SIR KEIR STARMER and Gordon Brown failed to spell out last week what fate awaits the Lords Spiritual when (or, perhaps still more likely, if) the next Labour Government abolishes the House of Lords and replaces it with an elected Second Chamber. Quite possibly the fate of 25 of the 787 legislators was not uppermost in their minds. The implications are clear, however: an elected House will mean no more bishops in the body politic. Many in the country might shrug; the humanists will dance in the streets. But we hope that Sir Keir and Mr Brown will reflect on what would be lost.
Four days after Mr Brown announced his bold constitutional plans — which Sir Keir has said a Labour Government will implement — the Archbishop of Canterbury rose from the Bishops’ Bench to introduce a debate on the UK asylum and refugee policy. Few red seats were visible because the chamber was nearly full — testimony, perhaps, to the fact that it was Archbishop Welby who had called the debate. Neither Archbishop nor any of the bishops who spoke held back when castigating the immorality and inefficiency of the present system. This was not mere grandstanding: from East Kent to Leicestershire, from Essex to County Durham, the bishops reported facts on the ground. “Grossly wasteful”, “staggeringly inefficient”, and “cruel” was how Archbishop Welby described what he had witnessed directly and had had reported to him.
Sir Keir and Mr Brown will no doubt have agreed with much of what was said; Lord Murray of Blidworth, the junior Home Office minister sent to defend the Government’s record, less so. But do the Labour leaders, past and present, believe that an elected second House would choose to spend nearly five hours reprimanding the Government about an issue that could hardly be described as a vote-winner? For what would-be member of the new chamber would stand for election on an asylum-seekers ticket and hope to be elected in the present climate? Asylum-seekers, as the Bishop of St Albans argued in these pages last week, are on the margins of society; they are often the subject of “harmful rhetoric”, as Archbishop Welby told peers. To the marginalised category, Dr Smith added gambling victims, families struggling on benefits, and people who suffer human-rights abuses overseas — all of whose voices the Bishops have sought to make heard in debates.
Parliamentarians in both Houses have, of course, campaigned admirably for those on the margins. They do so out of principle, not political expediency, and we fear that it is the latter that will prevail should Labour have its way. The party is right to point out the shortcomings of the Lords: it is ridiculously large and unrepresentative. But within its membership are many who use the freedom that they have at present to speak up for those on the margins of society: people whom the Church, and surely the Labour Party, are most called to serve.