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Second Chamber grows by a half, but Bishops' allocation stays the same

29 June 2012

THE Government on Wednesday published its long-awaited House of Lords Reform Bill. As predicted (News, 30 March), it proposes reducing the Bishops' bench from 26 to 12, reflecting the smaller size of a reformed Second Chamber.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who convenes the Bishops in the Lords, has challenged that figure. The Church of England agreed to 12 when the size of the Second Chamber was to be 300. Now the proposed size has been increased to 450 (down from the present 826), but the Bishops' places have not been increased proportionally.

The Bill, which was published by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, proposes that, in the reformed Second Chamber, eighty per cent (360 members) would be elected, and the remaining 20 per cent (90 members) appointed. http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/houseoflordsreform.html

The first elections for the Lords would take place in May 2015. One third of the members would be elected at the 2015 General Election, a second third in 2020, and a final third in 2025. Elections would take place using a "semi-open list electoral system, giving voters the choice of voting for a party or for an individual in their region", a statement from the Cabinet Office said.

The Bill proposes that the five most senior posts in the Church of England - the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, and the bishoprics of Durham, London, and Winchester - should "be permanently represented" on the bishops' bench. It says that "the identity of the remaining seven bishops would be a question for the Church of England."

The Government's response to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill said that there should be "adequate representation" of faith groups among the 20 per cent of peers who were appointed to the reformed Second Chamber. They should reflect "the diversity of the population of the UK".

The Government rejected the Archbishop of Canterbury's request that future women bishops should be "fast-tracked" to the bishops' bench (News, 2 December). The Joint Committee had taken on board Dr Williams's suggestion, recommending that the Bill "allow greater flexibility" so that "women bishops . . . can be eligible for appointment in the second transitional parliament."

But the Government said that "the purpose of the transitional period is to ensure that there continues to be representation of members with experience of the present House, to provide a degree of continuity in our constitutional arrangements."

The Bill also removes the bishops' exemption from "disciplinary provisions". They will be "subject to the provisions on disqualification, discipline, and taxation" which will apply to other members of the reformed House of Lords. This was recommended by the Committee and agreed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Under the provisions of the Bill, members of the reformed House of Lords would serve for 15-year terms, and would be allowed to serve for one term only.

Speaking in the Lords on Wednesday, the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens, who acts as the bishops' convenor in the Lords, said: "We on these benches recognise the need for some reform of this House and we welcome the opportunity that this Bill will give for thorough debate about the future of Parliament.

"In particular we are pleased to see that the Government endorses the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the continuing contribution of the Lords Spiritual to a reformed House. . ." Bishop Stevens served on the Joint Committee that drafted the Bill.

He did, however, raise three concerns. The first was the relationship between the two Houses, which, he said, was at "serious risk of dysfunction".

"As a member of the Joint Committee, I remained puzzled during the whole course of its work about how the expressed desire of the Government for a more assertive House could be squared with the confident assertion that a reformed House could be relied upon to exercise the necessary self-restraint required to guarantee the primacy and effectiveness of the House of Commons."

The second concern was about religious representation. "The Church of England has always argued for diverse religious representation in this House so that it properly reflects the diversity of civil society as a whole. The Government appears not to have accepted the Joint Committee's recommendation that it is necessary for the Bill to make explicit reference to the inclusion of major faiths in a reformed House."

The Bishop's third concern was the Bill's proposal to increase the membership of the Second Chamber from 300 to 450, without also increasing the number of seats for the bishops above the original 12.

Bishop Stevens echoed earlier concerns expressed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in their submission to the Joint Committee. The move suggested that "the proportion of bishops at the number of 12 may be too low if the total number is revised upwards."

 

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