Last week, I spoke in debates on successive days. On Monday, I contributed to the debate on women in public life – marking the centenary of the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918 – and on Tuesday I spoke on the motion to concur with the Commons in agreeing the full decant option for the Restoration and Renewal (R&R) of the Palace of Westminster. I was expecting the first to be consensual and the second to be contentious. In the event, Tuesday’s debate followed Monday’s in agreeing the motion before the House without a division.
As I explained in opening my speech on Monday, I decided to contribute because I thought it important that some male peers contributed, because there were one or two points I wanted to make, and because the second woman to take her seat in the Commons was Margaret Wintringham, returned as MP for Louth in a by-election in 1921.
My first point was essentially to address the sleight of hand in the motion. It commemorated the contribution women to Parliament since 1918 and the passage of the Representation of the People Act. I drew attention to the fact that they were distinguishable, as women have been able to stand for election to the House of Commons since 1918, but not because of the Representation of the People Act. In the UK, the franchise and the qualifying age for election to public office are dealt with separately in statute. The RP Act reached the statute book in February 1918. An Act to enable women to stand for election to the House of Commons was enacted at the end of the year. It made no mention of age and it was taken that women could stand for election at the same age as men, namely 21. The RP Act had limited the franchise to women aged 30 and over (and meeting the property qualifications for voting in local government elections). The reason for that was to ensure that women were in a minority in the electorate. That consideration had no relevance to the age at which one could stand for election. The voting age for women was lowered to 21 in 1928, thus bringing it into line with the qualifying age for election to the Commons, although (not a point I made in the debate) there is no compelling reason why the two have to be the same. Some nations do have a higher age for standing for public office than for voting, though in my view there is a stronger argument for having it the other way round.
The other point I made was that some of the (few) women elected to the House of Commons in the inter-war years were very effective parliamentarians. Their limited number, in what was seen as a not especially environment, may suggest they were isolated and ineffective figures. In reality, some were doughty and effective campaigners. I focused on the role played by Eleanor Rathbone, the subject of my 2015 Speaker’s Lecture. As I emphasised in the lecture, she was a remarkable figure, not only in achieving the introduction of family allowances, but in her understanding of the dangers posed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. I also drew attention to others, such as the Duchess of Athol on the Conservative benches and ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson and Margaret Bondfield, the first female Cabinet minister, on the Labour benches.
Overall, it was a good debate, with plenty of speakers. I shall do a separate post on Tuesday’s debate on R&R, but from my point of view it was a good outcome – far better than expected.