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Bishops warn Johnson against ‘cavalier’ move

28 August 2019

Diocesan bishops express concern at plan to prorogue Parliament


The Prime Minister attends a working lunch at the G7 summit in Biarritz, on Monday

The Prime Minister attends a working lunch at the G7 summit in Biarritz, on Monday

TWENTY-FIVE diocesan bishops have warned the Government against showing “cavalier disregard” for Parliament.

An open letter was released at midday on Wednesday, shortly after Downing Street announced that the Prime Minister had asked the Queen to prorogue Parliament from mid-September (shortly after MPs return from recess), until a Queen’s Speech on 14 October which would set out a new legislative programme.

In a letter to Cabinet ministers, Mr Johnson wrote that “parliamentary business has been sparse”, and that “key Brexit legislation has been held back” to be carried over into a second session. “I therefore intend to bring forward a new bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda for the renewal of our country after Brexit.”

He told the BBC: “We’re not going to wait until 31 October before getting on with our plans to take this country forward. . . We need new legislation. We’ve got to be bringing forward new and important Bills, and that’s why we are going to have a Queen’s Speech and we’re going to do it on 14 October.”

The move would limit the time-period that MPs would have to debate the Brexit process and to prevent no deal. Downing Street suggested that votes on the Queen’s Speech would fall on Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 October.

The decision sparked public protests and an application to the high court for a judicial review of Mr Johnson’s plan. A petition not to prorogue Parliament had reached 1.2 million people by Thursday.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, responded: “This [the proroguing] has to be addressed by the House of Commons in the first instance, but if Brexit was about ‘taking back control’ and ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, then this is a perverse way of doing it.”

He was one of the signatories of the bishops’ letter, which says: “The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.”

The letter also warns that a no-deal Brexit could harm people who are “least resilient to economic shocks”, and “is unlikely [to] . . . lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country”.

The bishops urge political leaders to be “honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable”.

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Dr Mark Strange, said that he was “uncomfortable” at the request to prorogue Parliament. “I have struggled with the fact that Parliament is in recess while decisions about such important matters are being made around and outside it,” he said. “I am therefore extremely uncomfortable at the request to prorogue Parliament at this time.

“I am increasingly worried that the apparent manipulation of parliamentary process seems to be becoming the norm in this debate, rather than full and frank discussion between elected members on a way forward for the whole country. In Scotland, this continuing uncertainty, alongside the majority wish to remain in the EU, will further fuel the debate on Independence, a debate that becomes more vocal as each day passes.”

The Scottish Episcopal Church would be holding a day of prayer towards the end of October, he said. “We will join with others in preparing for reconciliation in what is becoming an increasingly politically fractured society.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said that prayers, not “inflammatory language”, were needed while the prorogation of Parliament was debated.

“Feelings are running high, so it is important for all of us to avoid inflammatory language and engage with those with whom we disagree with respect. How we deal with the challenges now will set the tone for what happens post-Brexit.”

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who was on holiday, said in a statement that he had had no contact from the Government, and that “this move represents a constitutional outrage.

“However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop Parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country. At this time, one of the most challenging periods in our nation’s history, it is vital that Parliament has its say. After all, we live in a parliamentary democracy.

“Shutting down Parliament would be an offence against the democratic process and the rights of Parliamentarians as the people’s elected representatives.” He suggested that the Prime Minister should “be seeking to establish rather than undermine his democratic credentials” at such an early stage of his leadership.

Professor Danny Dorling, of the University of Oxford, agreed: “Boris Johnson is a man who has spent a lifetime making one serious mistake after another. He epitomises British domestic and foreign policy today — mistaken, arrogant, and ignorant. Treating his fellow MPs with contempt by suggesting he will prevent them from doing their job is simply typical of the man and his record.

“I hope that in future, like Profumo who ended up sweeping floors in Toynbee Hall in penance, Johnson finds a useful role for himself that allows him some extensive time for reflection and contrition.”

The chair of Christians in Parliament, Sir Gary Streeter, who is Conservative MP for South-West Devon, maintained, however, the party line that the current session of Parliament had run for “340 days, the longest for 400 years.

“We are therefore well overdue a Queen’s Speech, which is a vital parliamentary tool, allowing the Government of the day to outline its programme of domestic legislation, for Parliament to then debate and vote on.”

Parliament would return from the summer recess on 3 September, he said. “It would then likely rise on the 11 or 12 September for the annual party-conference season, as happens every year. The House would then return after the party-conference season on the 7 October. The Government is planning to deliver a Queen’s Speech on the 14 October, meaning the suspension of Parliament will in effect last around four sitting days longer than normal.”

