long because I know that my noble friend Lord Gainford will concentrate on that aspect of the argument. However, I would not wish to be accused of avoiding the issue so I shall say only that if it is good enough for the Royal Family, I do not see why it should not be good enough for the rest of us.

Others in your Lordships' House have suggested to me that perhaps this is not the appropriate time to be discussing this particular subject, while our Royal Family is facing its present difficulties. To them I am bound to say perhaps they would be kind enough to let me know when it is the appropriate time because with the present tabloid press, I cannot see that being in the foreseeable future. I repeat that that same press would make much more of a meal of it if Prince William's first born were to be a girl.

As I walk around the corridors of your Lordships' House, I am told time and time again that often it is the Peers who, because of their independence of mind, are more in touch with the views of the people. If that is the case, then those same Peers will have been left in no doubt how the people feel and will accept this Bill as no more than a tiny and common sense step forward in our constitution.

Therefore, I ask the House to support this small step forward so that it never crosses the minds of our yet unborn great grandchildren that we were either out of touch or that we considered that men were naturally superior to women. There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken on the flood, leads on to fortune. Let this be a time in the affairs of women when, in your Lordships' House, not in the Commons, we are seen to be bold, progressive and in touch. My Lords, God Save the Queen. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare.)

1.32 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the admirable speech with which he introduced the Bill and I rise to speak in support of it. There seem to be three powerful reasons which coincide in its favour. The first is that the reasons for the present rules of succession are long passed. There is a Latin tag which, since your Lordships do not favour the way in which lawyers pronounce Latin, I shall translate. It really means that where the reason for a legal rule has ceased, let the rule itself be brought to an end.

As I say, the reasons for the present rules of royal succession are long past. They reflect the rules by which real property—that is, land—descended before the reforms of 1925. Those rules in turn depended on the feudal law. The feudal law itself presupposed that the feudal inferior had to produce himself as an armed horseman or a body of armed horsemen and together they constituted the royal army with the monarch himself at the head. But it was considered for a number of reasons that that role of armed chivalry was not suitable for a woman and hence the rule of male primogeniture. Sometimes, as your Lordships know, if only from Shakespeare, some monarchies went much further. The French took over the rule of the Salian Franks whereby the Crown could not merely not descend to women but could not descend through a woman. It was because our system was different that the English kings maintained their claim to the French crown throughout the middle ages.

The Salic rule or anything like it was never applied in this country. On the contrary, a woman might inherit but she was postponed in her inheritance to her male siblings. When one looks at it like that, that is surely even more derogatory to the female sex than a total exclusion, because it is invidious. One is bound to ask in these days—and as the noble Lord said so resonantly—why should a woman be postponed in her moral right to her male siblings?

It is because our rule is particularly derogatory to women, as well as being quite out of date, that I come to the next reason which was indeed adumbrated by the noble Lord in moving the Bill. In a word, that is feminism. I confess to being a card-carrying feminist, although not, I hasten to add, of the bra-burning wing of that sorority. However, I do rather favour not mere egalitarianism but the way it was considered by Burke when he spoke of that generous loyalty to rank and sex. It is for the reasons that the noble Lord gave when we compare ourselves to our wives and mothers that we feel a humility which also speaks very strongly in favour of this Bill.

But even when strong reason and decency of feeling speak in favour of a measure, in this country we still tend to look at the matter pragmatically, in the light of experience. But experience too reinforces the two considerations which I venture to put before your Lordships. It was only a few years ago that we had a female monarch, a female Prime Minister, a female Leader of your Lordships' House and a female Lord Mayor of London, all highly admired in their achievements. Perhaps I may add how delighted we are and how suitable it is that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is to speak in this debate.

But it is not only those women. We have had experience of women monarchs. I believe that we have had six female monarchs since the Tudors inaugurated the modern monarchy. I suppose that the role, position and status of Queen Mary I is controversial by reason of religious differences and no doubt we must wait for the biography by Lady Russell to form a just and balanced view.

The second Queen Mary shared her throne. Of the remaining female monarch one has only to think of Elizabeth I. One thinks of Queen Anne. She was perhaps not a charismatic figure but she presided over some of the great victories of the British army, which stood against, not for the first nor for the last time, continental hegemony. After Queen Anne, there was Queen Victoria and our present Monarch. In view of those sole monarchs—Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and our present monarch—who can say that experience, too, does not speak strongly in favour of this Bill?

