UK Politics

Peers 'should end Downton Abbey-style succession rules'

Downton Abbey
Image caption The lack of a direct male heir caused ructions in the Crawley family in Downton Abbey

The House of Lords is being urged to end rules which deny most hereditary peerages to women.

The issue features prominently in the ITV hit series Downton Abbey and now it has been highlighted by MPs.

The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform committee says the rules are a matter of continuing "public interest".

But while the government is changing the law on royal succession there are no plans to do the same for peers.

The committee welcomes the planned change in the rules on royal succession but says it points a "spotlight" on the hereditary aristocracy.

One of the committee's MPs, the Tory Eleanor Laing, says Downton Abbey has made clear what happens when there is no direct male heir in such a family.

"Downton Abbey illustrates very well the problems that have occurred in such families for hundreds of years," she said. "Surely now is the time to address that.

"The House of Lords should look at the issue of male primogeniture. Most people find it intolerable for a man to take precedence over a woman in our parliamentary system."

In Downton Abbey the Earl of Grantham has three daughters - but they do not inherit his title which instead goes to his nephew.

In their report the MPs say: "In countries in which aristocratic titles no longer confer any particular rights, duties or privileges, there may be no compelling reason to alter an historic system of inheritance."

"In the United Kingdom, however, 92 seats in the House of Lords continue for now to be reserved to holders of hereditary aristocratic titles.

"Only two of these 92 seats are currently occupied by women. 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."

A government source in the Lords said there were no plans to change the position of hereditary peers.

He pointed out that altering the royal succession was a "discrete change" which affected only one family, and that while women had become monarchs - not least the current Queen - changing the rules affecting hereditary peers would be much more complex involving many families, and strict rules governing male succession.

But he denied the committee's claim that the position of hereditary peers affected gender balance in the House of Lords.

"Whilst among hereditary peers women are extremely under-represented, on the front benches of both the government and the opposition, women are very well represented," he said.

In October, Commonwealth leaders agreed to change the royal succession laws, allowing daughters of any future UK monarch an equal right to the throne.

It means a first-born daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would take precedence over younger brothers.

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