Thinking Anglicans

Bishops speak on Reform of the Lords

The Bishop of Winchester and the Bishop of Chester both spoke yesterday in the House of Lords on the subject of Lords Reform. Their words and the immediate responses from the Leader of the House (speaking for the government) are reproduced below the fold, but to see them in full context, go here (Winchester), and then here (Chester).

The Lord Bishop of Winchester:

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for bringing this Statement to your Lordships’ House. As noble Lords would expect, we on these Benches welcome the proposal that, if there is a partly appointed House, a smaller number of Church of England Bishops will remain as full Members, allowing for the smaller number of Peers in general. We stand ready and welcome the proposal that one of our number should be part of the Joint Committee. However, it is amazing to me that, as we have heard, the committee that has brought the Bill forward has not worked out or prescribed, or even suggested, how that lessening of the number is to be achieved. For many Members of your Lordships’ House, that will be one of the most crucial questions. How are they to be-I am trying to find a neutral word-excluded? It was very coy of the Statement to make no such suggestions.

Many of your Lordships know that right through this process the Bishops’ Benches have spoken about the place of the Bishops only at the end of all the papers that they have brought forward. That was the case with the paper produced for the Deputy Prime Minister’s committee by our convenor, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Leicester, at the end of July last year. Our interest throughout has been, and continues to be, effective government, holding the Executive properly to account, and the proper scrutiny, review and revision of legislation. If those are to remain, the prime focus of this House, alongside ensuring that the House of Commons does not seek to take all power, must be much of what the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has just set out. That is absolutely critical. Those points were made to the committee-albeit, noble Lords will not be surprised to hear, in slightly less trenchant terms-in the submission of my right reverend friend the Bishop of Leicester.

I did not have the opportunity of seeing the material beforehand. However, I did a very brief scrutiny of the document, which says that, were there to be a House of 300, its Members should all be full time. Of course, Bishops will not be full time and nor will the 20 per cent of those who will have made their reputations and gained their expertise outside the world of party politics-if that is to be the number; my belief is that that is far too small a proportion. That seems to be a straight contradiction in the material that is put before us. The information recently noted-that some 40 per cent of the amendments to legislation brought forward in your Lordships’ House have been accepted and become law-only underlines the critical importance of having a competent, widely experienced upper House of Parliament, full of a variety of expertise. I am very puzzled to see how that can happen, though it is absolutely necessary if your Lordships’ House is to be an excellent body of scrutiny, review and revision, with a sizable proportion made up of those who are not already committed to the party structure.

The Statement that we have had repeated in this House said very little about the cost. I note the green White Paper-I cannot believe that the noble Baroness is the only one of us who takes as significant the green print on the front. There are pages and pages in it about costs, tax and all sorts of things, which seems a very strange thing to be leading into at this stage in this country’s history when so many other things are under such enormous financial pressure. I hope that, as the discussion continues, those on our Benches-of whom I shall not be one because I am soon to retire-will want to contribute very fully on the kinds of questions that both the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and, very particularly, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, raised. We shall be working very particularly on good and responsible governance and, in the strongest possible sense, that legislation is being expertly and carefully scrutinised. I find it difficult to see how even an 80 per cent elected House will be prepared to bring the expertise and to give the time to the hard, line-by-line work that this House undertakes.

Lastly, I shall not use the tough words of the late Michael Foot any more than the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, did, but I find it hard to think that there will be people prepared to stand for election for this kind of role when-much though we may regret it-the reputation and standing of elected politicians is so remarkably low. Sheer wishful thinking is coming from all three political parties in so many different areas. The role of the Cross Benches and-dare I say it?-the Bishops over these next many years of discussion will be very important.

Lord Strathclyde:

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate who, after 15 years as a Member of this House, will retire at the end of this month. Although he will be remembered for many great speeches, I am sure that his last contribution will be quoted on many occasions. The right reverend Prelate raised some very important issues on the full-time role of Members of this House once elected, on the rationale behind the proposals to have an elected House and on whether it would continue its scrutiny role. I see around me in this House many Members who have stood for election in another place and in other elected Parliaments and Assemblies, and they have the skills of scrutiny, so there is no reason why we should not be able to elect people to sit in this House who would have similar skills.

The question about full-time politicians is also important. What is intended by this is the expectation that those who stood for election would have the time available to devote themselves full-time to this House while the House is sitting; namely, around 150 days a year. It would not be a full-time job in the same way as being a Member of the House of Commons is a full-time job, with all the coalface representative functions of constituencies on the ground.

The Lord Bishop of Chester:

My Lords, I wonder whether I could ask the Leader of the House to address more directly what I took to be the central point made by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and echoed by my right reverend friend the Bishop of Winchester. It was that a House of 300 full-timers would simply not have the expertise in the scrutiny of particular subjects that is afforded by the present composition of the House. In that case, how could this new House do its work as effectively as I believe this House does?

Lord Strathclyde:

My Lords, there is no magic about the figure of 300, any more than there was magic about the 600 figure for the House of Commons. Many argue that the existing House is far too big, but nobody has a view as to what the exact figure should be. There are many examples around the world of second Chambers being smaller-and sometimes substantially smaller-than the primary Chamber. I think that we ought to be able to manage with 300 full- time Members if they were elected.

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Fr Mark
Fr Mark
13 years ago

The Bishop of Winchester said: “I find it hard to think that there will be people prepared to stand for election for this kind of role when – much though we may regret it – the reputation and standing of elected politicians is so remarkably low.”

…and the reputation and standing of unelected bishops is so remarkably high, then, My Lord Bishop?

Jonathan Kirkpatrick
Jonathan Kirkpatrick
13 years ago

The presence of English Bishops in the House of Lords is ridiculous and archaic, it is therefore entirely in keeping with the spirit of the place.

Simon Bravery
Simon Bravery
12 years ago

At least elected politicians can be periodically removed from office by the electorate. Members of the Lords only leave by retirement ( bishops) or death. Even imprisonment for a serious offence does not result in their exclusion- although they can be suspended.

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