On 20 February, the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker on the subject of proposals in the Burns Committee Report on reducing the size of the House of Lords. Commenting, Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker, said:
‘I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the careful and considered work done by Lord Burns and his Committee, and her recognition of the overwhelming support within the House for the report’s recommendations. Her statement means that the plan to reduce numbers in the House of Lords is on course. The case for a reduction has now been accepted by all party leaders.
The crucial paragraph in her letter to me says:
‘I would like to use this letter to make a statement of intent on further appointments over the remainder of this Parliament. I intend to continue with the restraint which I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of retirements. I will also operate on the basis that there is no automatic entitlement to a peerage for any holder of high office in public life.’
This is the first time such a statement of this kind has been made by any Prime Minister. With this statement of intent, she has challenged the House and its members to deliver their part in reducing numbers. The ability to reduce the size of the House is now within our own control. I intend to work with the political leaders in the House to agree how best to take this forward.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has responded so positively to the report’s recommendations and I look forward to making further progress on reducing the size of the House on the basis of the commitments made by the other political parties during the House’s debate on the report.’
With regard to the Lords Spiritual, the Burns Report comments:
“Archbishops and Bishops
. Similarly, [i.e. as in paragraph 22 on the Royal office-holders, the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who “are subject to different provisions from the other hereditary peers and are not intended to be covered by any of the proposals in this report”] the number of Lords Spiritual (26 Archbishops and Bishops, who must retire from their posts at the age of 70) could only be reduced through primary legislation. Accordingly we make no proposals in respect of the Lords Spiritual, while noting that like hereditary peers they will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House.”
The Prime Minister’s letter notes that the report’s recommendation divide into two separate areas: the steps necessary to achieve a reduction in the size of the House of Lords; and mechanisms by which the House would thereafter be maintained at a steady and smaller state. Were these criteria to be applied to the Lords Spiritual, although their number have been maintained at 26 under the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847, it is likely that in a smaller House of Lords there would be moves to reduce this number.
Following the publication of the Burns Report on 31 October 2017, our post Lords Reform and the Bishops considered what position the Church of England might take on a reformed House of Lords. In view of Prime Minister’s letter, questions on future numbers of Lords Spiritual would seem inevitable.