Peers debate a reduction in the number of bishops in House of Lords

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During a debate following a report by the Lord Speaker’s Committee which proposed to reduce the number of life peers, several peers, including members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG), called for a corresponding reduction in the number of bishops from the Church of England who have the right to sit and vote in the House of Lords. Humanists UK, which provides the secretariat to the APPHG and briefed its members ahead of the debate, supports the abolition of reserved places for religious representatives. They believe the  presence of 26 bishops in the current House of Lords is an example of discrimination, religious privilege and undemocratic politics.

Under current proposals, the proportion of bishops in the House of Lords would increase as the size of the chamber is reduced from 800 to 600, making them a more influential voting block. But Lords Burns, who led the Lord Speaker’s Committee investigation into reducing the size of the second chamber, previously stated that his report did not address the number of bishops, as a reduction in their number would require legislation which was outside of the remit of the committee. However, he emphasised that this position "does not reflect our personal preferences", leaving open the possibility of change.

Several Lords, including the Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Lord Newby, called for legislation to be introduced to reduce the number of bishops, with the former stating that the passage of such a Bill could be achieved quickly and easily.

APPHG member Lord Birt suggested that the notion that after the proposed reforms the bishops would be a significantly larger proportion of the House of Lords is "profoundly distasteful". His sentiments were echoed by fellow APPHG members Lord Judd, who stated that the issue of the privileges afforded to the Church of England in the chamber could not be dodged and undermined the House’s credibility, and Lord Dubs, who advocated for the bishops to at the very least voluntarily reduce their number. Lord Turnbull, Lord Robathan, Lord Geddes, Baroness Berridge, Lord Gadhia, and Baroness Smith of Basildon also advocated a reduction.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘The UK is the only democratic sovereign state that allows religious leaders to sit in its parliament as a right. It is unfair, unjustified, and unpopular with both the public at large and within parliament itself. It is time that the Government listened to the consensus of opinion that the bishops no longer have a place in our parliament and supports legislation to that effect.’

The UK is the only democratic sovereign state in the world that gives seats in its legislature to religious representatives as a right. Currently, 26 bishops from the Church of England are selected automatically to sit in the House of Lords. These bishops vote on legislation, make interventions and lead prayers at the start of each day’s business.

Any proposed reduction in the overall size of the House of Lords without a corresponding reduction in the number of seats reserved for bishops will result in the Church being a voting bloc more able to further the Church’s agenda. This is despite the recent British Social Attitudes Survey revealing that only 15 percent of the public describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, with this figure falling to three per cent among young adults.

The removal of the bishops is a popular proposal with an opinion poll from 2012 showing  that 74 per cent of the public, including 70 percent of Christians, believe that it is wrong that Church of England bishops are given automatic seats in the House of Lords.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.
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