Rules preventing women inheriting most hereditary peerages should be changed, campaign groups and some parliamentarians have argued. Most recently, the Earl of Shrewsbury called for legislation to tackle the issue. Government statements to date have suggested reform is not a priority.
How many hereditary peerages can be inherited by women?
Fewer than 90 peerages can be inherited by a female heir, and may pass in the female line.
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 Lord is known as a ‘Lady’, although she does not hold a peerage herself).
What are the rules?
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:
- Women may inherit a title which is a barony by writ (rather than the more common letters patent).
- In Scotland most peerages 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.
Calls for change
During the International Women’s Day Debate in March 2020, the Earl of Shrewsbury called for change to be made to the law. He said he sought to find a path forward:
Maybe the Government, with their appetite for diversity and equality, should take the lead and support a private member’s bill. Indeed, should the minister indicate her support for this initiative, I will move the matter forward to try to secure a question for short debate in order to gauge the opinion of the House before moving forward.
The idea was welcomed by the Government.
Calls for such change are not new.
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.
The Government argued that the “complex and 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.
Recent attempts at change: private member’s bills
Since 2013, there have been several attempts to change the law in this area, through several private member’s bills in the Lords.
Most recently, in 2019 the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill, introduced by Philip Davies (Conservative MP for Shipley), sought 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 bill, the acting Minister for the Constitution in the Cabinet Office, Kevin Foster, reiterated the issue was “complex”.
In 2020, Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary and minister for women and equalities, called for the government to abolish the law that prevents the daughters of hereditary peers from being 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.
Female hereditary peers and the House of Lords
Female hereditary peers in their own right only attained the right to take their seats in the House of Lords 57 years ago, following the Peerages Act 1963. This was some five years after women 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.
Female hereditary peers in the Lords today
Currently, only one of the 92 excepted hereditary peers in the House is a woman: the Countess of Mar. Fewer than a third of all peers in the House of Lords are female.
There were five immediately after the 1999 reforms. Since that time three of the group of five who were elected in 1999 have died, and have been replaced through by-elections for hereditary Peers. One of the group, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, retired in December 2014, under the terms of the House of Lords Reform Act 2014.
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 were ex-officio Members, fifteen were elected by the whole House and 75 were elected by their party groups. One of the fifteen hereditary Peers who were elected by the whole House in 1999 was a woman. Four of the 75 who were elected by their party groups were women.
To date no female hereditary Peers in their own right have been admitted to the House through the by-election process. Only one 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––is a woman.
Campaign for change
‘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 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 case is being led by Lord Pannick QC, who is a current member of the House of Lords, and who specialises in human rights.