Private moments, public impact

Wilf StevensonWilf Stevenson on the best and worst of Lords business

There is a strange feature of the Lords, which few people are aware of, and which if it were better known, might raise a few eyebrows about the role and function of the second Chamber. This is the ability of individual Peers to introduce private members bills into Parliament. If these are approved by the House they stand a small but significant chance of becoming law. Is it really appropriate that we have this power to propose laws for our fellow citizens? 

Today we have three such bills being debated. The first, from the Crossbencher Elspeth Howe deals with the safety of children when online. Baroness Howe is a noted campaigner on this and related issues, and the Second Reading debate will involve many excellent speakers. As it happens, it is timed perfectly with a rising concern about the responsibilities of parents, and also ISPs and mobile phone operators in relation to how they currently protect children from seeing illegal and adult material. While a great deal has been achieved by voluntary self-regulation, some argue that this needs to be underpinned by statutory powers. The government has resisted similar moves in the past, but perhaps the Minister replying today will signal their support on this occasion?

The two other bills being discussed today are at Committee stage. Both deal with the doings of the nobility, and while they have good points in their favour, you could be forgiven for wondering why, in the week of the Autumn Statement, the second Chamber is devoting time and resources to such narrow issues. 

The main purpose of the Equality (Titles) Bill is to make provision for “the succession of female heirs to hereditary titles”. It runs to 12 clauses, and in removing the presumption of male primogeniture is a measure which surely no reasonable person could oppose. Indeed there is an active lobby group, the Campaign for Equality in the Peerage, and there has been some supportive press comment. 

So, no problem then? 

Well, there are currently 97 amendments down for consideration, which range from questions of surrogacy to issues about legitimacy. I don’t know why such a simple bill has aroused such interest, but the high number of amendments, and their wide range, smacks of a determined wrecking campaign, organised presumably by certain Peers who favour the existing male hegemony in matters of succession. I suspect the bill will be talked out, unless its movers can do a speedy deal.

If that does happen, the Rights of the Sovereign and the Duchy of Cornwall Bill, which is also down for a Committee stage today, will miss out completely. Sponsored by Labour backbencher Tony Berkeley, this short Bill also has a gender equality focus, as its main purpose is to allow the eldest child of the monarch to hold the title of the Duke of Cornwall regardless of gender. At present, the title is withheld if the eldest child is female. 

But this is a complex bill, and it also require the assets of the Duchy of Cornwall to be transferred to a public trust for the benefit of the people of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly; and removes the practice of “seeking the approval of the Monarch, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cornwall and the Regent to consideration of public bills in so far as they affect their private interests”. 

In addition, the bill would mean that the Trust is liable to pay tax, subject to FoI requests, and required to adopt housing and leasehold policies and other legislation as a public body with no Crown Immunity. How ironic that such a public spirited measure, aimed at removing the feudal conditions applying in many areas of Cornwall will fall foul of the spat between a handful of hereditary Peers. 

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords

Published 6th December 2013

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