Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Woolf: My Lords, in the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving this Motion I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.40 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill [HL]

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am indeed flattered to find so many of your Lordships in their place to pay attention to the Bill that I have pleasure in presenting today. As I do so, I feel obligated to offer some insight into the whys and wherefores as background. For much of that I am indebted to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, who piloted the self-same Bill through your Lordships' House in 2002. When he did that, he earned what I hope will be my fate today; support from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches and no opposition from the Government, which is par for the course for a private Bill.

If I have any interest to declare, it could be that, as my home town is Newcastle upon Tyne, I have a clear memory of the influence of the place of freemen in such a great city as Newcastle. One of the jewels in its crown is Town Moor, a place with fond memories for me. It is where the annual fair, known as "The Hoppings" and associated with the running of the Pitman's Derby on the Gosforth race course took place. It is where a new home for the Magpies—Newcastle United—was mooted recently. The power and influence of the freemen of Newcastle was and is such that they could and did withstand the power of that famous football team.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, set out the arguments cogently and, in my opinion, persuasively. I am deeply indebted to him for allowing me to use his arguments today. He wishes the Bill well.

This Bill will eliminate a gender anomaly, which I shall present under the five following headings. First, what are borough freedoms? Secondly, what is their legal status? Thirdly, what is the anomaly that the Bill seeks to correct? Fourthly, why should that be done by Parliament rather than in some other way? Fifthly, what will be the effect of the Bill?
 
7 Dec 2004 : Column 813
 

First, I turn to the borough freedoms. One has to go back to medieval times to understand this ancient institution. It is probably the oldest legal institution that exists in the United Kingdom today. The control of local trade and local government was in the hands of a body of freemen, so called because they were free of the restrictions on trade and other activities that applied to persons outside the liberties.

Parliamentary suffrage was also limited to freemen, who were the burghers of the boroughs. Those privileges became a source of abuse and were sharply restricted by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and by the opening up of the parliamentary suffrage that was going on at the same time.

It would have been possible at any time during the past 160 years for Parliament simply to abolish the freedoms, but it never chose to do so. Instead, it recognised and preserved their status by a succession of Acts of Parliament, beginning with the 1835 Act and continuing until the Local Government Act 1972.

By the present day, the tangible benefits of the membership of a freedom have been reduced, so much so that in some boroughs they are non-existent. I need not take up time by giving illustrations of the modest benefits which exist because all the freedoms are different and it would take a long time to describe them across the board.

Nowadays, the reason that people still wish to become freemen is not personal gain but because it identifies the member with the local community in a way that is much more intimate, continuous and longstanding than the exercise of the local government franchise or election to local councils. The freemen are not competitors of councillors and aldermen. The two systems exist in parallel and in harmony.

Secondly, what is the legal status of the freedoms? They are creatures of ancient custom—very ancient indeed. As I said, they are probably the oldest legal institutions in this country. They are creatures of custom not of statute. Although statute has recognised their existence, it has not created them or provided mechanisms enabling the freemen to bring them up to date by their own consent. Some ancient charters contained such mechanisms but, for reasons with which I shall not trouble the House as it would take some time to explain and would not be very illuminating, those powers have not survived the successive reforms of local government. So those ancient customs remain frozen in the state in which they were when they first came into existence hundreds of years ago.

Thirdly, what is the wrong that the Bill seeks to remedy? The answer lies in the fact that the customs are frozen in their ancient forms. Since changes were made at the time of great reforms 160 years ago, persons can only become freemen by descent from a parent freeman. In a substantial proportion of boroughs, that descent can take place only in the male line. Daughters are thus barred, for no valid reason, from the benefits—largely intangible but benefits none the less—of succeeding to this ancient status.
 
7 Dec 2004 : Column 814
 

Fourthly, assuming this to be wrong—I hope that the House will assume it to be wrong—why take up the time of Parliament in putting it right? Are there no other ways in which the courts could perhaps provide a solution with the aid of the antidiscrimination provisions of the human rights legislation? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "no". I say "seems" because the legal status of these institutions is strange and lost in the mists of history. I can say, however, that legal research suggests that even through the courts the remedy is at the very best speculative and almost certainly non-existent. So it falls back on Parliament to put the matter right. That is why I propose this Second Reading.

What is the effect of the Bill? It is primarily, as will appear from its wording, to insert a provision enabling the daughter of a freeman to be admitted as a freeman of a city or town notwithstanding her gender. That will put right across the board, once and for all, the need for each borough freedom individually to embark on the costly and highly speculative task of trying to find some solution of a different nature.

In Clause 1(2) of the Bill there is a correction of the absurdity that a person can only be a freeman if born within the precincts of the borough. There is brief reference to the fact that the Act does not bear on the City of London, the freemen of which are governed by a completely different regime.

This Bill has nothing to do with honorary freemen. When one reads in the newspapers that someone has been made a freeman of a borough, that is an entirely different matter, with which this Bill is not concerned. The fact that it is not a great matter does not prevent it from being wrong. It is something which, in the absence of any other means, Parliament can fittingly put right.

Finally, I plead in aid some correspondence that I recently received. Enclosed in a letter from a freeman of Newcastle was a copy of an article in the newspaper of the Guild of Freemen in Newcastle, which states:

I am told that the national body of freemen of England and Wales also give their support.

This is a modest measure, which is in line with current thinking. This House can approve it, although it failed three years ago because it was introduced very late in the Session. My problem may be that the next Session may end somewhat quicker than any of us had hoped. However, our job is to give this a fair wind. It will then be my responsibility to find someone in the other place to take it on. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Graham of Edmonton.)
 
7 Dec 2004 : Column 815
 

7.48 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, it is not often that I rise to intervene on a Bill that includes the words:

I must confess that I would prefer to see the spelling in the Scots form of "burgh".

I declare my interests. Apart from being a life Peer, I am also a hereditary Earl; I am the Hereditary Keeper at Stirling Castle; I am a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers of the City of London and, hence, a freeman of the City of London. In addition, my honourable Scottish friends have just abolished me as a feudal superior. Obviously, I am a blatant beneficiary of male primogeniture. Fortunately, my sister is younger than me. However, the Bill is not about primogeniture. It is about female inheritance, which I applaud.

Noble Lords on these Benches will welcome the explanation of the Bill made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. He makes a good case for these two changes to inheritance practice—in particular that of female inheritance, which is slowly becoming more prevalent, especially as it reduces discrimination against women. However, knowing full well that short of an Act of Parliament to change our inheritance laws, no lady can inherit the earldom of Mar and Kellie, clearly there is a long way to go.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, will be able to promise more active support than that offered by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, in response to the Bill brought forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, in 2002.

In conclusion, I presume that, if and when enacted, this Bill will produce many more male and female freemen.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page