This isn't the 16th Century: it's time to kick the Bishops out of the House of Lords

Reform starts here. The Lords Spiritual have no right to seats in Britain's upper chamber anymore, explains David Morris.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury in the Lords
David Morris
On 16 July 2011 10:30

The presence of the Lords Spiritual is a long-standing institution in the UK Houses of Parliament. In fact, prior to the dissolution on monasteries, there were more of them than the Life and Hereditary Peers (collectively known as 'Lords Temporal').

There was a period where there weren't any, but the Clergy Act saw them re-introduced. Nowadays, there are twenty-six - a figure which includes the two Archbishops.

The recently-introduced House of Lords Reform Bill proposed that the number of Lords Spiritual be reduced - a process which would be phased over a period of time. However, there are strong reasons for removing this group altogether.

Point 92 of the draft Bill reads:

"The Government proposes that in a fully reformed second chamber which had an appointed element there should continue to be a role for the established Church. However, in line with proposals for a reduction in the size of the second chamber, the Government proposes that the number of reserved places for Church of England Archbishops and Bishops should also be reduced, from twenty-six to a maximum of twelve."

The remaining twelve would include the two Archbishops and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester. The others would be included based on seniority. However, there is nothing in the draft Bill that states why they should be there.

As I mentioned earlier, the Bishops only have a presence in the Lords due to the dominance of the Christian religion in England several hundred years ago.

On January 27th, 2010, Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester gave a speech to open a debate about the continuation of the Lords Spiritual. Naturally, he gave several reasons why they should be there, but none are particularly strong. The following is a summary of what he said:

- Removing them doesn't solve any of the constitutional problems;

- They have valuable and unmatched connections to local communities;

- Both religious leaders and existing peers want them to remain;

- Religion is still popular and many people prefer to seek advice from their Bishop;

- They are a reminder of the role they have played in the development of many of our institutions;

- They don't just contribute to religious matters.

The first point may be true, but their continued presence won't solve any of the problems either.

It is also true about having local connections. However, there are other ways for the Lords to interact with communities. For example, peers could still discuss matters with Bishops if they weren't members of the Lords. Peers could also work with local groups and members of the House of Commons.

If Peers received advice in these ways, the church would still have a voice (even though many have argued there should be a clear separation between church and state - as is the case in the United States).

To back up his argument about there being support amongst Peers, he cited a ComRes poll of 100 members of the House of Lords (roughly thirteen percent) where forty-five percent of respondents favoured no change. The problem is that the figure isn't even a majority of a relatively small sample size. So, the majority of respondents do want change.

As for religious leaders, he only consulted those based in Leicester and Leeds. That is clearly not representative of the entire country and there is no research out there which covers the whole of the United Kingdom.

To back up his point about the popularity of religion, Bishop Stevens noted that there is a weekly attendance of over one million and that is more than the membership of the British Humanist Association and political parties. This is true. One million is a significant figure, but that means that there are many others who don't go to church (for various reasons). Those people would not be represented by the Lords Spiritual, as they might their elected peers.

It's worth remembering that there are many other religions that have a large presence in this country nowadays. Obviously this is a big change from the times when the Lords Spiritual were first introduced (and in comparison to when they were re-introduced). This means that the group are not representative of the modern-day United Kingdom.

As for the other points, we don't need the Lords Spiritual to remind us of the role of the Church in the history of the United Kingdom. Also, they may contribute to debates on a full range of issues, but so do other peers and that means they provide no added value in that area.

Many groups, such as the British Humanist Association, Labour Humanists and the National Secular Society have argued (for a long time) that the Lords Spiritual should be removed from the second chamber. As you can see, many of the current arguments to support their existence are not strong enough. There is also no explicit reason in the House of Lords Reform Bill for their presence.

To ensure proper reform that makes the House of Lords less biased towards one religion and make the chamber more representative of the modern state of the nation, the Lords Spiritual should go.

David Morris is the author of the Life Downloaded blog

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