When Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, revealed in 1983 that he had voted in the recent general election (though not who for), he was unlikely to have imagined that it would give rise to newspaper headlines and questions in parliament. He had not broken the law, though the subsequent debate shone a light on an otherwise little-known feature of the House of Lords.
Though Peers are entitled to vote in local and regional elections, referendums and elections to the European and devolved parliaments, their disqualification from voting at UK general elections is a longstanding rule. An explanation for this, and its history, can be found in this very helpful briefing note produced by the Lords Library as background for Labour Peer Lord Dubs’ 2013 ‘Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill’.
In that paper, the author explains why bishops are not subject to the same restrictions on voting:
“Bishops are not Peers of the Realm and sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. Consequently Bishops are able to vote at general elections….This right is not without controversy however.”
Lord Dubs, in introducing his Bill to give Peers the right to vote in general elections, pressed what he considered to be the anomaly:
“the prohibition on voting in parliamentary elections does not even apply to all Members of this House—I think we all know who I am talking about. The Lords Spiritual have the right to vote, though they sometimes do not avail themselves of it. It would not be compulsory to vote; all I am saying is that we should be on the same basis as the Lords Spiritual. The present position lacks logic and is unsustainable.” (Lords Hansard 5/7/13)
In reply, the Minister Lord Wallace of Saltaire, suggested that the reason for difference in treatment was not only due to the difference in category between Lords Temporal and Spiritual but also due to the temporary nature of the bishops’ membership:
“he [Lords Dubs] remarked that Bishops in the House of Lords can vote without remarking that that is because they do not have permanent membership of your Lordships’ House. They retire at 70, well before the onset of statutory senility.”
The Bill did not become law and the prohibition remains.
In recent times a convention has developed amongst the bishops of not voting at general elections, so refraining from exercising a right that is unavailable to the remaining 97% or so of the Upper House. However it is ultimately up to each Lord Spiritual to decide what to do at general election time.
Speaking in the House of Lords over two decades after the Runcie incident, the Bishop of Chester said,
“Members of the House may not be aware that those on the Bishops’ Benches can vote in general elections. We are here only in a spiritual capacity; that is why we retire. However, the last known instance of a Bishop voting was when Archbishop Runcie could not resist the opportunity to vote against Mrs Thatcher. He was found out and apologised thereafter.” (Lords Hansard, 13/6/07)
In 2010, shortly before the start of that year’s general election campaign, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds raised the issue again in the Lords:
“Would the Minister confirm that it is in order for Lords Spiritual, who are not Peers, to vote in general elections, and that they should therefore be encouraged like all good citizens to use their vote?” (Lords Hansard 16/3/10)
In response to that, the Minister Lord Bach gave a reminder of the convention:
“There is no bar to the Lords spiritual voting in parliamentary elections. However, I understand that it has long been the tradition that they do not do so. While they are not Peers, they none the less sit in this House and can therefore participate in person in the proceedings of Parliament instead of being represented in the House of Commons. There is no legal bar to the Lords spiritual voting in a general election; it is very much a matter for them.”
Finally, to return to 1983 and Archbishop Runcie. On June 29th 1983 Earl Onslow tabled a question in response to the media’s coverage of the Archbishop’s admission, ‘to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether Lords Spiritual have the right to vote in parliamentary elections.’ The short debate on the question is reproduced in full below (and can also be seen on the UK Parliament webpages here).
Apart from the assurances given to the House by the then Bishop of Derby, perhaps the most significant parts are the first exchanges, where the Earl admits that 26 votes are unlikely to have much impact on parliamentary elections, and the response of the Minister, Lord Elton, that it was in his view a matter of academic, rather than constitutional significance.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton): My Lords, Lords Temporal are disqualified from voting at parliamentary elections at common law. The question of whether Lords Spiritual can vote at parliamentary elections has never been expressly considered by the courts.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, after 800 years of the existence of your Lordships’ House (or is it 700? I am not quite sure) is it not time that this particular point was clarified? Is my noble friend aware that I would agree—I hope he is aware that I would agree, but, if not, is he so aware—that 26 votes are not going to have a catastrophic influence upon the outcome of a parliamentary election? Furthermore, is it not verging on the irresponsible to take it upon oneself to produce a new piece of constitutional law—which, I believe, took place in the electoral district of Vauxhall at the last election?
Lord Elton: My Lords, I agree with the first inference of my noble friend’s supplementary question: that the votes of the entire Bench of Bishops would not reverse what would otherwise be the outcome of any general election. I therefore feel that the outcome of any other inquiries is of academic rather than constitutional significance.
