Bishop of Derby takes part in debate on the future of the House of Lords

“…we need a different kind of representation of the people besides that of MPs and those who vote for them. We need a supplementary system of representation that represents networks, groups, cultures and faiths—that whole complex ecology in which human beings live” – Bishop of Derby, 19/6/14

On 19th June 2014, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, took part in Baroness Taylor of Bolton’s take-note debate on the Labour Peers’ Working Group report on the future of the House of Lords and its place in a wider constitution. He spoke about the ability of the House of Lords to act as a advocate for a diverse number of voices from civil society and strengthen the democratic process.

Bishop of DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, it a great honour and privilege to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I have spent a lot of my ministry following his example and inspiration. I thank him for his contribution.

I am grateful for this report and for the clear presentation of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. I welcome the continuing debate and the whole style of incremental reform, which is the right approach. The report begins by recognising a significant feature of our times: widespread disengagement with our parliamentary system. We keep saying that and then just moving on. I want to ask us to stop and think about that phrase for a minute.

In the 21st century, we have to come to terms with what might be described as a turn to the self as a reference point: the privatisation of space and the dissolving of community and public space. People live in relationships that must always be negotiated rather than in what might be called “relatedness”, which is when you are given a connection with people through family, through neighbourhood and through country. In this kind of world we have to ask whether democracy as we understand it—one person, one vote—is fit for purpose. That is an important question. The simple accumulation of numbers is often undermined by the manipulation of highly organised pressure groups. That is the issue which we have to take seriously. The strongest forces in Parliament are not MPs and the people they represent, but lobbyists of particular interests and views. Lobbying is about power and self-interest. Of course it is important: it articulates useful things. However, because lobbyists already know what they want and what they think, they undermine the potential for debate and reflection.

If there is any truth in that kind of scenario, we have to work on two fronts. First, we need to look at reforming the House of Commons.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

The Lord Bishop of Derby: How can MPs and their local interests play a more significant part, and how can power be devolved back to the people? Secondly, we live in a complex world of competing interests. Many of them are highly organised and very sharp, so we need a different kind of representation of the people besides that of MPs and those who vote for them. We need a supplementary system of representation that represents networks, groups, cultures and faiths—that whole complex ecology in which human beings live. The genius of our present constitution is that we have both types of representation. We have democratic representation in so far as it is fit for purpose. However, there is the sheer complexity of the ecology and the fact that it can be prey to pressure groups. Then we have this House, which is full of all kinds of wisdom, experience and insight, which can reflect that complex ecology and, as a place of place of reflection and measurement, can bring it to what is being proposed.

We all accept that this is a secondary and supportive Chamber—the report refers to it being a partner and not a competitor—and that the primary power resides with the people. However, democracy—one person, one vote—is a very simplistic way of trying to manage power and influence. The space this House gives to a different kind of ecology of wisdom and experience through careful appointment is a very important part of the political process. It is not just an old-fashioned, out-of-date Chamber; it could be the most precious way of dealing with the complexities of the present and the future.

I support the call for a smaller House and for a retirement scheme. On these Benches, we model retirement as a way of operating. I will make a brief comment about working Peers. I take the point that was made about them, but my plea is that because Members of Parliament and Peers have a representational role in the wider world, we must allow people to work off-site as well as on-site. It is very important that that work is given priority.

Should Bishops be here? Others must decide that. However, while we are here, I hope that our Benches will very soon be graced by the appointment of women Bishops, which will greatly enhance our contribution. We bring, within the ecology I have spoken about, a particular kind of representation that is at the grassroots. I have a personal connection with every community in Derbyshire, which is a very interesting set of relationships to be involved in. Another important principle is that the diversity of faiths is represented. I support the call for a constitutional commission, which has also been supported by my colleagues the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester.

I will finish by saying something about robes, which noble Lords might expect me to say. When you are in a public role you are not just you, as John or Mary; you have a representative role. Certainly in my trade, pitching up on occasion in robes—in role—helps people to understand who I am, what I am about and what I represent. We have to think carefully about accepting a commission to be public figures with public responsibilities and then think we can simply be ordinary people alongside others. We have great responsibilities and great authority is placed in us, and it is not a bad thing on certain occasions to model that.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Does the right reverend Prelate agree that someone who has the greatest authority in the whole world does not have to have a robe; namely, the President of the United States of America?

The Lord Bishop of Derby: That is another debate. If we were debating the American constitution, I might have some even stronger things to say about that.



