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Downton writer Julian Fellowes condemns block on women hereditary peers

Published 11/09/2015

Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma Joy Kitchener (Ian West/PA Wire)
Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma Joy Kitchener (Ian West/PA Wire)

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has hit out at "absurd and outdated" rules blocking women from succeeding to hereditary peerages.

Lord Fellowes of West Stafford said such a "negative status" for women had no place in modern society.

The Tory peer backed calls in the House of Lords to give women an equal right to inherit hereditary titles by citing the case of his wife, Emma.

Lord Fellowes said: "My wife was born female. The fact remains that had she been born male she would now be the fourth Earl Kitchener of Khartoum.

"As it is our law preferred to let this title, probably the most historic of any of the imperial creations, become extinct, rather than have it be held by a woman.

"As the niece of the last earl the reason she does not have that rank is only and entirely due to her sex.

"Of course she is expected to take on the duties of the name .... but the name she may not have because she is female."

Lord Fellowes said this was an "extraordinary" situation in 2015, adding: "The fact is that women born into titled families are non-persons.

"They have none of the legal status of their fathers and brothers, none of their rights - even if sometimes obliged to perform their duties. It is an absurd and outdated situation."

There was no current plan to abolish hereditary titles. "And while they exist are we prepared to tolerate the negative status of women they represent across the board ....."

Holding a title was still a privilege but one denied to women, Lord Fellowes said, backing the Succession to Peerages Bill as a first step towards correcting the situation.

The Bill would enable women to succeed to any peerage that would otherwise become extinct due to the lack of a male heir but does not end the tradition of male preference in succession.

Tory hereditary peer Lord Trefgarne said his Bill was designed to bring the law into the 21st century.

"Most hereditary peerages can descend only through the male line and in some cases where there is no male heir the peerage usually dies out."

He said the purpose of the Bill was to authorise succession through the female line where the title would otherwise disappear.

Leading QC and independent crossbencher Lord Pannick backed the Bill, warning that discrimination against women was "simply objectionable".

Pointing to progress made in tackling discrimination over the last 100 years, Lord Pannick said: "The only area of public life that I am aware of that retains institutional discrimination against women is the hereditary peerage."

The peerage could not claim to be exempt from the "basic principles of fairness" that applied to the rest of society.

"Discrimination against women is simply objectionable," he said. "It is entirely without justification and we have tolerated it in relation to the peerage for far too long."

Lord Pannick said the legislation would need substantial amendment in committee to ensure it went even further in tackling discrimination against women.

For the Opposition, Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town attacked the move, saying: "The call I've heard today for maintaining the status of titled families is one I did not believe I would hear in the 21st century.

"It stands feminism on its head. It doesn't get rid of primogeniture for hereditary titles. It only says that where there isn't a man a woman will do."

Lady Hayter said peers should be looking at the growing size of Lords membership instead and ending hereditary by-elections was a better way forward.

Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges of Headley was also critical of the legislation warning that tackling this area of discrimination involved a "thorny legal thicket".

While the rules did not treat men and women equally it was questionable whether the Government should be devoting limited parliamentary time and resources to addressing this extremely complex subject.

Tackling the wider aspects of discrimination was the Government's priority, he said. In practice, the Bill would have only a very limited impact on tackling gender inequality in this area.

It only permitted women to inherit peerages when there was no direct male heir. "Surely if we are to achieve equality in this area it must be the case that the first born should inherit the title irrespective of their gender."

Lord Bridges also expressed concern about the impact of reviving peerages under the legislation.

The Bill was given an unopposed second reading but without government support stands little chance of becoming law.

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