Today marks the 55th Anniversary of the admission of women to the House of Lords.
Until 1958 women were eligible (after 1918) to sit in the House of Commons, but were barred from the House of Lords. In 1922 Viscountess Rhondda, a former suffragette who had inherited her title, tried to take a seat in the House of Lords and was refused. A number of private members’ bills over the years failed, and it was not until the creation of life peerages after the Second World War that women gained access to the upper house.
The 1958 Life Peerages Act created the basis of the current system in which political parties can nominate individuals – of either gender - to sit as life peers.
That the first women peers – Baroness Wooton and Baroness Swanborough – took their seats. Since then the percentage of women in the House of Lords has slowly risen and now stands at 23%. A detailed breakdown of the make-up of the House of Lords can be found in CFWD’s recent Factsheet.
The 1999 House of Lords Act reduced the number of hereditary members from over 1,300 to 92, who were to be elected by the peerage as a whole.
However, because women cannot inherit the majority of titles, the only female hereditary peer is the Countess of Mar, who holds one of the very few titles to which the exclusion of female heirs does not apply.
This, taken together with the fact that none of the 24 bishops who are currently members of the House of Lords are women, means that there is effectively an inbuilt male quota in the British second chamber of some 15%.
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to change the law to enable women to inherit titles, which would at least bring the peerage into line with the hereditary monarchy which created it. However, these have always foundered, at least in part because it is feared that there would be many legal problems arising out of the tangled and often arcane way in which both property and rank descend through the generations of these families. There has also – in all parties – been relatively little appetite for sorting the anomaly out; the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has said in the past that he is sympathetic, but has taken no steps actually to do anything.
Until both hereditary peers and bishops, therefore, are either reformed or (better still) excluded altogether from the House of Lords, women will be actively discriminated against in the Westminster Parliament, with no short-term prospect of change. It is the only second chamber in the world to which this kind of restriction applies, and almost the only parliament.
Of course there are lots of other ways in which the representative nature of Parliament needs to be changed, especially in terms of the inclusion of people from far more diverse economic and social backgrounds. But to have any part of our legislature from which women of any kind are actively excluded surely runs dead against those aspitations, and is both anti-democratic and innately obnoxious.
House of Lords reform is now a dead letter before the next general election at least, and nobody seriously expects any political party to include this kind of change in its 2015 manifesto, but for one of the oldest democracies in the world to be actively promoting and protecting a discriminatory system in part of its structures is shameful. The sooner we sort it out, the better.