There are two other matters with which I shall venture to deal. The first has already been dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Archer; namely, the view that your Lordships took on a Bill that was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, a few Sessions ago to alter the rules of succession of the hereditary peerage. I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, is to say something in that respect.

I can only say that I see no reason why this Bill's principles should be more widely applied. I hope that we shall not hear any talk of the thin end of the wedge. A great Conservative political thinker and active statesman said that the British Constitution is full of wedges which the good sense of the community refrains from driving home. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will not be deterred, if they think that the Bill is right on its merits, from acclaiming it.

I turn now to the final matter. It relates to subsection (2). I venture to doubt whether the noble Lord, Lord Archer, is entirely right in his reading of that. I would not have thought in any case that it is necessary, because this is not a procedural Bill, but one that affects substantive rights, so it would not in any case be read retrospectively. However, its incidence falls on the passing of this measure. One can envisage melancholy circumstances which might cause its provisions to be called into action in that event. We would very much welcome the views of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on the matter. I venture to think that it is a matter of such importance that the Law Officers should be asked to advise on it.

I cannot speak categorically in view of the fact that the noble Lord himself is so certain of the effect of the Bill but I crave to venture a tentative doubt. Subject to that, I wholly support the Bill.

1.43 p.m.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, first, I should like to crave your Lordships' indulgence. As some noble Lords know, I had a bit of bad luck recently, although things are improving. The result of what happened is that my face and voice are not now my fortune, if indeed they ever were before. Therefore, I hope that your Lordships can hear me. I speak in support of my noble friend's Bill. I first showed that support by acting as Teller on 9th December 1996, when the opinion of the House was sought as to whether my noble friend might present his humble Address to Her Majesty concerning his proposed Bill. Since then, I have been very much looking forward to this occasion.

This century has seen a revolution in the status of women. A hundred years ago most women were virtually powerless unless they had men to speak or act for them. I can remember my late mother recalling her own grandfather saying, "No woman must be allowed to handle her own affairs". Many women were quite prepared to accept that situation, even to the extent of being shocked by, or even despising, members of their own sex who attempted to break out into independence or enter various professions such as that of a doctor.

Since that time women have advanced rapidly. No doubt two world wars in which women showed how they could do men's work were an influence. They are now in almost every profession, even the priesthood. Indeed, their presence in your Lordships' House is one proof of that progress. We have had a lady Prime Minister and also in another place we now have a lady Speaker of the House. It may not be long before we have a noble and learned Baroness sitting on the Woolsack.

Such a thing was foreseen way back in 1934. The late A. P. Herbert was the brains behind a brilliant review titled "Streamline" which was produced by the late Charles B. Cochrane. Florence Desmond was among the performers. One item on the programme was a musical sketch entitled, "Perseverance", which was a take-off of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Gondoliers". There was a singing entrance line for a lady. She who came in singing: I am the Lady Chancellor, I am; But once I was a nurse and pushed a pram". It was a good joke and audiences loved it. However, looking back, I wonder whether it might just have been a tiny bit prophetic.

With the advance in the status of women there must come an eventual change in hereditary laws, which even royalty may have to consider. In supporting this Bill, just like my noble friend I declare my total support for the Monarchy. I am an ardent monarchist. The last thing that I would want to see is anything that would diminish the influence of our Royal Family and the respect that the public has for it. That applies particularly at present, because it has recently had to take some rather hard knocks.

There are some who think that the male prerogative in inheritance is the status quo which must be preserved, almost as if it is a case of divine right. Of course, chauvinism will raise its head. We all get it in certain ways, and I am not excluded. Mine could be summed up in something that my elder daughter said to me. She is someone—and the noble and learned Lord. Lord Simon, mentioned this—in whom I have a particular interest, and I was really speaking on her behalf when the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, attempted to bring in a Bill to enable daughters, especially those of a Peer like myself who has no son, to inherit peerages. I can just about remember her words. She said, "Dad, you are loyal to Her Majesty. You were loyal to Lady Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. You supported women seeking ordination. You struggled in the House of Lords for daughters to be able to inherit Peerages: why do you still object to ladies coming into the Pavilion at Lord's?" That matter is, of course, now a subject of news reports.

