What have I been doing?

It’s gong to be a bit of a bitty blog for the next few weeks as went back to hospital for X-ray on Friday – only to be told that bone in hand is broken. So am now plastered – so to speak – which makes typing a pain. Am hoping to find someone to take dictation… Anyway – highlights:

– the Government on Friday talked out the Bill that my colleague Evan Harris introduced on the royals being able to marry Catholics and women not being shunted out of line to the throne by boy children. Government says it agrees – but once again I suspect action won’t follow. Wimps. They should have a look at the polling on the subject – overwhelming support for these changes!

– Friday evening went to address Lib Dems in Hitchin and Harpenden. The very able and active PPC, Nigel Quinton, picked me up from station – and embarrassingly had to cut up my food for me! I think they have the potential to do what Lib Dems did in Hornsey & Wood Green if they put in the base work before the election – whenever that comes. After the General Election – if they are the obvious alternative to the Tories – they could reap the benefit.

– Saturday I went to the induction of the new Rabbi at Highgate Synagogue. Rabbi Liss and his wife Shully are just lovely and I have no doubt that the Jewish community in Highgate will blossom and be very very happy. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, was there as was his wife – so it was a big occasion. In responding to Rabbi Sach’s blessings, Rabbi Liss was very winsome and very human. The atmosphere in the synagogue was warm, friendly and very inspiring. Our Highgate Safer Neighbourhood team were there too and it is clear that Highgate synagogue is making real strides in being involved in the local community. I stayed about 2 1/2 hours but then had to leave (before the kiddush – drinks) to rush up to Westminster.

– there, I briefly joined the march for Jobs, Justice and Climate – but mainly because I got caught up in it whilst trying to get to my coders’ meet up for the new Lib Dem Technical Advisory Board. When I did arrive found room nearly full of men (have to give some thought as to why women are not coming forward as coders) but today this was the army whose skills and talents we are harvesting. Fantastic!

– Then met with Sarah Ludford MEP and a host of local Lib Dem activists to do some campaigning in Muswell Hill, followed by a speech in High Wycombe to possible future female MPs.

Who gets to be our monarch?

So – Gordon Brown is finally ‘having discussions’ about the antiquated customs that surround accession to the throne – the monarch not being able to marry a Catholic (Jews, Muslims and atheists are OK) and women get shunted out of line to the throne by the boys. So – hurrah! Except he is only doing it because my Lib Dem colleague Evan Harris, in his Private Members’ Bill today on this subject, is forcing the issue.

As indeed, I have forced it myself before. That time the Government conceded the issue – but said the Commonwealth was the sticking point. Labour has already says it would bring this in in a fourth term. Yes – stop laughing. Sometime never! The Bill is unlikely to get through today for Parliamentary reasons too tedious to go into, like Labour talking out the Bill or 100 MPs not being there for the Bill to pass etc. – Fridays are constituency days so most MPs go back to their area on a Thursday night, and unless the Government is going to let the Bill pass or – as with the recent Autism Bill – everyone agrees to turn up, nothing comes to pass.

There is a long line of MPs who have tried to get these most symbolic of inequalities ended including Jeffrey Archer, myself, Jo Swinson, Evan Harris and many others – but hopefully days are now numbered. I post the exchange in Parliament during questions last year on both Catholics and women:

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Here is a representation for the Minister. Next weekend, Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly; she has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the happy couple well on their big day, but would it not be better to send them a wedding present by using the equality Bill to abolish that institutional discrimination against Catholics?

Barbara Follett: I think that I will confine myself to congratulating the happy couple, and wishing them well in their marriage, which, as hon. Members know, requires a lot of adjustments on both sides at the beginning, middle and end.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Minister may be aware that I referred the case of Lady Louise being bumped out of line to the throne to the European Court of Human Rights, and it has responded positively, supporting the principle of getting rid of male primogeniture. The Solicitor-General made positive comments about that change being in the Act, and I congratulate the Government on that and welcome it. Does the Minister agree that it is very disappointing when those on the Tory Benches slide backwards and say that because it is difficult in the Commonwealth— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the Minister to concern herself with Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady has been called because she is a Liberal spokesman, so she should put her question to the Minister.

Lynne Featherstone: You are right, Mr. Speaker, as always. Will the Minister assure me that the difficulties of working this through the Commonwealth should not stand in the way of its being done? It is right that it should be done, and we have heard from all parties that it should be done, so will the Minister confirm that view?

Barbara Follett: This kind of change in our country, which has a long tradition, is always difficult. Before any change is brought in, we will try to build a cross-party consensus, and a cross-Commonwealth consensus. Primogeniture is a problem, and it is offensive, but we have to approach the matter cautiously.

