The 26 Church of England bishops with places in the upper house of the UK’s Parliament will retain their places under new plans to reform the House of Lords. Bishops have been part of England’s governance since absolute rule by monarchs in the days long before the emergence of democracy in the country.
Today the House of Lords includes the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, and 21 other diocesan bishops by seniority of service. For a short transitional period, women in the episcopate take precedence over male colleagues in filling vacancies in the 21 other bishops.
There are currently 824 members of the House of Lords. Traditionally, they were made up of bishops and Hereditary Peers – descendants of Barons and Lords appointed by previous monarchs for services to the Crown. Other members include Life Peers – political appointments made by the Monarch on the advice of the political parties in the House of Commons.
Membership of the House of Lords had risen to a record 1,330 in 1999 before the first phase of Lords reform capped the number of Hereditary Peers at 92 – the composition to be decided by a ballot of eligible peers. In 2014, further reform made it possible for members of the Lords to resign or retire – something that, until then, only applied to bishops. Automatic expulsion was also brought in for peers found guilty of serious criminal offences. The following year, further reform made it possible for the House of Lords to expel members who had committed less serious offences or who had bought the house into disrepute.
Reform of the House of Lords has been a significant topic of political debate in the UK; but progress has been piecemeal because there has not been consensus over whether the House should be replaced with a wholly elected chamber.
Mindful of the need to reform, the House of Lords voted to reduce its membership to 600, and the Lords’ Speaker, Lord Fowler, established a committee to consider how this could be done. Yesterday, the committee reported and suggested a phased programme to reach the target of 600 members in a little over 10 years. The committee is proposing to introduce reform through a code of conduct, rather than legislation, to enable the changes to be implemented swiftly.
Under the proposals, new life peers members would give an undertaking that they would serve a 15-year term before stepping down. Failure to step down would be a breach of the new code of conduct.
No party would be allowed an absolute political majority and a minimum of 20% of seats would be reserved for independent crossbench Members largely appointed by the House of Lords Appointment Commission; with political appointments shared between the parties in line with the result of the previous general election.
The proposals anticipate an accelerated “two-out, one-in” programme of departures until the house reached the target of 600.
In their report, the Speakers’ committee said: “we have devised a system which the House can implement effectively without legislation. What we envisage is rooted in a proposed understanding between the Government and the parties, underpinned by the willingness of members to bring about change using the inherent powers of the House and the provisions of the 2014 and 2015 Acts. Implementation of our proposals would be the clearest possible demonstration of the House’s determination to address its problems head-on.”
Because the composition of the bishops in the House of Lords is defined by statute – the Bishoprics Act 1878 – there would need to be primary legislation in the form of an Act of Parliament or a Measure of the Church of England’s General Synod to amend it.
“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,” the report says. “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.”
It is extremely rare for all 26 bishops to take their place in the House of Lords at the same time. A rota of “duty bishops” exists to ensure that a bishop is always available in the Lords on each sitting week. Other bishops attend when the agenda includes items on which they have expertise or particular interest.
Members of the House of Lords are not remunerated for their parliamentary duties, but are able to claim allowances and limited expenses. The role of bishops in the House of Lords was explored in a feature in the current (September) issue of Anglican World magazine, which focused on the Bishop of Southwark, Christopher Chessun.