BISHOPS should no longer sit as of right in the House of Lords, a new paper argues. It is published by the Commission on Political Power, an independent group that unofficially reviews constitutional structures.
In a paper that sets out options for reforms of the Lords which do not include directly elected politicians, the commission says that maintaining the current system is not tenable. Calling for a “representative Senate” of between 400 and 600 appointed members, it suggests abolishing the current “Bishops’ bench” of two archbishops and 24 bishops.
“Whilst it is generally recognised that the Church of England bishops play a constructive and valued part in the work of the Lords, their presence is anomalous as representatives of the established religion,” the report says. Any appointments body, however, “should take into account the balance of faith representation” in the country.
The commission’s co-convener, Frances Crook, said: “The House of Lords is an undemocratic anachronism, and change must come. I’m not convinced that direct elections will necessarily provide improved democracy, and just having more professional politicians may not enhance public confidence. I hope the Commission’s ideas will generate debate so we can find a solution fit for the next generation.”
The National Secular Society (NSS) described the position of the Lords Spiritual as “archaic, undemocratic, and unfair”.
The chief executive of the NSS, Stephen Evans, said: “Ending the arrangement whereby representatives of one religious denomination are given seats as of right would remove an unjustifiable religious privilege from our legislature, and make for a more equitable and democratic second chamber.”
In December, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, who is the convener of the Lords Spiritual, defended the presence of bishops in the Second Chamber (Comment, 9 December 2022). “As well as a faith perspective, bishops seek to bring to debates the voices of those on the margins, including refugees and asylum-seekers, families struggling on benefits, victims of the gambling industry, and people suffering human-rights abuses overseas,” he wrote. “It is an extension of our vocation to service, locally and in the nation, as we seek to transform unjust structures of society and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.”