BISHOPS in the House of Lords have expressed concerns over proposals, which the Government unveiled on Tuesday, to reform the Second Chamber to produce a largely elected House (Comment, 13 May).
The House of Lords Reform Draft Bill and White Paper suggests that the number of bishops in the House of Lords should be reduced from 26 to 12, and that the total membership of the Lords should be reduced from 789 to 300.
A total of 240 (80 per cent) of the revised Chamber would be elected for 15-year terms at general elections under the Single Transferable Vote system. The remaining 60 members would be appointed from a group of “experts”, including former Government ministers, while a maximum of 12 bishops would sit as ex-officio members.
The draft Bill, which was introduced to the House of Commons by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, suggests that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester retain their seats, while the number of places for other diocesan bishops is gradually reduced to a total of seven, after two transitional periods.
Under the proposed legislation, bishops would continue to sit in the Lords by virtue of being office-holders in the Church of England.
The Bishop of Leicester and Convener of the Lords Spiritual, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, acknowledged that reform of the Lords was necessary, but said that it was important to “retain what is good in our current arrangements”. He expressed concern that a wholly or largely elected House of Lords would be more politicised and assertive, “liable to challenge the authority of the primary elected chamber, the House of Commons”.
He said that bishops were also worried that the reforms “risk substituting that large body of distinguished professionals appointed for their experience across all walks of life, with a class of salaried professional politicians.
“Nothing we’ve seen so far has convinced us this legislation has really been thought through, and the consequences of it examined.”
He said bishops were keen to be “part of the discussion” over the proposals to reduce the Lords Spiritual in proportion to reducing the overall size of the House, and were open to appointments to those of other faiths “to ensure diversity. . . But we do have real reservations about what’s proposed at the moment and want to be part of the debate to see that what is proposed is best for the nation.”
The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt, contributed to the debate on the proposals in the House of Lords on Tuesday. Speaking to the Church Times on Wednesday, he said that he believed that the draft legislation had “not got many friends in either House of Parliament”, and contained a lot of things which were “self-contradictory, unsatisfactory and unpromising”. “Nothing that I heard yesterday convinced me: I find the whole thing pretty extraordinary.”
The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, said that the reforms could lead to a loss “in experience and expertise” that is the Second Chamber’s great strength. “The main question is: ‘What is the role of the Second Chamber?’ If it becomes politicised, there will be a loss of democratic principles.” The Lords, “for all its anachronisms . . . does its job surprisingly well”.
The Bill and White Paper will now be scrutinised by a joint committee of peers and MPs, which will report back next year.