Monday, 23 April 2012

House of Lords reform: committee supports retaining Bishops and appointing other faith representatives

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A cartoon of the Lords Spiritual, drawn for
us by Martin Rowson for a 2007 piece
on the issue
The parliamentary committee examining the government's proposals for House of Lords reform has thrown its support behind the plan to retain automatic places for Church of England bishops, and has recommended that religion should be taken into consideration in allocating other appointed seats.

The Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, formed of 26 MPs and Lords, has recommended that the reformed House should consist of 450 members, 80 per cent of whom would be elected and 20 per cent appointed. The committee has also recommended that the reforms be put to a referendum before they can be adopted.

On the subject of the Bishops, the committee agreed, by a majority decision, with the government's proposal to retain their ex officio places, with their number being reduced to 12 from the current total of 26.

As to representatives of other religions, the committee's report describes discussion of the issue during its hearings:

283. Irrespective of the continued presence of the Church of England bishops, many witnesses spoke of the desirability of having other faiths represented in the House too, ad personam rather than ex officio.[375] There was also a presumption that the Appointments Commission should see this as part of their remit.[376] Some argued for no specific faith representation.[377]

284. Some witnesses addressed the difficulty in identifying suitable representations from faiths with no priestly hierarchy. [378] But the Muslim Council of Britain countered this by saying that it would not be difficult to identify suitable candidates, at least from the main minority faith communities as identified in the National Census (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh): "... All major religious communities have well developed national representative bodies which can provide the link. MCB would be pleased to present specific proposals in this regard for our community".
The report goes on to conclude that "the Appointments Commission consider faith as part of the diversity criterion".

The committee's report is, of course, a disappointment for humanists and secularists, who have long argued that a reformed House of Lords should not include places for Church of England bishops, or use faith as a criteria for awarding appointed places. As the British Humanist Association have pointed out, the proposals will actually increase the Church's representation in among appointed peers. In the current House of Lords, 26 out of around 800 members equates to 3 per cent of appointed peers. In a 450-member House with 12 Bishops, their overall percentage would drop to 2.7 per cent, but of the 90 appointed members, 13 per cent would be Bishops.

In contrast to the committee's recommendations, a recent poll conducted by IPSOS Mori on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science found that even those who identified as "Christian" on the census do not tend to support seats in the Lords for Bishops. Asked for their views on the issue, 32 per cent of "Census Christians" said they oppose them, with only 25 per cent in favour. A further 32 per cent said they neither support nor oppose.
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