Statement on the Government's House of Lords Reform Bill
Speaking in the House of Lords today in response to a statement on the publication of the Government's House of Lords Reform Bill, the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual said: "We on these benches recognise the need for some reform of this House and we welcome the opportunity that this Bill will give for thorough debate about the future of Parliament."
"In particular we are pleased to see that the Government endorses the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the continuing contribution of the Lords Spiritual to a reformed House..."
Stating on behalf of the Bishops' Benches that "we have always said that we will assess the proposals on the basis of what makes for the good governance of Britain" the Bishop raised two issues of concern in relation to the proposals in the Government's Bill.
The first was the question of how to guarantee the continued primacy of the House of Commons against a Lords that would behave more assertively as a result of an 80% elected membership: "As a member of the Joint Committee [that scrutinised the Government's earlier Draft Bill], I remained puzzled during the whole course of its work about how the expressed desire of the Government for a more assertive House could be squared with the confident assertion that a reformed House could be relied upon to exercise the necessary self-restraint required to guarantee the primacy and effectiveness of the House of Commons.
"Can the Leader of the House help us be as certain as he appears to be that the Parliament Act will prevent a serious risk of dysfunction in the relationship between the two Houses?"
The second concerned the need to ensure that a reformed House reflected a diversity of religious representation, integral to the reflection of broader civil society: "As your lordships will be aware, the Church of England has always argued for diverse religious representation in this House so that it properly reflects the diversity of civil society as a whole. The Government appears not to have accepted the Joint Committee's recommendation that it is necessary for the Bill to make explicit reference to the inclusion of major faiths in a reformed House.
"Can the Leader explain to us how it is proposed that the Appointments Commission can ensure that a reformed House will reflect the religious heritage and cultural diversity of Britain today?"
The Bishop also made reference to the Bill's proposal to revise upwards the membership of the House to 450 from the 300 originally envisaged, whilst not also proportionally revising upwards the number of bishops from the original figure of 12. In doing so, the Bishop echoed earlier concerns expressed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their submission to the Joint Committee on the Draft Lords Reform Bill: "A decision to raise the proposed size of the House to 450 from the original proposal of 300 suggests that the proportion of bishops at the number of 12 may be too low if the total number is revised upwards."
The Bishop of Leicester, who is Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, served on the Joint Committee on the Government's Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which reported earlier this year. The Report of the Joint Committee can be found on its website at: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-house-of-lords-reform-bill/news/publication-of-report/
In their October 2011 submission to the Joint Committee the Archbishops of Canterbury and York said in relation to the reduction in numbers: "In both our response to the Royal Commission and to the 2008 White Paper, we expressed our view that any reduction in the number of bishops below 20 would pose difficulties in terms of maintaining current levels of service to the House. It would place greater burdens on the remaining bishops in balancing their diocesan and parliamentary responsibilities, necessitate a change in the seniority system by which bishops come into the House, and require an overhaul of the duty bishop system that has been in place for over a century. However, given the proposed reduction in the size of the House we accept that these difficulties will have to be faced and that the Church of England will have so to arrange matters that 12 of its bishops will be able to serve the reformed House effectively."
In the same response the Archbishops said in relation to civil society, other denomination and faith representation: "If there is to be far reaching reform, we would wish to see wider exploration of the possibilities for parliament to increase the breadth and diversity of representation by civil society and intellectual life….we believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church."
The submissions made on Lords reform in October & November 2011 by the Archbishops to the Joint Committee can be viewed at: http://www.churchofengland.org/our-views/the-church-in-parliament/briefing-bills/house-of-lords-reform.aspx
The Government's Lords Reform Bill, published on 27 June 2012, proposes a House of Lords consisting of an 80% elected and 20% appointed membership, with 12 Lords Spiritual as supernumerary members. The elected members would serve for single non-renewable terms of 15 years, on a semi-open list system of election and represent regional areas along the same lines currently used for elections to the European Parliament. Appointed members would also serve for non-renewable 15 year terms and be chosen by an Appointments Commission. The Bill's text is available here: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/houseoflordsreform.html
The Bill makes provision for 12 Lords Spiritual to continue to serve in a fully reformed House, consisting of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester and seven other diocesan bishops of the Church of England. Under the terms of the Bill the process of selection of the seven is left to the Church of England. The number of bishops would be reduced from 26 to 12 across a 10-year transitional period beginning with the first elections to the House in 2015. Unlike other members of a reformed House the Lords Spiritual would be ex-officio and unsalaried.
The Government has accepted the suggestion of the Archbishops, endorsed by the Joint Committee, that the Lords Spiritual should be subject to the same tax and disciplinary measures as other members of a reformed House.