The Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 18 December 2014 and began its progress through Parliamentary when the House returned from its Christmas recess on 5 January. The intention is that, provided the Bill is granted Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved on 30 March 2015, the Act will come into force on “the day Parliament first meets following the first parliamentary general election after this Act is passed”: clause 2(2). Parliament’s first meeting also triggers the commencement of the 10-year “sunset provision”: clause 1(1)(a).
Whilst it would be premature to discuss the implications of the Bill at this early stage, it is possible to make a number of observations, assisted by the Bill’s Explanatory Notes.
The two Church of England Archbishops and 24 of its other diocesan bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as the Lords Spiritual “by virtue of ancient usage and statute”; and the mechanism of their appointment as Lords Spiritual is set out in s5, Bishoprics Act 1878”. The holders of the “five ex officio sees” of Canterbury, York, Durham, London and Winchester automatically receive Writs of Summons to attend the House of Lords on the basis of the sees they occupy and are therefore not subject to the seniority rule. Thus the appointment of a woman to one of these five sees is not dependent upon the Bill becoming law.
The remaining 21 bishops are issued with Writs of Summons on the basis of seniority (i.e. length of tenure as a diocesan bishop) when a vacancy arises, and it is appointment to these sees that is addressed within the Bill: Clause 1(5).
Appointment under the terms of the Bill
The Explanatory Note states:
“[t]he Bill makes time-limited provision for vacancies among the 21 places which are normally filled by seniority to be filled as they arise by eligible female bishops if there are any available at that point (an eligible bishop is a bishop of a diocese in England who is not already entitled as such to a writ of summons). Essentially, for a period of 10 years, the most senior eligible female bishop at any time would fill a vacant Lords Spiritual seat in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop.”
These conditions are contained within clause 1 and require that:
- a vacancy arises among the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords in the 10-year window during which the Act is in force;
- at the time the vacancy arises, there is at least one eligible bishop who is a woman; and
- the person who would otherwise be entitled to fill the vacancy under section 5 of the Bishoprics Act 1878 is a man.
If at the time the vacancy arises there is only one eligible bishop who is a woman, the vacancy is to be filled by the issue of a Writ of Summons to her. However, if there are two or more eligible bishops who are women, the vacancy is to be filled by the issue of a Writ of Summons to the one whose election as a bishop of a diocese in England was confirmed first, [i.e. not her election as a suffragan bishop, if applicable].
If there is no eligible female bishop, the most senior male bishop will become a member of the House of Lords under the 1878 Act.
As under the present arrangements, a bishop issued with a Writ of Summons will be entitled to a Writ in subsequent Parliaments until that person ceases to be a diocesan bishop or is appointed to one of the five ex officio sees.
The Bill is designed to achieve the early inclusion of women appointed as diocesan bishops as Lords Spiritual: an examination of the profile of the present bishops in the Lords indicates that if the usual pattern of retirement at 70, or earlier, is followed, women will comprise a significant proportion by the end of the 10-year period, through these provisions and the 1878 Act. As we noted in an earlier post however, statistically-based predictions can often be wrong. Furthermore, the period of 10 years equates to two fixed-term Parliaments and during this time it is more than likely that the composition of the Upper House will again come under scrutiny. (The Labour Party, for example, recently declared that it proposed to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected Senate.) Until then, once the Act is passed the Lords Spiritual will differ in three respects from other members of the Upper House: they will be subject to mandatory retirement at 70; there will be positive discrimination in favour of women; and their total number will remain the same as it was in 1878.
The two-clause format of the Bill leaves little scope for parliamentary meddling, although it is quite probable that the number and value of Lords Spiritual will be raised during its debate. However, there will be no need to change the provisions concerning the issue of Writs of Summons: the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords(2013) states:
“1.10 An archbishop, on appointment or translation to another see, and a bishop who has become entitled to sit or who already has a seat and is translated to another see, applies for a writ to the Lord Chancellor with evidence to support his claim.”
With regard to the start date, there are two implications in the present wording of clause 2(2): the Act will come into force regardless of the political outcome of the next General Election and the possibility of a hung Parliament; but if for any reason Royal Assent is not granted prior to the dissolution of Parliament, it would be a further five years before the Act came into force. In the context of this latter possibility, however, the CofE Press Release quotes Bishop Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester and convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords, as saying
“We have reason to suppose that this is supported from all sides of both Houses and we are grateful to the business managers for making time to get this minor amendment to the law in place as soon as possible.”
Furthermore, he said
“We know that women bishops will enrich and strengthen the leadership of the Church of England and we are very confident that they will also enrich and strengthen our voice in the House of Lords.”
Once the Bill becomes law, the onus will be on the Church to decide how best to capitalize on this new opportunity, and possibly revisit the competing demands of “chief pastor of all that are within his or her dioceses” and “attendance on the Parliament” as outlined in Canon C18 Of diocesan bishops.
 The House of Lords returned on 6 January 2015, having had 2 extra days’ holiday.
 This is the component of the legislation that General Synod does not have the competence to change.