The Succession to Peerages bill, introduced in the last session of Parliament, will make a return in this first of the new Parliament, with renewed hopes that the long-contested changes to the rules governing succession to hereditary titles in the UK are changed to allow female succession.
The bill – introduced by Lord Trefgarne – seeks to create a blanket rule to allow hereditary titles to be inherited by women in the absence of any male heir. As it stands at the moment, almost all peerages cannot be succeeded to by women at all, with very few exceptions.
Despite this bill being given a second chance, it’s actually the third successive session in which the issue has been brought forward in the House of Lords. Previously, Lord Wallace had introduced the Equality (titles) bill, whose provisions were slightly different to the current incarnation. The bill did however make it to committee stage in the Lords – the furthest any such bill has made it in Parliament thus far – though made no further progress after the end of the Parliamentary session.
With most peerages’ succession rules laid down in their letters patent, a blanket change to the law would undoubtedly lead to quite drastic results if the process is not handled delicately. For example, if the law is changed to give sons and daughters equal succession rights, it’s inevitable that many people would be displaced and their expectations of inheriting a title will be altered. This is part of the reason for the limited change the Succession to Peerages bill offers.
The bill seeks to create a ‘universal rule of succession’ for peerages. This universal rule will mean that, for all titles, females are able to succeed where the title has no other male heirs. This is achieved curiously by stating that, for the purposes of succession, an eldest female child without brothers would be treated as male, and the title would pass to them and their heirs.
This augmentation of succession rules means that hereditary titles would fall under a system of male-preference primogeniture, rather like the British throne had until recently, where daughters may only succeed in the absence of brothers.
As well as this, the Succession to Peerages bill also defines that women may now succeed ‘in order of birth’, like men, a slightly more technical change as traditionally the law held that there is no primogeniture amongst women and so, where there is a succession dispute among sisters, each has an equal claim – regardless of age.
The bill also provides for being able to bring back extinct peerages which became extinct through lack of male heir and for the person who, under the “universal rule of succession” would be entitled to succeed, to now petition Her Majesty for the title. This clause is only applicable to titles extinct after 6th February 1952 (accession day) though, and only allows petitions for the first year after the act is passed.
Key proponents of changes to the law on succession to peerages usually put their views from two different perspectives, the first on gender equality – that women ought to have the same succession rights as men to peerages. The second based on the survival of the peerage – for as long as women are unable to succeed, titles will continue to die out when there are perfectly legitimate female heirs to succeed.
The bill’s second reading (first main debate) is yet to be scheduled, and it’s difficult to see whether the bill will gain any traction in this session at this early stage.
photo credit: Maurice