Rules preventing women inheriting most hereditary peerages should be changed, campaign groups and some parliamentarians have argued. In April 2021, the hereditary peer Lord Lucas (Conservative) asked the government about its plans to amend the rules known as male primogeniture. He argued that changes in 2013 to how the royal succession is governed should encourage a “detailed consideration” of the issue. Government statements to date have suggested that it views reform as “complex” and not a government priority.

1. How many hereditary peerages can be inherited by women?

Fewer than 90 peerages can be inherited by a female heir.

Women who inherit or are given a title in this way are known as hereditary peers ‘in their own right’, to distinguish them from women who have a title by virtue of their relationship to a male peer (for example the wife of a peer at the rank of baron is known as a ‘Lady’, although she does not hold a peerage herself).

2. What are the peerage inheritance rules?

2.1 Hereditary peerages and female succession

Most hereditary peerages descend down the male line (known as male primogeniture), which means that the peerage can only be inherited by a male relative. There are some exceptions that enable a woman to inherit. These are:

  • A woman may inherit a title which is a barony by writ (rather than the more common letters patent).
  • Most peerages in Scotland may pass to a woman in families with daughters but no sons.
  • A ‘special remainder’ may be granted by the Crown to allow a woman to inherit a title.
  • A woman can be given a hereditary peerage by the Crown.

2.2 Gender recognition and the peerage

Exceptions to the inheritance of peerages apply in relation to gender recognition. Provisions in the Gender Recognition Act 2004 state that where a full gender recognition certificate is issued to a person, the person’s gender becomes for all purposes the acquired gender.

However, section 16 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 applies an exception to this requirement in relation to peerages. As outlined in the explanatory notes accompanying the act, section 16 stipulates that “the descent of any peerage or dignity or title of honour will take place as if a person recognised in the acquired gender were still of the birth gender”. The same rule also applies to inheritance of any property that passes with the peerage or title, unless the will or other instrument governing the property expressly departs from this rule.

In written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the draft Gender Recognition Bill in 2003, Belinda Crowe, head of the gender recognition division at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, outlined the reasoning:

[…] by stating that where a peerage is concerned a transsexual person is considered in his or her birth gender we avoid anomalies of succession. Without clause 11, it is conceivable that, for example, a female-to-male transsexual could bypass the first-born son and inherit a title of honour.

Unless otherwise specified, clause 11 removes the incentive to switch genders for this purpose. In 2002 the government agreed that it would be inappropriate to allow the adopted children of peers to inherit a peerage or associated property from their adoptive parents. Clause 11 may be seen as an extension of that policy.

The government reiterated this reasoning at both the bill’s committee and the bill’s report stages in the House of Lords.

3. What calls for change have there been?

The issue of women and hereditary peerages has been raised several times in parliament and beyond.

3.1 ‘Daughters’ Rights’ campaign

Daughters’ Rights’ aims to “ensure that women have the same right as men to stand for election to the House of Lords”. In 2018, members of the group who were daughters of peers submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that, save for their gender, they would be eligible to stand for election to the Lords. The group claimed that the government was in breach of article 3 of the first protocol, read with article 14:

These women are being discriminated against on the basis of their gender and the right to a free election.

The legal representative leading the case is Lord Pannick KC, who is a current member of the House of Lords and who specialises in human rights.

In 2020, Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary and minister for women and equalities, called on the government to change the law to enable the daughters of hereditary peers to stand and be elected to the House of Lords, stating:

There are many priorities for this new government. Although this is not top of the in-tray, it is part of the necessary reforms we must undertake if we are to restore trust in politics.

In February 2021, reports in the Times newspaper suggested that the government was drawing up plans to change rules governing male inheritance of peerages. The paper quoted a source at Downing Street describing male primogeniture as “a nonsense”. To date, no government proposals on this issue have been forthcoming.

3.2 Issue raised in Parliament

In December 2021, Lord Grocott (Labour) highlighted the lack of female hereditary peers as one reason for ending the by-elections of hereditary peers. He said the lack of any female hereditary peers winning a by-election meant that the system had “not just remained ridiculous, it has actually become more ridiculous”.

Earl Attlee (Conservative) agreed the lack of female hereditary peers “is clearly a problem”, although stating it was “not insurmountable”. He suggested changes to legislation which would require those standing for by-election to have amended their titles (through letters patent) to allow for male or female succession equally. Lord Young of Cookham (Conservative) noted “the position is clearly discriminatory against women […] and has no place in modern legislation”. The government rejected Lord Grocott’s proposals to abolish by-elections for hereditary peers, although it did not address the issue of female hereditary peerages.

