Bishop of Chester speaks during debate on constitutional role of Leader of the House of Lords

On 28th July 2014, former speaker of the House of Commons, and Crossbench Peer the Rt Hon. the Baroness Boothroyd, moved a Motion to Regret in the House of Lords. The Motion stated:

That this House welcomes the appointment of Baroness Stowell of Beeston as Leader of the House of Lords, but regrets the decision of the Prime Minister to diminish the standing of the House by failing to make her a full member of the Cabinet; and requests that the Prime Minister reconsiders this decision.

The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster, took part in the debate on the motion. He spoke of the way in which power is distributed throughout the contemporary political system and how this distribution of power may need to be reconsidered if the public are to be re-engaged with the political process.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I want to associate these Benches fully with both sides of the Motion; first, the welcome to the noble Baroness in her role as Leader of the House and, secondly, the regrets that have been expressed already in our debate. Rather than focus on the details, I shall make a few comments about the wider symbolic significance of these events. A healthy society distributes power. The banking crisis arose partly because power got too concentrated in certain institutions and in a certain section of the financial community. Government, if it is about nothing else, is about the exercise of power. We have to accept and acknowledge that, and not try to deny it. The exercise of power calls for clear leadership, which is right, too.

Today, I sense that leaders of political parties—this is not a party-political point—feel so oppressed into the exercise of power and the clear profile of their leadership that they can be drawn into decisions that are sometimes unwise, and which would have been much better had there been more consultation and more time to think about it. Am I the only one who has a certain regret that our party leaders all seem so young these days? Is there not a certain wisdom of age, which perhaps is something we should think about?

In our society, we tend to have power exercised by the Government and the rights of the individual. That is the dialectic which is played out in our society. It tends to squeeze out intermediate institutions, but democracy depends on institutions that are not themselves creatures of government. The House of Lords is one such institution in a bicameral system. It is very important that the proper authority—the proper place—of the House is maintained, because of that vital place in our democracy.

I say in parenthesis—and perhaps it is not a welcome thing this evening—that our failure to engage in a proper evolutionary process of reform of the House has encouraged some people to look down on the role of the House. However, as has been said, the actual role of the House, for example in scrutinising legislation, is more significant now than it has ever been, because so much legislation simply is not scrutinised in the primary Chamber. That makes the demotion of the Leader of the House from the Cabinet a very significant event, in my view, because of our role in scrutinising that which the Commons has not the time, energy or will to scrutinise.

We live in a time when the Executive tend to dominate the legislature; when the Executive are seen rather cynically by many people in our country as exercising power in their own interest, or not in the interest of society as a whole. I would associate this with the progressively low turnouts at elections, which is something which we should be very concerned about in our democracy. People just cannot be bothered to vote, because they somehow think the power is not with them in the ballot box but with other people in government. Snap decisions, such as the way in which the role of the Lord Chancellor was changed—like the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I think that this does have a very similar feel to that passage—simply encourage the sense of an overdominant Government. The salary arrangements are another example of that unwise snap decision having to be repented of.

My final point is that I have always been somebody who rather values the fact that we have an unwritten constitution. However, I have gradually come to think that it would be better if certain aspects of how we do things were written down, so that the Government cannot simply ride roughshod over them. The fact that the Companion and Erskine May say one thing and the Prime Minister instantly can do something else should cause us quite serious thought about how our constitutional arrangements can be protected in the future.


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