Wednesday, 27 June 2012

12 Bishops to remain in reformed House of Lords

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Rowan Williams addressing the House of Lords
The Coalition government published its House of Lords Reform Bill today and, as expected, if the reform goes ahead the Church of England will retain its reserved seats in Parliaments upper house.

The proposed reforms would eventually see the size of the House (see the Bill's breakdown of the proposed composition here) reduced to around 460 seats, with 80 per cent of members (360 members) elected for 15-year terms and 20 per cent (90 members) appointed. In its completed form, the seats would be retained in the House of Lords for "up to 12 Lords Spiritual", i.e. Church of England Bishops.

However, the reformed House of Lords would not be composed in this way until 2025. The first proposed election to the House, in 2015, would see a third of elected members (120) and a third of appointed members (30) introduced, with those figures increasing to 240 elected and 60 appointed in 2020, and 360 elected and 90 appointed in 2025. From that point onwards, one third of elected seats will be up for election every 5 years.

Meanwhile, while elected and appointed members are gradually phased in, the Church of England Bishops will be gradually reduced in number. Twenty-one will sit in the House during its first term following the reforms, with the figure reduced to 16 in 2020 and 12 in 2025.

While the news that the Bishops will be retained is not surprising, it is still a disappointment for secularists, who had hoped that the return of Lords reform to the political agenda would provide an opportunity to end Britain's status as one of just two states to retain clerics in its legislature (the other state is Iran). Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, summed up why campaigners for reform are unimpressed by the proposals:
"This is deeply disappointing. The proposals revealed today are patently at odds with the evidence submitted to the Government and goes against society’s understanding of fairness, accountability and democracy.

Not only do arguments to retain Bishops possess no intellectual credibility, they are also unpopular with the public, with polls indicating 74% of the population –including 70% of Christians – believe it is wrong that Church of England Bishops are given automatic places.’

Representatives of the Church of England will retain the right to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their faith, denomination, gender and vocation. In a Britain which is not only religiously plural, but also increasingly non-religious, there is absolutely no justification for maintaining the Church of England preferred status. It is an affront to the principles of democracy and equal citizenship."
Of course, the Bill is in its early stages, so the retention of the Bishops isn't a done deal (assuming the reforms ever pass at all - see YouGov's Peter Kellner for why this looks fairly unlikely). The BHA have been running a campaign, Holy Redundant, calling for the removal of the Lords Spiritual, and that's still very much live. Follow it on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye on the website, for news of future developments.

PS: Meanwhile, it was interesting to hear the Conservative hereditary peer Lord Trefgarne holding forth on Radio 4 on his divine right to sit in the House of Lords and perform the duty imposed on him by the Almighty. And to think that some people view the House as archaic.

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