Responses from other Peers:

Baroness Taylor of Bolton (Opening Speech): …As far as the Bishops are concerned, we make no recommendations. Putting it mildly, there were strong views on both sides. I recall one of my senior colleagues in another place telling me that House of Lords reform would come to a full stop with any Bill that included the abolition of the Bishops. I am not sure whether that is true, but we decided not to go there, such was the strength of feeling both ways…

Baroness Taylor of Bolton (Winding Speech): …I have some sympathy with what my noble friend Lord Dubs said about Bishops…


Lord Dubs: …I noted what the right reverend Prelate said about robes. His argument would be that we should wear them all the time—heaven forbid. The problem, as my noble friend said, is that whenever there is a photograph of Members of this House, we are always wearing those robes and we look totally out of date for modern times. Frankly, it is just not a sensible way forward. I should like to add to that the suggestion that we get rid of titles. If one is introduced or if one introduces oneself with a title, the other person—if they are a normal human being—looks at us as if we are complete nerds, or they become entirely deferential. Neither is a sensible way to have a rapport with anybody. It stands in the way of our dealing and engaging with ordinary people…

I shall just tiptoe on thin ice on the subject of Bishops. I believe that many of them make an enormously useful contribution to this House, but they do it because of the individuals they are. If Bishops are to continue to sit in this House, I should like them to be appointed or elected to it in the same way as everyone else.

I fear that my next comment will offend the right reverend Prelate. He criticised lobbyists. That is fair enough. However, I fear that I shall make a lot of enemies by saying that the only paid lobbyists in this House are the Bishops. That is an anomaly.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: I thank the noble Lord for that comment which deserves a response. Bishops do not represent the Church of England in this House but seek to represent some of the feelings in their diocese as a whole. As the right reverend Prelate said, he is in touch with all the communities in Derby. The Bishops are not pursuing the interests of the Church of England alone but also representing other faith communities.

Lord Dubs: I hear what the noble and right reverend Lord says. However, I stick by my point: we took care to avoid having paid lobbyists in this House, and we should ensure that we do not apply that principle selectively. However, as the group said, we should leave that matter to a constitutional commission. This is not a bad report. I welcome it and hope that the House will endorse it.


Lord Dykes: …I disagree with the right reverend Prelate, who has left his place, that robes are important. They are for individual officeholders but not for the collectivity. Therefore, the way in which this is dealt with in the future is crucial…


Baroness Bakewell: …This is a tremendously interesting report. It is an interim report. But it lost its nerve by not mentioning the Bishops. I am one of a group of people who are not eligible to sit on the Bishops Benches at all—I refer to women. There are no women and they are not going to be elected. Will Bishops be elected? How do the Bishops get their role? The whole issue of the presence of the Bishops is extremely interesting and is bound to change. In the course of its changing, we may well hear arguments for representatives of other religions in our society also to have a place in this Chamber. We are very conscious these days—are we not?—of the mix of religion and politics. The idea that you could have token members of different religions, primarily there by virtue of their religion, is a dangerous path. Again, it is a footnote, but this is an issue that will come up and be pressed by the many religious communities. But where do you stop? There are a large number of them.


Lord Smith of Clifton: …Many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, have said that we need to look closely at reform of the House of Commons. If there is a constitutional commission, it must set about that as a first step, a precursor to wider issues, because if we have proposals to reform and modernise the House of Commons, it will make the Commons more confident to contemplate reforms elsewhere in our system of government. That is very important. As other noble Lords have alluded to, the Commons is not a very self-confident place these days. Not only has it had the expenses scandal to cope with, as my former student the right honourable Peter Hain has just shown, the quality of MPs now coming into the Commons is very poor in respect of being a self-perpetuating group of political people who, from being president of their student union, go to work for a research department, then become a spad, then become an MP and then become a Cabinet Minister. As Peter Hain pointed out, that is at the heart of the alienation between electors and the elected.

Thirdly—again, the right reverend Prelate referred to this—there is the growth of pressure groups, in particular, the growing encroachment of corporations in dictating the public agenda. What President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex has also emphasised the decline in the position and powers of Westminster. If you want political power today, become a director of a multinational corporation and you will have much more influence on public policy, not just in this country but in most countries.


