Inside Parliament: Peer fears vile consequences of sibling rivalry: Earl opposes right of female child to inherit title - Lord Diamond urges removal of 'blatant injustice to women'

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Indy Politics
In great houses across the country, the male heirs to ancient titles woke this morning to find a nightmare had passed. A backbench Bill which would have transferred the birthright of some of them to their elder sisters was wrecked last night in the Lords by 74 votes to 39.

A vision of jealousy and family feuding on a truly noble scale was presented as the House debated the Hereditary Peerages Bill. Instead of titles passing automatically to eldest sons, they would have descended 'to the eldest lawfully begotten child of the body, whether male or female'.

The Earl of Shrewsbury, the premier earl of both England and Ireland, claimed the Bill would have 'some pretty vile consequences', comparable to a messy divorce.

It would give equal rights to some, while disenfranchising others under 18 years old, he said. His 16-year-old son, Viscount Ingestre, would automatically lose not only the viscountcy but his birthright, the earldoms of Shrewsbury - granted in 1442 - and Waterford plus other titles, to his elder sister.

'We are what we are, and whether we like it or not we abide by the system which we all know . . . and in which we were brought up. Like the House of Lords in general, we are of course an anachronism which works and our daughters, or a very large majority indeed of them, understand that system.'

For the Bill's sponsor, 86- year-old Lord Diamond, it was a second attempt to overturn a piece of discrimination dating back to Norman times. The first, in 1992, was rejected by 60 votes to 33. Last night's defeat was on a wrecking amendment, putting off the second reading of the Bill for six months.

Life peer Lord Diamond, a former Labour minister turned Social Democrat, said tradition had to yield to beneficial change. 'What a ready handle this blatant denial of justice gives to all those who would denigrate this House.'

The Bill would improve the working of the Lords and its standing in public opinion. 'Above all, it will keep step with the rest of the civilised world in removing what is a gross injustice to women.'

If the second chamber really was keeping pace with the rest of the world, or at least the democratic part, it would not give automatic seats to hereditary peers of either sex. And perhaps Lord Hesketh, a former Conservative chief whip, was aware of this as he warned that the Bill would make hereditary peers a laughing stock and merely hasten the day when the hereditary element of the Lords was swept aside.

Or maybe he was thinking of how things would work out at home. The third baron's son, Frederick Hatton Fermor-Hesketh, born in 1988, would lose his title to sister Flora Mary, born seven years earlier. The Bill would overturn one of the basic tenets of peerage law, Lord Hesketh said. 'It ill becomes those of us who have so greatly benefited from the inheritance of the past to assist in such an act of violence against the thread which links that past to the future.'

Lord Rea, a Labour peer, supported the Bill despite the fact that 12 years ago it would have prevented him inheriting his title.

Another supporter, Tory hereditary peer Lord Lucus, said it was important for the House to adapt. 'If we refuse or neglect to change, then change will come suddenly and we will not recognise this place afterwards.'