Bishops’ seats threatened again in Lords reform

by
18 March 2010

by Bill Bowder

BISHOPS in the House of Lords have been urged to become involved with the reform of the upper chamber. Reports this week said that the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, would propose replacing the Lords with a wholly elected 300-seat senate.

The think tank Ekklesia and the democracy campaign Power2010 said last week that reform was inevitable. In an email campaign that targeted the 26 bishops who sit in the Lords, the two groups had forwarded 59,681 messages by Wednesday calling on them for “clear and principled leader­ship to take this forward” .

The emails asked the bishops to sup­port “core principles” that both Chris­tian and non-Christian demo­crats could share, which included the requirement that people of faith should face election with no special privileges and no reserved places.

The core principles also called for legislation to be scrutinised for its impact on the most vulnerable in society, membership of the upper house to be open to independent and minority elected voices, and for debate marked by a search for con­sensus.

A poll linked to the campaign suggested that 70 per cent of Christians who responded believed it was wrong for bishops to have reserved seats in the Lords, while 43 per cent of respondents thought it important that institutional religion should play a part in public life.

The proposals for reform reported on Sunday would see the upper chamber reduced from 704 members to 300, with one third of the members being elected on each occasion, and members serving a maximum term of 15 years. Members would be paid a salary. Government ministers were said to be considering a mechanism that would ensure a balance between different faith groups. Three years ago, the Commons voted for an all-elected chamber, but the move was blocked by the House of Lords.

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A spokesman for the Church of England said on Monday: “The constitution is not the property of any one party, and should not be used as a political football in a General Election campaign. Levels of trust in elected politicians are already low, and it must be doubtful whether proposing to move to a 100-per-cent-elected second chamber to replace the House of Lords will help address that fundamental problem. Lasting change needs a wide measure of con­sensus across the parties and stake­holder groups. . .

“Any notion that a wholly elected second chamber will be other than a body dominated by the main political parties, to the exclusion of bishops and other senior faith representatives (for example the present Chief Rabbi, who is a member of the Lords), and of the many other able and experienced people who are not politicians and currently sit on the cross benches, is fanciful.”

Question in the House: the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, speaking in the Lords on Tuesday, asked if it was “in order for Lords spiritual, who are not peers, to vote in General Elections”.

The Justice Minister Lord Bach replied that there was no bar to the bishops voting. “However, I under­stand that there has long been a tradition that they do not do so.” Although they were not peers, they could still participate in person in parliamentary proceedings, instead of being represented in the Commons.

See Giles Fraser

See Dave Walker cartoon

See Church Times blog

See Giles Fraser

See Dave Walker cartoon

See Church Times blog

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