Whatever progress is made and whatever heights women rise to in the future, we men trust that one privilege will not be taken away from us: namely, the right to court the lady of our choice, win her heart. marry her and provide for her, even if she is much more skilled at earning a higher income. Women are beautiful and wonderful creatures. I enjoy their company. Someone once suggested that I was a dirty old man. I retorted: "I am not a dirty old man: I am a very sexy senior citizen". Yes, my Lords, they are lovely creatures. They can drive a man up the proverbial wall, across the ceiling and down the other side. But we love them.

I recall again 9th December 1996. I remember that some newspaper reports showed interest in what had happened in this House. One headline read: "Judging Jeffrey's Bill". That is what we are doing today in this Second Reading debate. Let us grant it a satisfactory and just verdict.

1.49 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, this little Bill is an extraordinary piece of machinery for constitutional change with wide ramifications. To have it before the House on a Friday afternoon when the House is three-quarters empty does no credit to the procedures of the House or the arrangements for our business. It is a bad Bill and when the Question is put I shall shout, "Not content".

1.50 p.m.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, I apologise for appearing in the anonymity of the gap in the speakers' list. I express no view on the merits or demerits of this Bill but, as I said on an earlier occasion in your Lordships' House when talking about the proposal by the Government to deprive hereditary peers of their rights, I object to constitutional change taking place by the method of a thousand cuts. For good or ill we now live in a different world from the one we inhabited less than 12 months ago. It is in particular a world in which there is great constitutional change beginning to occur. The Government have been playing this by playing one card and putting the rest of their hand under the table—not even against their chest—where no one knows precisely what will happen to the cards.

This is another example of trying to deal with important matters separately without looking at the whole. I very much regret to say that my noble friend Lord Archer destroyed his own case almost in his first sentence—I am sorry that he did not get someone to vet his speech, even if it was a lady—by saying that it would be 60 or 70 years before his Bill took effect. It seems to me that before that period of 60 or 70 years has expired we ought to look at the question of major constitutional change. I deliberately do not use the word "reform" because that has certain implications. But we ought to look at major constitutional change as a whole because we in this generation, or indeed in the next few years, may take decisions which will be of major importance so far as the future of this country is concerned.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I merely wish to correct some arithmetic by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale. The Chamber is not three-quarters empty; it is over 90 per cent. empty.

1.52 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have known, admired and considered a friend over a long period of time my noble friend Lord Archer. On the subject of this Bill my noble friend has been consistent, persevering and tenacious. I know that he feels deeply that there should be no sexual discrimination when determining the line of succession to the Crown. I hope therefore that my noble friend will respect the way in which I intend to respond to this Bill because I, too, do not wish to argue the merits or demerits of the Bill. I cannot, however, support addressing a subject of such profound constitutional significance on the basis of what may be passing mores that insist on placing a strict sexual egalitarianism above custom and tradition by way of a Private Member's Bill. There are certain institutions, of which the monarchy is most emphatically one—I would argue that the House of Lords is another—that should be beyond revision and reformation by Private Members' Bills or narrow sectional interests. Such proposed constitutional change, I believe, should be subject to a long period of reflection, deeper analysis which takes into account the historical perspective and contemporary thinking and should consider the consequences and impact of any changes for the future of the nation. If, following such a prolonged and in-depth consideration, reform is proposed, I hope that a much wider consensus across the political and social spectrum could be secured.

Under the present system of succession our country has had the good fortune to be ruled exceptionally wisely by women for 109 of the past 161 years. I, for one, am content to be guided by divine providence that under the tradition of centuries has given us remarkable sovereign queens, rather than to set aside our ancient customs using this parliamentary device which ignores possible constitutional ramifications.

We read in the newspapers—I know that we should not believe all that we read in the newspapers—that the Government wish to see this Bill, or such a Bill as this, enacted. It will therefore be interesting to hear from the Minister on this point when he replies to the debate. If, however, reports are correct, I hope the Government will not follow the example they have set on other constitutional changes, for example devolution for England and Wales, the removal of hereditary peers from this House; and indeed the future of this House, which is being proceeded with with indecent haste, is ill thought through and is totally lacking in any period of reflection and intellectual analysis. Nor are such constitutional matters being considered in their proper historical context and with all the constitutional knock-on effects being taken into account. Indeed my noble friend has conceded the thin end of the wedge argument by indicating in his speech today that there is a real probability that legislation affecting all hereditary peers would follow this Bill.