In April 2021, the hereditary peer Lord Lucas (Conservative) asked the government about its plans to amend male primogeniture. He argued that changes to the way in which the royal succession was governed should encourage a “detailed consideration” of the issue. Responding for the government, Lord True said:

[…] we want to see more women in Parliament. That is a much wider issue than male primogeniture, but reform of the succession to hereditary peerages and baronetcies raises a variety of complex issues, and therefore any changes need careful consideration and wider engagement.

Lord True, then a minister in the Cabinet Office, said there were no government plans to review the changes to male primogeniture.

3.3 Succession to the Crown Act 2013 and private members’ bills

In 2013, the Succession to the Crown Act was passed. As the name suggests, the law changed the order of who could inherit the throne, removing the preference for male primogeniture.

Reporting on the proposed changes in 2011, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee argued that the government should also consider changing how the inheritance of peerages worked, noting:

While the holders of hereditary peerages continue to be eligible for membership of the House of Lords, the way in which their titles are inherited, and its effect on the gender balance in Parliament, remain matters of public interest.

In response, the government argued that the “complex and often emotive” issue of hereditary peerage succession would be better dealt with separately. The government stressed that the Crown would not become extinct if there were only female heirs, reiterating that where the succession of the elder daughter or her descendants is automatic:

Changes to the law on succession to the Crown can be effected without any changes to the expectations of those in line of succession.

In contrast, the government argued changes to the rules governing succession to hereditary titles would be far more complicated to implement fairly.

Since 2013, there have been several attempts to change the law in this area through private members’ bills.

Most recently, on 20 April 2022, Harriet Baldwin (Conservative MP for West Worcestershire) introduced the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill, a ten minute rule bill. Explaining the purpose of her bill she said:

The Succession to the Crown Act was given royal assent in 2013, meaning that henceforth the firstborn child of Prince George will be in line to succeed him. The act ended male primogeniture for the Crown, but we left undone any wider reform to primogeniture in the United Kingdom. As a result […] an eighth of the seats in the upper House of this Parliament are reserved for men only, through the system of reserving 92 seats for hereditary peers.

She described the situation as “embedded sex discrimination” and a “posh glass ceiling”. Her bill would, she said, mean that hereditary peerages go automatically to the eldest child. The bill fell at end of the 2021–22 session.

In 2019 the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill, introduced by Philip Davies (Conservative MP for Shipley), also aimed to make provision for the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles. The bill failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session.

Responding to questions about the government’s opinion of the Davies bill, the then minister for the constitution in the Cabinet Office, Kevin Foster, reiterated the issue was “complex”.

4. How many female hereditary peers have sat in the House of Lords?

Female hereditary peers in their own right only attained the right to take their seats in the House of Lords 59 years ago, following the Peerage Act 1963. This was five years after female life peers gained that right through the Life Peerages Act 1958.

Between 1963 and 1999, a total of 25 female hereditary peers in their own right were admitted to the House of Lords.

Before 1963, attempts to change the law were made, such as through unsuccessful amendments to the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Bill 1918. Viscountess Rhondda’s unsuccessful claim to a place in the House of Lords in the early twentieth century demonstrated that female hereditary peers in their own right were keen to take their seats in the House some time before it was finally allowed in 1963.

5. Are there any female hereditary peers in the Lords today?

No. Currently, no women sit among of the 92 hereditary peers in the House. Less than a third of all peers in the House of Lords are female.

There were five female hereditary peers immediately after the 1999 reforms; all were elected to stay on following those reforms. Three of the five have since died. Lady Saltoun of Abernethy retired in December 2014, under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014. The last remaining female hereditary peer, the Countess of Mar, retired in May 2020.

All five were replaced through by-elections for hereditary peers by men. The House of Lords Act 1999 removed all but 92 hereditary peers, known as ‘excepted hereditary peers’. Of the 92 who were to remain, two are ex officio members, 15 are elected by the whole House and 75 are elected by hereditary peers within their party or crossbench group. One of the 15 hereditary peers who were elected by the whole House in 1999 was the Countess of Mar. The other four were elected by hereditary peers within their party/crossbench group.

To date no female hereditary peers in their own right have been admitted to the House through the by-election process. Only two of over 200 hereditary peers included in the Register of Hereditary Peers, the list of eligible hereditary peers who have indicated their wish to stand in by-elections for the House, are women, one of whom is a trans woman. On 11 May 2022, Matilda Simon applied to be added to the register of hereditary peers as the holder of the barony of Simon of Wythenshawe. She was added to the register as Lord Simon of Wythenshawe on 18 May 2022 in line with section 16 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which states: “the fact that a person’s gender has become the acquired gender under this act […] does not affect the descent of any peerage or dignity or title of honour”.

This article was updated on 3 October 2022.

Cover image: copyright House of Lords.