Fewer Lords Spiritual, or none at all

by
14 March 2007

To stay in the Lords, bishops need to propose a great reduction in numbers, says Paul Bickley

In the chamber: the House of Lords, with two bishops sitting

In the chamber: the House of Lords, with two bishops sitting

The House of Commons finally put its weight behind reform of the House of Lords on Wednesday afternoon last week. From a series of options — ranging from abolition to all-appointed to all-elected — MPs backed an 80-per-cent elected or an all-elected second chamber. Jack Straw commented that the votes represented a “historic step forward” on reform.

These divisions, like those that took place in the House of Lords this week, are purely advisory. They will, however, inform future legislation. Though the precise provisions of any Bill are not yet clear, it is highly unlikely that space will be made for 26 bishops of the Church of England in what is likely to be a much smaller House.

Some people will be happy enough at the prospect of a secularised second chamber. As I write, 38 MPs have signed a parliamentary motion asking for the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords. The Lords Spiritual also have an assortment of critics within the Church, who argue variously that they are too liberal, too conservative, or simply ineffective.

The recent report from the public-theology think tank Theos, Coming off the Bench (News, 16 February), which I co-wrote, suggests otherwise. It compares the Thatcher and Blair years, and analyses statistics about the bishops’ activity in the Lords. It suggests a significant increase in rates of attendance, voting, and speech-making.

For instance, during the 1980s, bishops attended the House on an average of 12 per cent of sitting days. By 2004-05, the comparable figure was 18 per cent. In the same session, they voted in more than half of divisions, compared with just above 20 per cent in the 1980s. In 2005-06, the bishops made 130 separate speeches and interventions, compared with an average of 64 contributions per session during the 1980s.

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This is probably a reflection on the growing importance of the Lords with respect to the Commons (the Labour Government has lost more than 400 votes in the Lords since 1997), and the burgeoning narrative of faith in public life.

As diocesan bishops, their contributions are also uniquely grounded in a community, and they bring with them all the associated local issues and perspectives. This geographical connectedness makes them effective representatives in a way that other peers are not. Their work in key committees (for instance, Lord Harries’s on the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform) is widely valued in the Lords.

Beyond this, there lies a series of complex questions related to how the bishops operate. For instance, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1968, Michael Ramsey wrote to the Archbishop of York, Dr Donald Coggan: “I feel that the purpose of our voting is to register opinions as a kind of witness, and that if we become a body which tried to influence legislation by turning up in force, we should be involved in all sorts of difficulties, and our postion would not be tolerated.”

Contrary to the arguments put forward by Polly Toynbee and others who oppose the place of religion in public life, it remains extremely rare for more than a handful of bishops to vote in a single division. Even when they do, they often vote in opposing lobbies. They are hardly throwing their legislative weight around.

The defining characteristic of the average bishop is that his diary makes it extremely awkward for him to contribute consistently. A variety of complicated factors of individual predilection, interests, and other commitments coalesce to determine how frequently he will attend.

The net result is that a minority of bishops do a majority of the work. Between April 2005 and March 2006, 16 bishops accounted for 89 per cent of total attendances. Taking these things together, we should not be overly concerned if wider political circumstances mean that the number of bishops in a reformed second chamber should be drastically cut.

Bishops will argue, as they have always argued, that they operate a “duty-bishop” system, under which individuals take a number of days per session, in order to ensure that a prelate is at the disposal of the House at any given time. They will further argue that this system operates effectively only because it takes a little time out of 26 diaries rather than a great deal out of 16, or ten, or two. While the system is relatively well conceived, Lords Spiritual should not suppose that their internal procedures will have much bearing on the wider process of reform.

‘The bishops’ only option is to put forward a counter-proposal’

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Bishops will argue, as they have always argued, that they operate a “duty-bishop” system, under which individuals take a number of days per session, in order to ensure that a prelate is at the disposal of the House at any given time. They will further argue that this system operates effectively only because it takes a little time out of 26 diaries rather than a great deal out of 16, or ten, or two. While the system is relatively well conceived, Lords Spiritual should not suppose that their internal procedures will have much bearing on the wider process of reform.

‘The bishops’ only option is to put forward a counter-proposal’

The game is almost up for the bishops in the Lords. The only option for them is to put forward a counter-proposal of their own, with a radically reduced number of bishops to be part of a potential appointed element of a reformed chamber. They have not done so in the Lords’ debates on the subject this week. But five, six — even two — bishops, appointed on the basis of ability and capacity, and released from some diocesan responsibilities, could ensure that the national Church could maintain its excellent work in a reformed second chamber.

Paul Bickley is a researcher for Theos, a public-theology think tank.

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