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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, it is a pleasure to thank the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for his explanation of the Bill. I congratulate him on bringing a Bill before the House that fits on to one pageunlike the main business being considered today. That Bill comprises many pages. A short Bill makes life a great deal simpler and more comprehensible.
This is an interesting measure. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, mentioned that it endorsed the hereditary principle, albeit in a somewhat limited way. None the less, we are considering the rights of succession to a title. While it may not involve members of the legislature, the principle is the same.
For the sake of the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, perhaps I should mention en passant that the last person to introduce a Bill in this House on the issue of inheritance was the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare. His Bill would have done precisely what the noble Earl has advocated by giving females the right to inherit hereditary titles where they do not normally have that right. But that is now simply a matter of record.
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, your Lordships' House is always at its best when discussing the hereditary principle. It is a bit ironic that my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has volunteered to take a Bill advocating that principle through this House, but no matter. I understand entirely why that is the case. Moreover, we have a distinguished if rather small audience gathered to hear the Government's response. Indeed, it is most impressive that we have in their places to support the Bill a freeman who is a member of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers and, on reading the CV of my noble friend Lord Graham, I see that he is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. Between the two, I am sure that they will advocate the case with great enthusiasm, and that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will add his slice of interest and introduce a little extra flavour to the debate.
As my noble friend Lord Graham has explained, the Bill seeks to modernise the succession rights to the title of freeman by providing that the title and the property rights that go with it can be handed down through the female line as well as the male.
The Government are enthusiastically neutral on the measure. I cannot go as far as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, would like, but we certainly do not wish any kind of ill wind on this legislation. We are happy for it to go on its course, and we understand the importance of bringing it forward.
When I collected my briefing, I thought that this would be a minor matter, which is always an error. I was then presented with some background information that encouraged my interest in the subject. I can see that, historically, the freemen of boroughs were gentlemen who performed important duties of governance in their local areas.
In expressing a view, we should make clear for the record the difference between freemen and honorary freemen. There is sometimes an element of confusion in the public mind. Many of us will know of honorary freemen from our time in local government. Many of my friends, male and female, in my borough have become honorary freemen to mark the distinction with which they have served as councillors. That important honour needs to be better understood, and I am glad that people still receive the honorary title because it is a useful mark of local recognition of their work. Both
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of the terms, "freeman" and "honorary freeman", are dealt with by the Local Government Act 1972 and, as I have said, the similarity of the titles often causes confusion. This Bill will deal only with the title of "freeman".
Section 249(5) of the 1972 Act provides that a London borough or a district council having the status of a city, borough or royal borough, can admit any person to be an honorary freeman of that place. The decision is entirely at the discretion of the council, who can make any person an honorary freeman regardless of gender, race, age, disability or sexual orientation, provided that the individual is a person of distinction or, in the opinion of the council, has rendered eminent service to the city, borough or royal borough. The title is honorific and, beyond the distinction it confers on the individual to whom it is awarded, it confers no other rights or duties. Moreover, it is a title that is bestowed for life only. It cannot be inherited by the individual's heirs.
The Bill brought forward by my noble friend Lord Graham does not affect the right of local authorities to bestow honorary freedom on individuals. Instead, the Bill deals solely with the more ancient right to be a freeman of a town or city. As my noble friend explained, such rights have their origin in the Middle Ages in the craft and merchant guilds that comprised the governance of medieval towns and cities. The right to be a freeman was intimately bound up with the rights of admission to the guilds and, in its present form, is an inherited right.
As my noble friend made clear, the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 first reorganised the governance of local authorities along modern lines. The Act provided for the election of mayors, aldermen and councillors on a vote of those who occupied property in the municipality. In doing so, it swept away the existing arrangements that gave freemen special rights in the election and governance of the pre-1835 corporate boroughs. As a class, freemen of the old corporate boroughs also enjoyed the exclusive right to benefit from the rents and profits of certain corporate land and property. The 1835 Act preserved those rights and since then, successive local government Acts, including the Local Government Act 1972, have reconfirmed that position.
The 1835 Act and its successors did more than preserve the rights of the freemen of towns and cities. Between them, they also froze the basis on which a person could be admitted to be a freeman. Such rights of admission vary from place to place, given that they are based on established local custom and Royal Charter. They provide for a right of succession so that a freeman can pass on his title and property rights to his heirs. However, reflecting their antecedence, they are often based on patrimony and therefore cannot be passed from father to daughter.
The Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill seeks to remedy that anachronism. It would do so by amending Section 248 of the Local Government Act
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1972, which reconfirmed the rights of freemen, first preserved under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.
I hope that that brief history and explanation will be helpful in our deliberations. The Government cannot take a formal view for or against the Bill, nor will we take any steps to oppose its progress through your Lordships' House. We will give it a fair wind but we cannot give it active and proactive support. We certainly understand and recognise the important principle that lies behind the small but significant Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. We wish it well.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I have been in this place long enough to realise that the less I say the better at this stage. Speakers from all Benches have done the issue proud. I sense that they know what they are talking about because they are all well versed in local government.
There will be some places where the Bill is of no moment at all, but there will be others where this little easement will be viewed with delight. Beverley in Yorkshire has been prominent in asking for this to be done, and other towns may welcome it as well. I am sure that if the Bill progresses from this place to another place and is received warmly there, it will do a great deal for the wisdom of Parliament in putting this matter right. Its time has come.
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