Harriet Baldwin is the MP for West Worcestershire, and the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee
As a Conservative, I stand for equality of opportunity. I am proud to be a member of a Party that wants every person born in this country to thrive and to prosper. That we have been able to select female leaders and see a diverse and talented cohort of Ministers in the highest roles in Government is a testament to the Conservative principle of meritocracy.
Conservatives have made huge progress at other levels of politics too. The Women2Win initiative now brings strong, capable female candidates forward at every level and in the House of Commons we move ever closer to a 50:50 spilt of men and women. And yet as only the 341st female Member of Parliament, ever, I continue to work hard to encourage more women to enter politics. The #AskHerToStand campaign is one of my current focuses in politics, whether it is talking to school children or work experience students, or looking for candidates to come forward for public office.
Yet committed efforts to bring full equality to Parliament are not reflected down the corridor in the House of Lords. One-eighth of seats are reserved for men only – that’s the 92 seats solely for hereditary peers.
This week, I am introducing a Private Members’ Bill to allow firstborn daughters the chance of inheriting their father’s title, and receive a place in the House of Lords on the same terms as eldest sons.
My Bill would not apply immediately when a son is due to inherit a title, and it would certainly not be retrospective. If there were already a son in the line of succession, that would remain the case. The Bill would affect 803 hereditary peers, including 24 dukes, 34 marquesses, 191 earls, 115 discounts, and 426 barons, and four countesses and nine baronesses in their own right.
Each of them could potentially be one of the 92 hereditary peers or be on the register to stand as a hereditary peer in a by-election to the House of Lords. I understand that the register of peers for the by-elections has 210 peers on it, only one of whom is female. It is therefore already possible to be a female hereditary peer, but because of the current system, that does not happen as routinely as it does for males. The system is not fair.
Whatever your views on the ‘other place’ or on hereditary peerages more generally, I am sure everyone can agree that embedded sex discrimination is simply not acceptable.
This issue was a matter of acute constitutional debate in the early years of the coalition Government. With the now Prince and Princess of Wales planning a family, the Crown accepted the need for reform. It acted decisively and Parliament passed the Succession to the Crown Act in 2013, which amended the provisions of the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement to end the system of male primogeniture. Thanks to this legislation, Prince George’s first-born son or daughter will become the monarch regardless of their sex. And yet our upper house has not yet implemented this vital reform.
I have always found it hard to justify the way in which we have embedded constitutional sexism in our own Parliament when I travel abroad on my Parliamentary duties. Our Parliament is regarded as an effective legislature, but I know we would shine stronger if we could make this simple change.
This is an issue that has come before Parliament before. I introduced a similar Bill as part of a Ten Minute Rule debate in the last Parliament. I pay tribute to my colleagues Mary Macleod and Philip Davies MP, who also brought this principle to the floor of the House of Commons in 2013 and 2019 respectively and I am grateful for the support of the Daughters’ Rights campaign group which has been working for more than a decade to shift the goalposts and bring change to the House of Lords. In parallel to this Bill, the group continues to lobby the European Court of Human Rights which can, and in my view should, consider and rule on this matter.
I am pleased to say that my Bill has strong cross-party support and an impressive cohort of colleagues have supported this call for this simple piece of constitutional reform. That weight of support encouraged Ministers to meet with me to discuss what can be supported by the Government. The conversations have been largely constructive, and I know that this issue is under consideration. I am hopeful it will be part of the next Conservative election manifesto.
However, I encourage the Government not to wait until then to support my simple piece of important constitutional reform. If I get the chance to debate this matter again in the House of Commons, I will make that point. It simply cannot be right to allow inequality in our legislature. It must surely be time to smash the Parliamentary glass ceiling and bring modern-day values to this last bastion of parliamentary sexism.