Tackling discrimination against women and Catholics

Jammy dodger Evan Harris has come up seventh in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills. As for what the ballot is about – names get put in a hat, and then pulled out at random – and the lucky ones are giving some time in Parliament to introduce a Bill. You have to come near the top to have any chance of getting your Bill through. I enter each time – but have never been lucky enough – as yet.

Anyway – Evan is taking forward the accession issue (one I had some success with last year) that females are shunted out of line to the throne by males (‘primogeniture’ ) as part of his Bill. He is also bringing in the issue around Catholics being prohibited from sitting on the British throne.

It’s about time this ‘discrimination’ was eliminated. To me it’s a no-brainer. When I managed to get it on the agenda last year and forced the Government into having to say that it would act it seemed – from the discussion on the floor of the chamber – that there was (on the whole) cross -party agreement. The Tories, not surprisingly, were the least keen as I remember their spokesperson, Dominic Grieve, whilst giving it lukewarm support suggesting that it wasn’t important really.

Well – you can always say that something that affects so relatively few people is unimportant – but I would say that there is no clearer symbol of the message that goes out in this land – that women are second class citizens and the lack of impetus to change is demonstrable evidence of this.

No doubt the other chestnut that will raise its head will be ‘if we’re talking about accession – surely we should have the debate about whether there should be a monarchy at all’.

No, no, no, no – whatever views there are on becoming a republic – this is a separate issue. As long as we do have a monarchy we should ensure that it does not enshrine discrimination against women or Catholics. Way to go Evan!

Good news on the monarchy

So – Downing Street has at last seen the light – and is making noises (obviously following my recent campaign – and honourable others over the years) to end the discrimination in accession to the throne. The first born boy has always, literally, ruled supreme and shoved any earlier born sisters out of the way. But from reports in the papers Downing Street is considering bringing in laws to reform that tradition – and also the bar against Catholics taking the throne.

Sadly they are talking about implementing them if Labour won a fourth term. Don’t wait! It’s such a bleeding obvious thing to do – no need to wait. Just get it done promptly!

UPDATE: Coverage in the Daily Mail here.

Things are changing for our Monarchy

Buckingham PalaceLooks like the beginning of the end of male primogeniture – hurrah! The Sunday Times put the story on its front page and ran an editorial on the subject today.

So what’s the story all about? The rules about who becomes our Monarch discriminate against women – and skip over women to men. Now – that’s the sort of crude discrimination that we should have left behind years ago (as have many other monarchies, which have changed their rules to remove this old-fashioned sexism). So a little while back I referred to the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights the pushing back of Lady Louise (daughter of Prince Edward) from 8th to 9th in line to the Throne when her baby brother was born.

It took a while to get a reply – but when I did – it began to move things on. The letter agrees that this is discrimination (more or less) but that it has no powers under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. However, it also says that they are going to look at the Single Equalities Act as a vehicle for change and that we will meet and talk the way through.

In subsequent conversation with the Commission, I had said that I would table an amendment to the Act which I would expect to have cross party support – but that if the Commission could persuade the Government to bring it forward in the Act in the first place that would be even better. The Commission has now owned it and support it. As I said – how could the new equalities body do anything else?

So today I read in the Sunday Times that Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, agrees and it will (hopefully) happen – presumably in the Act. And so – if this ridiculous anachronism finally is buried – at least I will have done something for equality during my sojourn.

It’s not equal pay and it doesn’t address women’s pensions or carers’ allowances or improving rape convictions – all of which are desperately important and need priority. However, the screaming message of male primogeniture in accession to the throne has been that men are better than women. So good riddance to that!

UPDATES: Scotland on Sunday has also covered the story – as you can read here – whilst The Telegraph coverage is here.

Changing the rules on the monarchy: 25 and counting

Buckingham PalaceFollowing my taking up the cudgels on behalf of women in the line of succession to the throne – by calling for the current rules which discriminate in favour of men to be axed – I’ve put down an early day motion (EDM) in Parliament in order to supplement my referral of the matter to the Equalities Commission.

EDM number 710 has 25 signatories so far – including MPs from all the main parties. (Apologies to Conservative Brian Coleman, who seems to get terribly excited when I raise this issue – but yes, Brian, supporters include MPs from your own party. I’m sure in the spirit of honesty and consistency you’ll direct the same comments at them as you have at me…!)

You can lobby your own MP to sign the EDM very easily via www.writetothem.com – remember to give the number of the EDM in your message.

The story has also been picked up in the East Anglian Daily Times this week.

Appearing on Woman's Hour: the monarchy

Well – having referred one institution (the monarchy) to the Equalities Commission, I find myself invited to another institution (Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour) to talk about it. They hauled in Charles Mosley as the reactionary to argue the case against stopping male preference primogeniture (i.e. to argue that it’s ok for a man to bump a woman in the line of succession to the throne just because they’re a man).

