Bishops hold their nerve as reform of Lords looms again

by
22 July 2009

by Bill Bowder

BISHOPS continue to be hopeful about their future in the House of Lords, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, said on Wednesday, after the publication of another Bill promising reform.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, introduced to Par­liament on Monday, tackles the sub­ject of the remaining 92 hereditary peers. The proposal is to phase these out by ending the present system of holding a by-election among the peer­age whenever a hereditary Lord dies.

A statement by Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, suggested that the Govern­ment would reveal its plans for a fully or partially elected House of Lords after the summer, “with draft legisla­tion for pre-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible”.

Last year, Mr Straw said that the Bishops’ representation should con­tinue in a mainly elected House (News, 18 July 2008).

“The notion that the bishops are looking over their shoulders is not true,” Bishop Scott-Joynt said. “We are committed to doing what we think is a worthwhile job for as long as we are allowed to do so.”

Although there was nothing to prevent a bishop’s standing for election in a wholly elected House of Lords, it was “so hypothetical as to be not worth going into”.

The Government was “swinging almost by the day” between the idea of a 100-per-cent-elected House and an 80-per-cent-elected House, he said.

“Bishops are a sub-text in the question whether you have a wholly elected upper chamber.” If the numbers of Lords were cut, then bishops would expect to be cut “pro-rata”, which could make it hard for those left to sustain the current work­load, he said. At present, 26 bishops are eligible to sit in the Lords.

The House of Lords needed the skilled people it had to act as a re­viewing, revising, and occasionally delaying chamber that could hold the executive to account and do the work the Commons often failed to do, Bishop Scott-Joynt said. The Government could not ensure there were highly skilled people in the Lords if it was elected. An elected Lords would also be a threat to the supremacy of the Commons.

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“I and my colleagues are quite clear that the more important ques­tions are the things to do with the governance of Britain and the import-ance of Parliament. It puzzles me why the Government is playing around with House of Lords reform.”

On Monday, Mr Straw’s statement was read out to the House of Lords by Lord Bach. He said that the Government was “fully committed” to the comprehensive reform of the Lords based on the primacy of the Commons, the independence of its members, who would serve for three normal parliamentary terms, direct election, and “sensible transitional arrangements” for existing peers.

After the summer recess, Parlia­ment would resolve the question whether the second chamber was to be 80 per cent or 100 per cent elec­ted, “in such a way as to make best use of a transitional period”, he told his peers.

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