Male precedence in Royal succession is bizarre, says Hewitt

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The "bizarre" royal practice of men having precedence over women in succession to the throne should be scrapped, the Government indicated yesterday.

Patricia Hewitt, the minister for Women, said a move to amend the 1701 Act of Settlement would be a powerful symbol of sexual equality in the 21st century. The reform, which would overturn a tradition eight centuries old, would allow Prince William's oldest child to become monarch regardless of gender.

Ms Hewitt said: "I do find it bizarre that when we're about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a hugely successful monarch, Queen Elizabeth, I do find it extraordinary that we still have within the Royal Family a system of succession that passes through the male line, so that any man in the line of succession is preferred to a woman."

She said she was suggesting a change in the law "not because this Aussie-born radical thinks the royals are hugely important in themselves, but because it would be an important, if belated, symbol of British modernisation".

Ms Hewitt admitted that action on the issue was not a priority for the Government, but added: "It reflects some of those old traditional attitudes which in a different form can hold women back.

"The very old-established law on royal succession and indeed most inherited titles helps to reinforce the impression that the natural order of things is for men to come first."

Ms Hewitt, who praised the monarchy for taking steps to modernise, said the issue would be "very much something for Her Majesty to consider". An aide said: "It's a subject she wants to have a debate about. It's hard for people to disagree with her on this."

More than four years ago the Government said it approved in principle the scrapping of male primogeniture and would consult other Commonwealth members about the proposed reform. It said the Queen had agreed the law should be altered so royal sons and daughters should be treated equally.

The Government's announcement came after Lord Archer, of Weston-super-Mare, when he was a Tory peer, tried to introduce the change through a backbench Bill.

After that, the Government quietly shelved the issue. A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said yesterday that there were no immediate plans to legislate on the subject.