I don’t really think there are any valid arguments against changing rules on this – and indeed plenty of other monarchies have already changed.

As I said on the program – the current sexism is offensive! It says to me that this country still believes men are better than women. A large part of the monarchy is about symbolism – so what does it say that we let it be a sexist symbol? We romped through all the arguments – but to be frank – none stood against the central plank of discrimination.

Having referred the issue to the Equalities Commission – I expect that they are wondering what to do. If they take it seriously – as they should given their charge to fight discrimination – then they will come out and say that this is a wrong that must be righted, that they will put a working group together to advise the Government on taking this forward and say that Parliamentary time must be made available to see this through.

There have been efforts before by Private Members’ Bills – but at no point has the establishment been moved to actually get to grips with this. By omission this could remain the status quo forever. I hope that the Queen (who I was told by my opponent today on Woman’s Hour is pro this change!) will also suggest via usual channels that this should be done.

Anyway – it was a good debate – and three cheers for Woman’s Hour for giving it air time!

(And if you missed hearing it, you can listen again via their website).

UPDATE: Local newspaper coverage here.

Monarchy revisited: why should sexism in the choice of monarch be acceptable?

Buckingham PalaceWell, well. My raising of the issue of how women get bumped for men when it comes to succession to our throne has caused a bit of a fuss!

And my old sparring partner at the GLA, Tory Brian Coleman, does in particular seem to have got really quite excited! (He also distorts our monarchy’s actual history. He says we shouldn’t touch something that has been in place for hundreds of years, but in fact the monarchy has been repeatedly reinventing itself and much of what we now think of as traditional was actually started in the twentieth century. Why should attitudes towards women from several hundred years ago be one area left untouched and preserved?)

For me the basic point is quite simple: the monarchy is meant to be a symbol for our country, so what does it say that we enshrine sexism right at its heart – in the rules for who gets to be monarch? Banishing sexism from the monarchy would be a powerful symbol for the rest of society – where there is still so much to do.

Anyway – the New Statesman has now published a further piece from me on the topic, and there was also coverage in the Evening Standard. Fingers crossed for Women’s Hour next week too, unless some other story comes along to bump it off the schedule.

UPDATE: Also hit The Observer too.

Our sexist monarchy

Well – I’ve referred to the Equality Commission the demotion in the line of succession to our throne of Lady Louise (daughter to Prince Edward) in favour of her newborn brother. It may not be the nuts and bolts of discrimination against women in terms of equal pay (appalling – 144,000 cases waiting for tribunal), rape conviction rates, funding for carers and so on – but it is completely unacceptable. In this day and age that a female can simply be pushed out of line by a later male addition to the Royal Family belongs in the Ark.

In fact – if I was Princess Anne – I would be mightly cheesed off at being shoved out of line by Edward and Andrew. She may not have been – who knows – but the legislation wasn’t in place then and there wasn’t an Equalities Commission to refer such a thing to. Now there is – and as this has long been on my agenda – and Nick Clegg has given me the locus to do it – I have.

Whatever one thinks of the monarchy – and this is not that debate – this is wrong and needs correction. Tackling sexism in the monarchy would send a strong symbolic message to the rest of society. And this is a good time to do it – as ridding the system of sexism now won’t immediately alter who gets on the throne – so it isn’t about the personal merits of person A versus person B. But William has a 50% chance of having a girl child first – and we don’t want to be discussing it then!

Let’s see what the Commission makes of it.

Here’s the news release:

Legality of Lady Louise Royal demotion referred to equality watchdog

James Windsor, Prince Edward’s first son, overtaking of his sister, Lady Louise, as eighth in line to the throne has today been referred to the Equality and Human Rights Commission by newly appointed Lib Dem Youth & Equalities Spokesperson Lynne Featherstone MP.

Following the common law practice of male-preference primogeniture that sees male heirs take preference over their female siblings in the line of succession, James Windsor (Viscount Severn) who was born in December now comes before his 4 year old sister in succession to the throne.

Ms. Featherstone has written to the chair of the Commission requesting an urgent investigation into the legality of displacement in the light of recent equality legislation.

Lady Louise’s displacement in favour of a male is the first amongst Queen Elizabeth II’s direct successors since the advent of laws on sexual discrimination.

Commenting, Lynne Featherstone MP:

“This is an arcane practice that might have suited the grey bearded king makers of old, but it is completely at odds with how a head of state should be selected in modern Britain.

“Of course who is eighth in line to the throne is slightly academic, but there is a 50/50 chance Prince William’s heir will be a woman and what then?

“More importantly, there is little hope of bringing full equality to the workplace if we can’t bring equality to the highest office in the land. Any practice that is based on the idea of making do with a woman until a man comes along must be consigned to the history books.”