Female heirs take Britain to top EU court over upper house law

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Five women have taken Britain to Europe’s top court over laws that prevent female heirs from standing for election to the upper house of parliament.

Most of the about 800 members of Britain’s House of Lords are appointed, but the chamber includes 90 so-called hereditary peers and when their positions become vacant a successor is elected from a small pool of people with aristocratic titles.

The women, part of campaign group Daughters’ Rights, are challenging the ancient law of primogeniture, which dictates that such titles pass down through the male line - meaning only men are eligible to stand for election.

“To give women the same political opportunities as men and remove this discrimination from the statue books, all we need to change the law is the removal of one word - ‘male’,” said Charlotte Pole, a spokeswoman for Daughters’ Rights.

Willa Franks, Eliza Dundas, Sarah Long, Hatta Byng and Tanya Field lodged their case with the European Court of Human Rights last week.

They have urged the British government to change the law so all hereditary titles can be passed on to heirs, regardless of their gender.

“It seems wrong in a country where women, including now royal women, are born with equal opportunities, that we continue to discriminate against one group based only on gender,” said Edward Legard, barrister for Daughters’ Rights.

Britain and other Commonwealth countries which have Queen Elizabeth as their monarch have already agreed to change the rules of royal succession so that males would no longer have precedence as heir to the throne.

Gender equality has been in the spotlight in Britain since last year when it emerged there were pay disparities at major public institutions including the BBC.

In last year’s election, women won a record 208 seats but were still outnumbered by men more than two to one in the 650-seat House of Commons.

A law introduced in 2017 required companies and charities with more than 250 workers to provide details every year of the gender pay gap.

Just six percent of chief executives of FTSE 100 companies, the biggest firms listed on the London Stock Exchange, are women.

Britain lags some countries including Norway, which in 2003 pioneered gender quotas, requiring nearly 500 firms to raise the proportion of women on their boards to 40 percent.

Some British lawmakers have long argued that the House of Lords should be wholly elected and the hereditary peers abolished altogether, but progress on reform has been slow.