On an almost seasonal basis, there are calls for the end of bishops in the House of Lords (HoL). At present, there are 26 Church of England (CoE) bishops who have places reserved for them in the upper house of Parliament. In total, there are786 members of the HoL (as of the 1st of April this year, according to Wikipedia), so the bishops only make up 3.3%. Opponents of the bishops posit that there should be no place for religious privilege and that therefore they should be kicked out. Such is the position of the British Humanist Association (BHA).
While I largely agree with the BHA on this issue, I think it misses the point. As I understand it, the historical reason for the bishops was that they could represent the people of their respective dioceses. So while members of the House of Commons would be elected on a regional basis, the bishops would have that same regional sense via their presence in the HoL, albeit their geographical areas spanned much larger regions than constituencies. This may once have been a reasonable basis, but it is now just one of the many aspects of the upper house which is outdated.
Since I started to become more politically aware of things in the early/mid 90s, I have heard talk of “Lord’s reform” crop up on a regular basis. While Tony Blair’s government instigated some changes, I don’t think they went anywhere near enough. The very existence of an appointed HoL flies is evidence which contradicts the claim that Parliament is a democracy. For that reason, I would welcome the proposal in the queen’s speech to reform its make-up.
My proposal to change the HoL would involve removing the places that are specially reserved for the bishops, but not to necessarily remove the bishops themselves. That is, they should not be given any place of special privilege but neither should they be discriminated against on the basis of the “religion”. But this would only be one tiny part of the reform and which I think the BHA focuses on far more keenly than an organisation which claims to value ‘reason’ ought to. As I have pointed out above, the bishops are very few in number, do not exercise their votes uniformly and the amount of influence they have is massively exaggerated by most of those who simply want to rid Parliament of them, without having a positive agenda for Parliamentary reform.
My view is that the whole HoL needs to be overhauled in the way that its members are determined. There are a few different ways this way be done and to be honest, I’ve not made up my mind on which would be better. I don’t have a complete hypothesis of how each would work, but I am confident that it would be an improvement on the modern system.
1) Wholly elected 2nd chamber. The number of members of the Lords should be fixed and then elections should take place as per elections for the House of Commons. To try to ensure independence (though by no means an absolute guarantee, that would be impossible) candidates who are or have been members of a political party would be barred from standing.
2) Mirror the jury system. Anyone who is on the electoral register may be called up for service. Each member would have to serve for a set period of time (maybe a year?). Again, anyone who had been a member of a political party would be exempted from selection.
3) Proportional representation. You may recall that I advocated the AV system in last year’s referendum on electoral reform, outlining why the first past the post system is not the best way of determining democratic will in an election with more than 2 candidates. So if we could not ban members of the Lords from having membership of or association with political parties, we could at least ensure that the proportional make-up of the Lords reflected the proportional casting of votes.
To take a hypothetical (and admittedly, slightly unrealistic) example let’s say that at the next election, where Labour were to win seats, they would them by a small majority, but the Conservatives win their seats by a large majority. On a constituency by constituency basis, Labour may win 55% of the seats in the Commons, but it’s conceivable that they might have only achieved 45% of the total votes cast. In such an instance, Labour would only be allowed 45% of the seats in the Lords.
I’m sure you can think of plenty of other possibilities, or even have a combination of measures. Yet either alone or together, these proposals would make the upper house more democratic than it is now. Some commentators in the wake of the queen’s speech were arguing that making the upper house democratic would put it on a par with the lower house and so undermine the authority of that latter house.
I don’t think this is a wholly bad thing. The idea of the upper house should be, in my opinion, the place where the lower house is challenged and held to account on individual bills. The act which enables the Commons to push through legislation regardless of the Lords abhors my sense of democratic fairness. Of course, the lower house is accountable in general elections, but these only occur once every 4 or 5 years, thus negating the idea that we actually live in a democracy. In truth, democracy is only a sporadic visitor to these shores, while hegemony is ordinarily resident.
What would then become of the bishops? Well, I don’t think an awful lot would change. Because when I had a flick through Hansard, what we find is that they don’t really participate much (though they are by no means unique in this). While they kicked up a fuss, and rightly so, about the government’s victimisation of the disabled in the form of the Welfare Reform Bill, even had those bishops who voted against the bill voted the other way, the result would have been the same. There were also many more secular peers who voted against the bill.
For those that may have spent some time in the Lords, taking them back to their local areas would allow them more time to do the job with they are tasked: making disciples, baptising them and teaching them about the life and work of Jesus.
The argument of needing them as a moral voice is a void one, as bishops are only representative of one denomination of one religion (however we might define that), and as I have argued before, religions do not have a monopoly on morality.
So by backing a reform of the House of Lords, my hope would be that we can make Parliament more closely resemble a democracy and free up the bishops to preach the gospel.
Of course, whether any change will actually occur is a wholly different matter…