Lords reform: still room for the bishops

The Government has published the House of Lords Reform Bill, together with the customary Explanatory Notes, and it is expected to have a two-day second reading debate in the Commons in the week beginning 9 July. Because prisoners will not be able to vote for the new-format House the Bill is missing the customary statement of compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights – for further and better particulars, see the posting on the UK Human Rights Blog.

The reformed House will consist of 450 members (rather than the 300 originally proposed) elected by a “Semi-Open List electoral system, giving voters the choice of voting for a party or for an individual in their region” using the boundaries used for European Parliament elections.

No doubt the minutiae of the proposals will be crawled over endlessly in the coming months: this post, however, is limited to the proposals for the continued representation of the Church of England. Under the proposals in the Bill:

  • there will be twelve Lords Spiritual in the fully reformed Upper House;
  • the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester (referred to in the Bill as the “named” bishops) will continue to have reserved places in the House;
  • the Church will be able to choose the remaining seven diocesan bishops (the ”‘ordinary” bishops) in whatever way it wishes – so the current seniority rule will go;
  • there will be transitional arrangements for a staged reduction in numbers;
  • during the transitional period it will only be possible to make replacements on the bishops’ benches if either the occupant of one of the five named sees changes or the total number of bishops in the House were otherwise to drop below twelve as a result of retirements etc;
  • bishops (other than the five “named” bishops) will be able to resign their membership of the upper House while remaining diocesan bishops;
  • the bishops will not be salaried members of the House but will be able to claim allowances.

In addition, the bishops will now be subjected to the tax deeming, disqualification and disciplinary proceedings that will apply to all other members of the House – as suggested in the Archbishops’ submission and evidence to the Joint Committee and endorsed by that Committee in its recommendations to Government.

The Government has rejected the Archbishops’ suggestion that the proposal for five “named” and seven “ordinary” bishops might not be the most appropriate balance, on the grounds that “as the five most senior positions in the Church of England it is appropriate for these positions to be permanently represented” (Government Response to the Joint Committee’s Report page 26 para 67). The Government has also rejected the Archbishops’ proposal for more flexible transitional arrangements and it has not taken on board the Joint Committee’s suggestion that the Bill should make explicit reference to the inclusion of major faiths in a reformed House. You can read the Church of England’s reaction here.

How all this will play is anyone’s guess. Will the Government get it onto the statute book with Labour support against opposition from the Conservative Right, or will the whole enterprise simply run into the sand? At the very least, it looks as if it is going to take up an immense amount of the time left to the present Parliament.

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