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Mary Macleod MP: Injustice in Downton Abbey. Why women should have equal rights to peerages

Mary Macleod is the Member of Parliament for Brentford & Isleworth.  Follow Mary on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 19.03.34In two weeks’ time, it will be Derby Day. Perhaps a good time to remember - as you sip your Pimm’s and huddle under your brolly - that 100 years before, in 1913, Emily Wilding Davison fell under King George V’s horse Anmer on Derby Day, sustaining injuries which caused her death.  Her tactics were controversial, but her aims were pure: she was a militant suffragette devoted to the emancipation of women and the cause of equality.

Despite Miss Davison’s death, women didn’t get the vote in the UK until 1918, when women over the age of 30 who met minimum certain property qualifications were enfranchised. And it wasn’t until 1928 that all women over 21 got the vote, bringing equality at last with men.

Of course, equality isn’t just about being able to vote. Further legislation was required to ensure gender equality in action:  the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and as recently as three years ago, the Equality Act 2010. Still that’s all done and dusted now isn’t it? Well, incredibly (in my opinion), no it’s not.

Because in 2013, there are still women whose inequality is enshrined in law.  Whose situation is not only troubling and surprising, but also carries worrying implications for the validity of the constitutional process.

I am referring, of course, to the female members of the peerage who, by law, cannot inherit their father’s titles.  Women like Amanda Murray whose father’s title, Baron Braybrooke, will pass to a cousin four times removed. Or Lady Clare Kerr, wife of my colleague Nick Hurd, whose father Michael Ancram carries the title Marquess of Lothian, which will - together with the family estate - go elsewhere.

As we all learnt from Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, distant male cousins are perfectly entitled to win the title lottery, while loving, hardworking daughters eat humble pie and hope for a roof over their heads. Julian Fellowes drew his inspiration from real life; his wife Emma Kitchener should, he believed, have been able to inherit her uncle’s historic Earldom. Sadly, time overtook the argument, and the last Earl passed away in 2011.

Yet the pressure for modernisation refuses to go away. Witness the Royal Family who, with the swift passing of the Succession to the Crown Act, is now proudly ‘gender-neutral’. Should a Princess be born before a Prince she will never be stepped over again. First come will indeed be ‘first to serve’. Compare that to the rest of the aristocracy, where recently nearly 700 women have been or will be leapfrogged by male relatives.

Precedence for change does exist, mainly in Scotland, where titles have been designed to pass through the female line. The Countess of Mar and Lady Saltoun of Abernethy are testament to this as the two female hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Conservative peer Lord Lucas, whose Equality (Titles) Bill was introduced on May 13, is also one of the few hereditaries whose title passes down the line regardless of gender.

You may think what’s the need for all this? Why do we need titles in this day and age anyway? Yet polls show the popularity of the Royal Family is at an all-time high - without the Earls and Barons, we would have Mr and Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor instead of course. I truly don’t believe the majority of Britons would welcome that. Nor would our tourist and heritage industry which depend, to a large degree, on visits to stately homes.

Back in their Lordships’ House, the need for reform is most obvious and pressing. As long as there are 92 hereditary peers, there is a clear discrimination in place at the heart of Parliament.  In effect, 90 places in our legislative chambers are reserved for men. This is a constitutional catastrophe. Sexual discrimination in the workplace. But our existing laws won’t solve that one.

So we must make a clear new law that places male primogeniture in the past where it belongs and brings true gender equality to every family in the land. As Jemima Lewis noted in the Daily Telegraph this week: ‘Discrimination against women is illegal in this country. It is also morally wrong. For once, class has nothing to do with it.’

These are all concerns I want to see addressed either through Lord Lucas’s Bill, or through my Ten Minute Rule Bill on this matter. In a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph, 239 peers, members of Parliament and other members of the aristocracy expressed their support for change. Yes, there will be winners and losers, constitutional quirks to iron out, and complications over sundry issues from re-drawing courtesy titles to addressing issues around adoption and legitimacy. But none of these are reasons to avoid creating a new law, one that will make this country a fairer place to be born for all.


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