I know my noble friend will be disappointed in my response to this Bill. I do not wish in any way to argue with my noble friend that this is not a serious issue, nor that it is not an issue which has its devotees. I make only two points. First, I point out to my noble friend with some diffidence that my influence in this Parliament under a Labour Government is not great. Therefore the responsibility for the progress and survival of this Bill, or any other such Bill on this issue, is a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and his colleagues in another place.

Secondly, I feel very strongly indeed that constitutional changes should not be made lightly. They should be the subject of wider, deeper, thoughtful and intellectual consideration. It is therefore the means by which we are being asked to consider succession arrangements to the Crown, taken together with the plethora of legislation which is dismantling centuries of tradition, which I find deeply disturbing. I will, however, honour the convention of this House by not opposing the Bill's Second Reading.

1.57 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate. Noble Lords have raised issues which are related to the subject of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, but which are not covered specifically by its provisions. I do not propose to deal with those now. I want simply to explain to the House what view the Government take about the noble Lord's Bill.

I should make it clear straight away that before reaching a view the Government of course consulted the Queen. Her Majesty had no objection to the Government's view that in determining the line of succession to the throne daughters and sons should be treated in the same way. There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, on a point of order, I had always understood that in this House it was not normal to make known the views of the monarch on legislation before the House. I thought that was a pretty fundamental precept.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, if I may be allowed to respond, this text has been specifically cleared with those to whom reference has been made. I therefore resent any suggestion that I have done anything improper. I therefore continue. There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect.

We do not think that, whatever its merits, a Private Peer's Bill is an appropriate vehicle for so important a change as the one we have been debating. A major constitutional measure of this sort ought properly to be the subject of a government Bill. We shall be considering how best to carry this forward within government and in consultation with the Royal Family.

Under the Statute of Westminster 1931, before any alteration in the law touching the succession to the Throne can take effect the assent of all those countries of which Her Majesty is Queen is required. The United Kingdom cannot act unilaterally. That is another good reason for introducing a government measure. It would seem very odd to the legislatures of the 15 Realms to be invited to consider assenting to legislation instigated by an individual Member of your Lordships' House.

I cannot tell noble Lords today precisely how we shall be taking this forward. A number of suggestions have been made today for further changes in the law governing succession to the Throne. We shall of course look at these—in consultation of course with the Royal Family— but the only issue on which a decision has been taken is that which is the subject of the noble Lord's Bill: equality of treatment for men and women in relation to the succession to the Throne.

I do not think that I need say more at this stage. We have had our debate and I am grateful to all those noble Lords who have participated in it. I welcome the support which has been expressed for the principle behind the noble Lord's Bill and I trust that he will understand why we cannot support the Bill itself.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, before my noble friend rises, perhaps I may put a question on the record. Perhaps the noble Lord will write to me and other Members of the House. Is there any precedent whatsoever in the life of Parliament in this country for the definitive view of the Sovereign on the outcome of any Bill being announced to this House in advance of the Bill being considered by both Houses of Parliament?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Baroness and ensure that a copy of such letter, after appropriate consultations with those affected, is placed in the Library.

2.2 p.m.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that I, too, was surprised by the statement. I shall be interested to read the letter.

I thank the Minister for taking the Bill so seriously. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, for supporting me on this occasion. He is a man with a distinguished record in the constitution. For the noble and learned Lord to have backed the Bill was pleasing.

I understand fully the position of my noble friend Lady Blatch. Indeed, she was kind enough to say that we had been friends for many years and have supported many causes together. I understand fully her reasons for the conduct of the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Lauderdale said that he would be shouting "Not-Content". Perhaps in passing I may say how much I admired the excellent role my noble friend's daughter played in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament.

I have listened carefully to what the Minister said. I hear that the Government take the issue very seriously. I take the point of the noble Lord who said that it was too big an issue to be debated in this way. Indeed some noble Lords suggested that the matter should be given more thought. I take that on board.

I hope that those Members who have for a long time opposed me on the Bill will not doubt my sincerity or my hope that I shall live to see such legislation as part of the law of this land. However, I hear clearly what the Minister said. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Second Reading.

Motion for Second Reading, by leave, withdrawn.