The Earl of Caithness: …However, we ought not to be considering reform of the Lords without the wider context. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said, reform of the other place is just as important as reform of this one. While I am on Bishops, or indeed past Bishops, I say to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, that defeats are but a small part of what this House does. When I was a Minister I was much more interested in getting a compromise with the other side. There was therefore no Division and it did not strike a headline, but it was actually better for the country to do it that way round…


Lord Borrie: …I want to comment on two matters, both of which the group regarded as either too difficult, and therefore put into the “too difficult” tray, or in some other way not appropriate for it to go into, perhaps owing to a large number of disagreements.

The first is the matter of religious groups. Here I come in to attack the Bishops’ Benches, and I am glad that there are two of them there now because there was a danger a short while ago that nobody would be there. In recent years various religious groups have increasingly found membership of this House by the Appointments Commission, and the rest of us in this House have welcomed that a Sikh, a Muslim or two, rabbis from the Jewish faith and, of course, quite a few non-conformist Christian groups have been so represented. In other words, Bishops are no longer the only people representing a particular religious faith.

Perhaps, of course, I should emphasise that the Bishops have a specially privileged position. The matter has been raised by a number of noble Lords this afternoon and my understanding is that, at any given moment, the two Archbishops, the Bishops of Winchester, London and Durham, plus 21 other Bishops in accordance with the seniority of their appointment, are eligible to sit in this House. That is a total of 26. Compared with the other religions that I mentioned, which may have some limited representation through the Cross Benches, that is an extraordinary number which could hardly be justified in the long term. However, when changes are made in this House, the short term seems to become the long term. I am not sure whether the Bishops would agree with me but surely, in any new House, the representation of Bishops must be changed.


There we have the usual mix of views from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Lord Lea of Crondall: I ask my noble friend Lord Borrie to note not only the long history of many centuries but that the established church is part of the equation, as are prayers at the beginning of the Sitting. This would widen considerably what the constitutional commission would look at. Could this not be considered by a different constitutional commission? That needs to be thought about.

Lord Borrie: I note what my noble friend is saying. My feeling is that, despite this being a difficult question in terms of history—and it certainly seems to be regarded by a number of colleagues through the House of Lords generally as an embarrassing question to raise—I would like to hear whether the Bishops have any agreement at all with me as regards the 26 Bishops who are entitled to sit being a permanent feature of this House…


Lord Cormack: I would just say to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, that the Bishops are here because we have in this country an established church, and everyone who lives in this country—regardless of his race, colour or creed—is entitled to the ministrations of that church. There is a case, although it is one that I would strongly refute, for disestablishment. But while we have establishment, the Bishops are here. That is why the group that produced this excellent report was entirely right—

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords—

Lord Cormack: I shall give way in a minute. It was entirely right to put that issue on one side, because it is another issue, and there are powerful arguments on both sides.


Lord Phillips of Sudbury: …As a low and doubting Anglican, I cannot resist mentioning the reverberating debate about the Bishops. I do not see why—indeed, I see every reason to the contrary—the Bishops cannot be paralleled by the leaders of other faiths. I would like to see a leading Hindu or Muslim or two and so on. That would add to the richness of our debates…


Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: …On the question of the Bishops, one treads carefully. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I think that it is inevitably entwined with the establishment of the Church of England, the position of Her Majesty the Queen as Supreme Governor and the fact that many legislative measures that come from the church have to be approved by Parliament. I suspect that until the Church of England itself wishes to be disestablished, which I do not think can be ruled out in the long term, Bishops will continue to play a valuable role in your Lordships’ House, and we should certainly extend membership to other religions. However, this is a cul-de-sac down which I would not particularly wish to go…


Lord Wallace of Tankerness: …The need to reflect diversity across the UK is a tremendous problem, which election on a regional basis would resolve, as of course would indirect election. I am struck by the number of Peers who raised the question of indirect election in this debate, as it has not received very much attention until recently. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Trimble, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and other noble Lords mentioned it. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, talked about it having an occupational or functional basis—a sort of guild socialist approach. The Cross Benches, after all, are well organised: the academies, in particular the medics, always put forward their members. Incidentally, when it comes to lobbies, I have to say to right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby that the biggest lobby in this House is the academic lobby—I hope he has noticed that I used to be part of it myself…

…I end by simply reminding the House—in particular the noble Lord, Lord Richard, whom I remember laughing as I said it—that in answer to a rather sharp question some time ago on why the Church of England had not got around to appointing women bishops, I suggested that the Church of England might well appoint its first woman bishop before we achieved the next significant stage of House of Lords reform. I think it is quite possible that we shall have half a Bench of women bishops here before we achieve the next stage of House of Lords reform, but let us keep going and hope to achieve it soon…