If the bishops want a future in the Lords, they need to work on it

by
21 March 2007

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From the MP for Birkenhead
Sir, — May I take further the ideas I have discussed with Theos on reform of the Lords (Comment, 16 March)? The impression given by the bishops is like that of their predecessors sitting around, sharpening their quills, and waiting for Prime Minister Peel to come and begin ecclesiastical-committee meetings. This time round they are simply awaiting reform.

The House of Bishops needs to become proactive and introduce its own Bill reforming the place of the Lords Spiritual in the Upper House. But to do this the bishops need to have thought through what is their place in a “modernised” Second Chamber.

Despite the increase in attendance of bishops now, compared with the Thatcher era, most bishops who have places in the Lords do little to justify their existence. Could not the House of Bishops debate how best faith should be represented in the Upper House, as part of a much wider debate on faith in what is now called the public square?

Faith is too important an interest not to be a major player in a reformed Lords. Might not the House of Bishops begin a dialogue with other parts of the Church and with the leaders of other faiths to determine how each could be properly represented?

House of Lords reform may still be kicked into the long grass. But a Bill introduced by the Archbishops on how their part of reform might work, including the surrender of the automatic 26 places, might go through as a reform in its own right. It might also begin a more constructive debate on turning the Upper House into a representation of group interests which leaves the Commons quite properly largely representing individual interests.
FRANK FIELD
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan
Sir, — I read with sorrow Paul Bickley’s reporting (Comment, 16 March) that in the debates last week the bishops put forward no counter-proposals to their present seating provision.

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The little I heard certainly suggested mere, if eloquent, defensiveness about their present role. One could add that, however active Richard Harries was on the Wakeham Commission, in all the years of approaching constitutional reform, the General Synod never addressed the composition of a reformed House of Lords at all, but merely sought to retain the presence of bishops (and perhaps add a few from other denominations and other religions).

I wonder whether a few one-line shafts of the obvious would help?

First, if there were 16 bishops taking their seats on the present pecking-order basis, all but the top five would get about nine months’ membership of the House before retirement.

Second, if there were the Bickley solution of “six, five — even two — bishops appointed on the basis of ability . . . and released from some diocesan responsibilities”, then (a) who would appoint them? (b) what would count as “ability”? and (c) what diocese would want them in absentia?

Third, surely the issue of “100 per cent elected” should be addressed in its own right, not simply on the grounds that it unseats bishops?

Fourth, when will anyone start to couple a changed future for bishops in the Lords with an end of Downing Street’s final say in their appointment as bishops, indefensibly staked, as it is, upon the current expectation of their proceeding to the Lords?
COLIN BUCHANAN
21 The Drive, Alwoodley
Leeds LS17 7QB

From Mrs Alix Wilkinson
Sir, — I wonder why “election” is interpreted as “election by popular franchise”.

There are quite enough assemblies for the public to vote for: local council, European, regional. People vote in these elections in ever decreasing numbers. Why do not their Lordships interpret “election” to mean “election by interested groups”, or colleges?

The Bishops could then elect some of their number to represent them, as would the doctors, judges, farmers, business leaders, bankers, labour unions, armed services, police, and education (bring back the Universities’ representation). In fact, every group that contributes to the prosperity and well-being of this country should elect its representatives.

By this means, the country would gain, and retain, the best people from every walk of life. This system would retain what is best about the appointments system, and avoid the suspicion generated by the peerages-for-loans investigation.
ALIX WILKINSON
7 Tenniel Close
London W2 3LE

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