The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Baroness Neville-Rolfe) (Con)
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Northbrook on securing the Second Reading of the Bill and on the crispness of his opening remarks, which I will try to imitate. I know that he has a great and personal interest in this issue, as have some others, including the noble Lords, Lord Hacking and Lord Addington, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, although they have been very modest about it and there is no agreement on the Bill. I am also grateful to them and all fellow noble Lords for an engaging, crisp and thoughtful debate.
As noble Lords will know, the issue of peerage reform is a complex one, with complicated adjoining issues. The debates, Motions and various Private Members’ Bills on this issue advanced in both our Houses have proposed several scales of reform and different methods for achieving it. The Government are not unsympathetic to the principle that there should be more women in your Lordships’ House. However, this Bill, on the one hand, is not a Bill for equal primogeniture and, on the other, would affect many people and families outside this House who have no role in public life. The lack of address on the primogeniture issue was highlighted by my noble friend Lord Astor and others. Given the issues at play, the Government are far from convinced that now is the time, or that this is the way, to look at this matter. The Government have considered my noble friend’s proposal carefully, but they have reservations, and I am afraid that we will not support the Bill today.
It is important to be clear about the purpose of the Bill. As the Title suggests, it is about the succession to peerages, but it is above all about the preservation of certain peerages. Its main purpose is to ensure that titles do not die out and to revive titles which have already met this fate. As noble Lords are aware, the descent of hereditary titles depends on the provisions of the creation. Most hereditary peerages and baronetcies descend down the male line, under the principle of male primogeniture, which means that the peerage can only descend through that legitimate male line. Fewer than 90 peerages can descend through the female line.
Here are some interesting statistics: excluding royal peerages, there are 24 Dukes, 34 Marquesses, 191 Earls—with four Countesses in their own right—115 Viscounts and 426 Barons, including nine Baronesses. Approximately 660 of those appear on the Roll of the Peerage and 207 on the register of hereditary Peers. There are also 1,000 or so baronets. These arrangements have been in place for hundreds of years, and many families organise their lives on the expectation that they will continue. The Government are convinced that this Bill would require significant amendment. It is imperative to ensure that any legislation in this space is carefully considered and reflective of all those affected and the many views that exist on the reform of hereditary succession. This Bill is not the correct vehicle for that.
Let us turn briefly to the Bill. Clause 3 would lead to a significant increase in the number of claims to hereditary titles and in the number of hereditary title holders. The Government believe that in the region of around 200 peerages have the potential to fall within scope. As well as automatically reviving peerages that have become extinct on or after 6 February 1952, Clause 3 would, in certain circumstances, allow a petition to be made to the King requesting the revival of a peerage—as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned—which we as a Government have concerns about.
We have particular concerns with the retrospectivity of the clause, which was well explained by my noble friend Lady Noakes. Before a peerage can be revived, its provenance and the right of the individual in question to inherit must be proven before the peerage can be entered on the Roll of the Peerage. The Bill would therefore have considerable resource implications for the Crown Office and the College of Arms, which would inevitably take some years to work through, especially in cases where the descent of a title was in any way unclear or contested. My noble friend Lord Lucas spoke against the proposed revival of extinct titles as a matter of principle.
The proposed reform would affect not only Members of the House but the interests of other individual families. These are changes that should not be undertaken lightly without proper consideration of their effects or of any potential unfairness. That is particularly the case when many of those impacted will have no association with this House but will be directly affected by this Bill.
Turning to Clause 4, it should be noted that there are a number of hereditary peerages and baronetcies which carry estates and properties, either by virtue of the terms of the instrument creating the peerage or as a result of a trust arrangement which has been put in place to ensure that the peerage and property descend together. Clause 4(2) would appear to separate land and property rights from the title. The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, mentioned strangeness, and I think the clause would create a strange system whereby property would continue to be inherited by the oldest male heir even if the title went to a female heir, possibly splitting titles and estates. It would be impossible to say how many titles or names would be affected by this provision, given that trust arrangements are often confidential matters.
Finally, I draw noble Lords’ attention to Clause 4(1). This provision would establish that the Bill would not affect the succession to the Crown, or any peerages or baronetcies held by His Majesty the King. However, the Bill would potentially impact on the descent of titles held by other members of the Royal Family. Very careful consideration ought to be given to how any reform might affect these titles.
In conclusion, the Government continue to listen to the concerns of interested parties to understand the consequences of changes to hereditary titles. However, the reality is that, at this time, reform is not an immediate priority, particularly on an issue more relevant to private interests than to the general public, as my noble friend Lady Noakes argued persuasively.
By making a single, rather sweeping change to the descent of all hereditary peerages and baronetcies, the Bill would potentially affect not just Members of this House but a considerable number of families in different ways, according to their own individual circumstances. It would also require significant work and amendment to avoid major unintended consequences. Therefore, I am afraid that, while the Government are grateful for the debate and to the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, we do not support the Bill today. It is a halfway house that creates more problems than it solves.