Lord Shinwell: My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has just stated that the matter of Lords Spiritual voting in general elections has never been considered by the courts. Is it a matter to be considered by the courts? Is it not a matter to be decided by the House? Could this matter not be decided by a simple vote? If there is no one prepared to do that, then I am prepared to move that in future Lords Spiritual be precluded from voting in parliamentary elections unless every one of us is entitled to the same privilege.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I recognise the enthusiasm of the noble Lord to defend constitutional propriety. I understand that the courts became the proper arbiters of electoral procedure some time towards the end of the last century, although I am open to correction on the date. It is also generally accepted that it is not up to Members of this House to determine the composition of another place. However, as I said before, the impact of 26 widely scattered votes is hardly likely to do that.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord the Minister for his interesting replies, and speaking as one who since becoming a Member of this House has always regarded himself as a disqualified person—and who has been helped along the path of sanity and virtue by seeing the letter “L” against his name in the register of voters and by not receiving a polling card—may I ask whether the noble Lord the Minister is aware that neither the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury nor any other Lord Spiritual has any desire or intention to take this matter any further, and nor will any of us in future knowingly go against tradition and custom in this matter?
Lord Elton: My Lords, I am much obliged to the right reverend Prelate for his question. I am certain that we can depend on the Prelates always to restrict themselves to the paths of sanity and virtue.
Lord Underhill: My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister not agree that it is not a question of whether or not 26 individual votes would have any effect on a general election but rather that every Member of this House is free to take part in voting in this House—including the Lords Spiritual, and we welcome the fact that they do take part—and therefore we should all be in the same position when it comes to voting in parliamentary elections? Is not that the important issue? Do the Government recognise that; and if they do recognise it, will they do something?
Lord Elton: My Lords, if the noble Lord’s envy is excited by the possible defection by the Bishops’ Benches from the powers of abstinence, I hope that his fears will now be allayed by the assurance he has just been given by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is it not quite unsatisfactory that the Constitution should in effect be altered by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby promising that Bishops and their successors will not vote in general elections? That is not legally binding. Furthermore, would it not be advisable that this matter should in effect be sorted out by taking it to the courts? We cannot leave the Constitution in the vague situation that exists at the moment.
Lord Elton: My Lords, the answer given by my noble friend to the previous substantive oral question impinges on this. My noble friend Lord Onslow has imputed to the right reverend Prelate a promise, when he made only a statement of intent. As to bringing this matter before the courts, I really feel that this is a case of de minimis non curat lex.
Lord Nugent of Guildford: My Lords, is my noble friend Lord Elton not aware that an undertaking by one of the Lords Spiritual is probably more reliable than undertakings of noble Lords who are Ministers, which we were discussing a little earlier?
Lord Elton: My Lords, I understand that although the Bishops are Lords Spiritual they are not Peers. This means that we are not all equal, and my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford obviously agrees that they are, in this respect at least, slightly our superiors.
Lord Mowbray and Stourton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Elton suggested that if the 26 Bishops were to vote that would have little effect. But is it not the case that if 26 Lords Spiritual were all to announce in public before a general election their view on how they thought the vote should go this would have an enormous effect on any general election, with people taking the advice of such wise and holy men?
Lord Elton: My Lords, if my noble friend belonged to my Church he might believe that it was even more effective if they were to pray about it.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the noble Lord the Minister not agree that there is likely to be independent non-statutory machinery in a higher place for monitoring non-statutory undertakings by the right reverend Prelates?
Lord Elton: My Lords, there is only one place higher than this; I do not know when the noble Lord intends to go there.
Lord Oram: My Lords, is not the right to vote a much more serious question than some of the questions and answers have implied today, in view of the history of the struggle to get that right to vote? If in any way the law is in doubt, should not the Government legislate to remove that doubt? Do not the Acts perfectly describe certain other categories of people who are disqualified from voting, and would it not be appropriate to so define those who sit on the Bishops’ Bench?
Lord Elton: My Lords, I can really only return to my earlier answer, that I do not think this is a matter of such great importance—philosophic importance, yes—but in practical importance, not sufficient to engage the time of both Houses of Parliament in research and legislation.
Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, should this matter be moved in any direction at all, would it not be better to move it in the direction of giving us all votes, and this removing us from the somewhat surprising category of aliens, infants, certified lunatics and convicted felons, and—
Lord Elton: My Lords, I was hoping that the noble Viscount would continue after the conjunction and provide me with time to devise an answer to the first part of his question.
Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, I will do so willingly. I was further going to suggest that perhaps the noble Lord would have the support of the Opposition in this because they are determined as soon as they possibly can to make us into “disa-peers”.
Lord Elton: My Lords, I am suspicious of measures which have the support of the Opposition.
Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, would not the noble Minister agree that if one once starts legislating about the House of Lords who knows where it may end?