Bishop of Leicester takes part in debate on role and reform of the House of Lords

On 12th December 2013, the Bishop of Leicester took part in a debate in the House of Lords, led by Lord Norton of Louth, on the size of the House of Lords.

LeicesterThe Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, this House owes a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his assiduous work towards creating a more effective second Chamber. As usual, he has today rehearsed very clearly and effectively the case for reducing its size.

It seems to me that the challenge is clear. In spite of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord True, there is surely overwhelming agreement with the fundamental proposition that this House is too large. The question, therefore, is to find ways not just of agreeing with the principle of creating a smaller House, but to give effect to it. In that sense, this debate is part of a wider discussion upon which hangs the reputation and credibility of the political class.

A noble and right reverend former Bishop of Durham said about Lords reform a few years ago:

“I would rather be a Member of an upper House which works effectively as a revising and scrutinising Chamber than retain membership of one which is not fit for purpose”.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not quote this in order to offer up this Bench for abolition but rather to make a different point about what will bring about change; namely, that the overriding issue for examination needs to be what makes for the good governance of our country. On that point hang successive submissions from the Church of England in the past 10 years, and I believe it is on this basis that the debate should proceed.

This Bench supports the thrust of the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. We passionately believe that the function and, therefore, the character and composition, of this House needs to be different from that of the other place. To achieve that, any reduction in size needs to maintain true and impartial accountability and to represent the breadth and diversity of civil society and intellectual life. Therefore, any reduction in numbers will need to have regard to the proportion of independent Members as the pressure for political appointees continues to mount.

We will see nothing but serious dysfunction if these principles are not given effect soon. The coalition agreement appears to enshrine the doctrine that membership of your Lordships’ House should reflect the proportions of votes cast at the 2010 election. Unless there is change, and if this doctrine continues to obtain, we all know that the consequence will rapidly become unmanageable. If the suspicion is to be allayed that the necessary limited reforms of this House are being frustrated in order to create the conditions for more radical reform, surely we need to proceed to action soon. This House is not, and never has been, a Chamber embodying the doctrine of proportional representation—our character, purpose and raison d’être lie elsewhere.

I speak from a Bench whose Members are required to accept the disciplines of a cap on numbers and a final retirement age. Certainly, those limitations have not prevented this Bench playing a full part in the range of policies and laws which come under scrutiny in this House. Indeed, a process of appointment which is time-limited and number-limited enables Members of this Bench to reflect our regional involvement and speak not out of self or party interest but rather reflect the truth that profound moral and ethical questions surround a great deal of the work of your Lordships’ House. From this experience we have consistently argued in favour of measures to allow for the expulsion, retirement and suspension of Members of a reformed House of Lords, believing those measures to be the interests of this House and of Parliament more widely.

However, we need to be open also to reform on this Bench. We have indicated in evidence to the Select Committee on the Clegg Bill that we would be willing to work with government to find ways in which a small Bench of Lords spiritual in a proportionally reduced House could continue to play its full part in its proceedings and offer rather more than is presently possible. More immediately, we have begun to explore the possibility of modification to the Bishoprics Act, which governs the succession of Lords spiritual after a vacancy, in order to make it possible for women who may be ordained as bishops in the next few years to be fast-tracked to this Bench. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister was able to give an encouraging response to the Second Church Estates Commissioner when asked about this recently at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Many of the issues raised by this debate were extensively explored by the Select Committee of both Houses, of which I was a member and which gave pre-legislative scrutiny to the Deputy Prime Minister’s reform Bill two years ago. I cannot remember a single witness to that committee, or a single member of it, arguing that the present size of this House is optimal. What we do here is of vital importance to the nation. We surely cannot tolerate increasing and inevitable dysfunctionality. My hope is that this debate will help us to define some practical proposals around which it will become possible for all of us to gather, and soon.

Lord Hill of Oareford: …We have talked about numbers this afternoon, and there has been talk, including by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my noble friend Lord Dykes, about packing the House and overcrowding. I listened to the figures adduced very carefully, but there are other figures. It is the case that the list of new Peers announced in August was the first political list for three years. I am afraid that I have to disagree strongly with the comments made in that context by my noble friend Lord Dykes. There are only 24 more eligible Members in the four main groups than there were in 2007, and I am not aware that in 2007 people were making the point that there were too many Peers in the House. There have certainly been new Peers created since 2010, but around 100 Members have sadly died or taken leave of absence over the same period. I argue that the figures also show that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been even-handed in his appointments. For example, 39 Labour Peers were appointed in his first year compared with 47 Conservatives, as my noble friend Lord True reminded us…

…A lot of important points have been raised. We are very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton for giving us the opportunity to consider them again. Some steps we have taken; we all look forward to the Byles Bill coming next year. I know that we will come back to these issues in future, including the one about women Bishops raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I know that the Government will do what they can to help the church take forward its desire to see women bishops in your Lordships’ House. But pending more fundamental reform that would decisively address the issues that have been raised, we should focus on the important job with which we are all tasked, and which we are performing very well. We are a House that has cut the cost of running itself and has increased opportunities for Back-Benchers to scrutinise the Government—and, above all, we are a House that continues to do its core job of scrutinising legislation rigorously, purposefully and effectively…


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