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Archbishops question case for elected House of Lords

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York question the rationale for a wholly or mainly elected House of Lords in their submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Government's Draft Bill and White Paper (the submission can be read on the CofE website).

Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill's proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.

The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government's plans.

The Archbishops argue in their submission that the test of reform is whether it enables Parliament as a whole to serve the people better. Concluding that the Draft Bill fails to meet that test, they say "if, as we believe, the second chamber should remain essentially a revising chamber and if, as we also believe, the primacy of the House of Commons is to be maintained, the argument that such a chamber can only be effective and have proper legitimacy if it is wholly or mainly elected is no more than an assertion."

In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government's proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: "We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate."

The substitution of the existing membership with one that is 80% or 100% elected on party-political tickets would not, they suggest, enhance the quality of legislative scrutiny or debate available to the Upper House. It would also inhibit the voice of independents and those that represent civil society: "If there is to be far reaching reform, we would wish to see wider exploration of the possibilities for parliament to increase the breadth and diversity of representation by civil society and intellectual life…It may become harder for civil society bodies in the voluntary, community and charitable sector to have a voice in parliament if the proportion of appointed members is to be so radically reduced."

The Archbishops argue that some reform of the Lords is overdue, not least to resolve the problem of the increasing size of its membership, the continued presence of Hereditary Peers, and the lack of effective retirement and disciplinary mechanisms. They suggest that Lord Steel's Private Member's Bill, currently before the House, would be an effective remedy to these problems. 

On the other provisions in the Draft Bill, the Archbishops welcome the creation of a statutory Appointments Commission, agree that the link between conferral of a Peerage and membership of the House should be broken, and suggest that there is a case for setting a maximum figure for Prime Ministerial appointees in a reformed Lords.

On the Draft Bill's proposals for the Lords Spiritual and religious representation:

The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: "If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State."

They also say: "We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church."

The Draft Bill proposes that the Lords Spiritual would not be expected to be 'full-time' members of a reformed House and as such would be unsalaried. As with ministerial appointments made by the Prime Minister, their numbers would be supernumerary to the overall size of the House. The Draft Bill prescribes no method by which Lords Spiritual are chosen to serve in the House, requiring only that the Secretary General of the Synod notifies the Clerk of Parliaments before each parliamentary session who the Lords Spiritual will be - a suggestion the Archbishops describe as "sensible".

The Archbishops acknowledge that these new arrangements, especially the reduction in numbers (from 26 to 12 over a 10 year transitional period), would necessitate considerable changes in the way that the Lords Spiritual arrive at, and conduct their work in, the House. The Draft Bill's proposal that the five occupants of the senior sees (the Archbishops plus the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester) should continue to have reserved places within the 12 is also, they say, a matter requiring further reflection:

"We have more doubts whether continuing with the arrangement of five reserved places for the occupants of the senior sees would still be right for a Bishops' Bench rather less than half its former size…The method by which the Lords Spiritual would be selected requires further reflection on the part of the Archbishops, Lords Spiritual and the wider Church, given that the inevitable move away from the present, automatic, seniority based system raises a number of important issues."  

The Archbishops argue for a more flexible system of transition from the existing to the fully reformed Upper House, to enable the Church to make best use of the pool of diocesan bishops who would be candidates for membership during the transition. Such flexibility would, theoretically, enable any woman who became a diocesan bishop over the period of transition the opportunity to sit in the Lords sooner than that envisaged under the Government's plans.

"This would enable the Lords Spiritual in the transitional parliaments to be selected from the widest possible pool of those who were diocesan bishops at the time. This could be of particular significance that if the General Synod were to approve the present draft legislation to enable women to become bishops."

The Archbishops agree that Lords Spiritual should be subject to the same disqualification provisions as other members of the reformed House of Lords, but question whether the Government's proposal in the Draft Bill to exempt Lords Spiritual from the tax deeming provisions, the serious offence provisions and those on expulsion and suspension are necessary. They suggest that the Lords Spiritual should be in the same position as other members of the House on these matters. 

Notes:

The Bishop of Leicester, Rt Rev Tim Stevens, is serving on the Parliamentary Joint Committee examining the Draft Bill and White Paper on House of Lords Reform. More details about the committee's composition, timetable and work are on its website.

When the Draft Bill and White Paper were first published in May 2011, the Bishop of Leicester, in his capacity as Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, issued an initial statement in response.

Details on the Lords Spiritual and their contributions within the House of Lords can be found on the Church of England website .