Quakers in Britain have warned the Government that the move to prorogue parliament “risks eroding democratic accountability”. 

In a joint statement from charity leaders on Thursday, organised by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, they said: “The Prime Minister’s decision to suspend Parliament for more than four weeks in the lead up to one of the most important national decisions in recent history shrinks the democratic and civic space even further. 

It also meant “risking ending the passage of a number of bills that could deliver important change for the people and causes that civil society works on behalf of. As leaders of civil society organisations, we are concerned that proroguing Parliament to push through a divisive policy risks eroding democratic accountability now and after 31 October.”

The Archbishop of Dublin in the Church of Ireland, the Most Revd Michael Jackson, said: “All of us accustomed to working harmoniously together on the island of Ireland, particularly over the last 20 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, are concerned that whatever decisions are made in the Westminster Parliament do not impinge on this and that this work can continue unhindered.

“While the Agreement has positive repercussions for economic life, it also has repercussions for civic and cultural interchange and for the precious stability of peace in our societies.

“My hope would be that, whatever decisions are made in the short term in an independent and sovereign state (yet one with which we in Ireland have been bound over centuries of shared history) will not impede democratic discourse nor hinder the voices of goodwill of those who approach the issue of Brexit from different standpoints. All those who are elected to parliament are elected to serve and they share the responsibility of being representatives of the public as a whole.”

Read more on the story in our leader comment and Andrew Brown’s press column

The bishops’ open letter: full text

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has conditionally agreed to chair a Citizens Forum in Coventry and, without prejudice for any particular outcome, we support this move to have all voices in the current Brexit debate heard.

However, we also have particular concerns about the potential cost of a No Deal Brexit to those least resilient to economic shocks.

As bishops with pastoral responsibilities in communities across urban and rural England, we respond to the call by Jesus to tell the truth and defend the poor. We also recognise that our obligations go beyond England and impact on relations with the wider UK and our neighbours in the EU.

Exiting the EU without an agreement is likely to have a massive impact on all our people and the Government is rightly preparing for this outcome. The Government believes that leaving the EU on 31 October is essential to restoring trust and confidence. It is unlikely, however, that leaving without an agreement, regardless of consequences, will lead to reconciliation or peace in a fractured country. “Getting Brexit done” will not happen on exit day, and we have to be transparent about the years of work ahead of us in bringing the country together for a better future. We also need to be frank about the potential costs.

Our main social and political priority must be to leave well, paying particular attention to the impact of political decisions on those most vulnerable.

We hold different views about Brexit and how our country should proceed from here. However, although we agree that respecting a public vote is essential, democracy and committed debate do not end after the counting of votes. Our concern for the common good leads us to express concern about a number of matters. Our conviction is that good governance can only ever be based on the confidence of the governed, and that includes minorities whose voice is not as loud as others.

Seeing the evidence of division in every part of England, we are deeply concerned about:

  • Political polarisation and language that appears to sanction hate crime: the reframing of the language of political discourse is urgent, especially given the abuse and threats levelled at MPs doing their job.
  • The ease with which lies can be told and misrepresentation encouraged: leaders must be honest about the costs of political choices, especially for those most vulnerable.
  • The levels of fear, uncertainty and marginalisation in society, much of which lies behind the vote for Brexit, but will not be addressed by Brexit: poor people, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in Europe must be listened to and respected.
  • The Irish border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English: respect for the concerns on both sides of the border is essential.
  • The sovereignty of Parliament is not just an empty term, it is based on institutions to be honoured and respected: our democracy is endangered by cavalier disregard for these.
  • Attention must be paid not only to the Union, but also to the meaning of Englishness.

Churches serve communities of every shape, size and complexion. We continue to serve, regardless of political persuasion. We invite politicians to pay attention with us to the concerns we register above and encourage a recovery of civil debate and reconciliation.

Signatories: the Bishop of Leeds, the Bishop of Peterborough, the Bishop of Exeter, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Bishop of Durham, the Bishop of Southwark, the Bishop of Coventry, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Bishop of Winchester, the Bishop of Bristol, the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Bishop of Hereford, the Bishop of Newcastle, the Bishop of Salisbury, the Bishop of Worcester, the Bishop of Lichfield, the Bishop of Rochester, the Bishop of Truro, the Bishop of London, the Bishop of St Albans, the Bishop of Leicester, the Bishop of Norwich, the Bishop of Manchester, the Bishop of Guildford, the Bishop of Sheffield.

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