House of Lords Reform Bill – speech by Bishop of Leicester

“I am sure, as are others, that this cannot be the end of the reform process for another generation.” – Bishop of Leicester

On 28th March 2014 the House of Lords debated a Bill that sought to enable Peers to retire their membership of the House, enforce retirement for non-attenders and expel those convicted of serious offences. This Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Lord Steel and Dan Byles MP, was given widespread support during its Second Reading debate, including by the Bishop of Leicester.

LeicesterThe Lord Bishop of Leicester:  My Lords, I, too, am deeply grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Steel, Lord Cormack and Lord Norton, and other noble Lords, for bringing us to this point.

I speak as a Member of your Lordships’ House not directly affected by the retirement and resignation provisions in Clauses 1 and 2 as they do not apply to Lords Spiritual. Nevertheless, as one representing the consistent and profound interest of this Bench and the Church of England in making progress in reform of your Lordships’ House, we are clear that this is a helpful, sensible, albeit modest step in the direction advocated by the Lords Spiritual for many years. I am grateful to Dan Byles for consulting church officials when the Bill was introduced in the other place and I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and others that it is vital that the Bill should pass unamended today.

Our present political landscape reveals widespread and profound reform of many of our major institutions in education, healthcare, local government and elsewhere. Our story in this House, as other noble Lords have remarked, is of a much more gradual, incremental journey of change which allows us the privilege, but also holds the responsibility, for demonstrating not only that we are serious about reform of this House but also that we are capable of delivering it. In that sense, the Bill is a small-scale test of the capacity of a self-regulating House to be an effective self-reforming House.

My service on the Joint Committee examining the coalition’s reform proposals led me to become something of a student of Lords reform history. Even the most cursory examination of that history reveals that two conditions are necessary for each step of change to be taken: first, they must be incremental, as indeed this is; and, secondly, they must respond to urgent need. This Bill fulfils that condition because of the increasing size of the House and because of the inadequacy of the House’s disciplinary proceedings following the expenses and lobbying scandals. Both these things, in different ways, undermine public trust in the parliamentary system, especially if the size of this Chamber grows to the point at which it can no longer effectively fulfil all its primary functions. Therefore, my hope is that the voluntary and compulsory retirement provisions in Clauses 1 and 2 may begin the process of cultural change that will in time create a norm of managed exit rather than an exit through natural, or what some of us might call supernatural, causes.

I mentioned that the provisions in Clauses 1 and 2 do not apply to the Lords Spiritual given the ex officio nature of our membership and the existing retirement provisions that apply to us. However, for the avoidance of doubt, your Lordships will be aware that the expulsion provisions in Clause 3 apply to the Lords Spiritual, which is as it should be, as in our response to the Government’s draft Lords reform Bill we said that we wanted to be treated equally to others in this regard.

In the event of the Bill passing, your Lordships might wish to consider in any scheme for retirement the present privileges accorded to the Lords Spiritual on retirement—which include club rights and the use of dining facilities and the Library, as well as the right to hear debates from the steps of the Throne—and to reflect on whether these might be extended to noble Lords who make use of the retirement provision. These provisions are certainly much appreciated by some on this Bench and would not lead to an overstretching of our present facilities.

The Bill will receive the support of this Bench as it addresses, as others have said, a sensible, necessary and pressing need. However, I am sure, as are others, that this cannot be the end of the reform process for another generation. Some of us on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill came to the conclusion in the alternative report, which we signed in addition to the main report, that there was merit in a constitutional convention—to which the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, referred in his moving and distinguished speech—to consider the next steps of further reform of this House and any consequential impact on the other place. We wrote in the preamble to that report:

“The Joint Committee was unable to deal with some of the broader issues concerning House of Lords reform which in our view lie at the heart of the argument about whether and how the House of Lords needs to be reformed and what needs to be done to achieve that in a way which would genuinely strengthen Parliament and the political process”.

That work still remains to be done. For today, let us pass this Bill and demonstrate that we are in earnest in preserving and developing the reputation, esteem and effectiveness of this House.

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Lord Jenkin of Roding (Con) [extract]…The right reverend Prelate—I almost called him “my noble friend” because he is—drew attention to what happens to bishops when they retire. Many of us will know how much that is appreciated by bishops when they are no longer able to sit as Members of this House, and I have to say that it is greatly appreciated by the rest of us because we can continue to enjoy their friendship in the premises here. That is of considerable importance. It already exists in two cases that I have mentioned, and why should it not happen for people who retire?…

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Lord Howarth of Newport (Lab) [extract]….I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester that the way to reform is incrementally and that the time to reform is when there is demonstrable need, but I also recognise that the call for radical reform is unlikely to go away. One can imagine a certain conjunction of political forces in which a coalition Government would again get the bit between their teeth and feel that they were entitled to legislate for radical constitutional change…

(via Parliament.uk)