Campaign for women freemen gathers speed

JON WELCH A campaign to change ancient rules and allow women to become freemen of Norwich is gathering momentum.


A campaign to change ancient rules and allow women to become freemen of Norwich is gathering momentum.

Sue Howes has received more than 40 messages of support since launching the campaign, mostly from daughters of freemen.

Mrs Howes, whose father Ron Marrison, 79, is a freeman, said the present system, under which only men can inherit the title, was unfair.

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“How can they get away with sex discrimination? Why can the law be changed in Ipswich, London, York and Lincoln to allow this but not here?” she said.

The custom of appointing freemen of Norwich dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries when townsmen demanded the right to regulate their own trading activities and administrative affairs.

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Historic privileges, including exemption from tolls, no longer apply, although freemen do still have the right to a means-tested pension of about £1,000 a year from the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity, while their children are entitled to educational grants.

From time to time the city council awards the honorary freedom of the city to organisations and individuals judged to have made a significant contribution to city life. Although this is considered a great honour, it brings with it no actual privileges.

On Friday the honour will be conferred upon Labour peer and former Norwich City Council leader Baroness Hollis.

It is this move that has inspired Mrs Howes, 51, of North Walsham, to launch her campaign for equality.

“It's important to me because this tradition in our family will end with my father. It's not about what's in it for me, it's just an issue of equality,” she said.

She now plans to contact her MP, North Norfolk's Norman Lamb, as well as those councils that have already changed their admission policies.

Norwich grandmother Connie Adam, daughter of freeman Walter Burrows, has previously campaigned on the issue in Norwich but without success.

The 25-strong Norwich Freemen's Committee, which is independent of the council, is due to debate the matter at its next meeting in early February.

Chairman Mike Quinton said any final decision would rest with the city council. “It won't be easy. It's been done in other cities but the legal process is quite an involved one,” he said.

“I have got an open mind on it. I'm prepared to go along with any recommendation that the committee makes.”

A city council spokesman said a number of applications had been made by women to be admitted to the freedom of the city, but that this was not possible under current rules.

In 2002 a private member's bill was introduced in the House of Lords to allow for the admission of women, but it failed when parliament was dissolved in autumn of that year.

With the support of Norwich North MP Dr Ian Gibson the council asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to ask whether an order could be made under Section 254 of the Local Government Act allowing the council to amend the rule for admission.

“Although the ODPM accepted that such an order would end this discriminatory situation, it ruled that the preservation of inherited titles did not sit with the government's modernisation agenda and therefore it did not want to become involved in legislating on the issue,” said the spokesman.

"It is still Norwich City Council's wish to admit women, but our legal advice is that this is currently not possible. Many hours of officer time have been devoted over many years to pursuing this matter, but without success."

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