MPs Pass the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill – debate transcript

Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

House of Commons, 19th January 2015


Westminster-abbey3.37 pm

Allocation of Time

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake):

I beg to move,

That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill–


1.- (1) Proceedings on Second Reading, in Committee, on consideration and on Third Reading shall be completed at this day’s sitting…..

The motion applies to the proceedings on the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill. The motion timetables all stages of the Bill, guaranteeing six hours debate, with up to four hours on Second Reading and a further two hours for Committee and remaining stages.

This is a short, single-issue Bill that the Government have introduced in response to the recent decision by the Church of England to allow women to be consecrated as bishops. The provisions will fast-track female diocesan bishops in the House of Lords, as current legislation will otherwise mean it would be many years before female bishops could take seats on the Lords Spiritual Benches.

More will be said about the detail of the provisions and the necessity for this legislation when we come to debating the Bill itself. This is an important Bill, strongly supported by both the Government and the Church, and it has broad support across the House. It is a tightly focused Bill with only one substantive clause, and it is for that reason that the motion allocates six hours for debate. I commend the motion to the House.

3.37 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op):

This is an important Bill and it has Labour’s support. As the Minister has said, the change proposed is significant, but it is also very straightforward. We are, therefore, content to support all of the stages being considered today.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

Second Reading

3.38 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake):

I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Sam Gyimah):

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has been brought forward by the Government in response to the welcome decision by the Church of England to allow the ordination of female bishops. It will ensure that female diocesan bishops can join their male counterparts on the Lords Spiritual Benches sooner than they would have done under the current rules.

Bishops have attended Parliament from its earliest beginnings. In the first Parliaments, abbots as well as bishops and archbishops attended as Lords Spiritual alongside the nobles and peers of the realm—the Lords Temporal. Several Archbishops of Canterbury served mediaeval kings as Lord Chancellor. After the Reformation, abbots ceased to be Lords Spiritual. In the reformed Church of England, there were 26 diocesan bishops, all of whom had the right to sit as Lords Spiritual.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):

I am sorry to bring a note of discord to the proceedings, but I am bound to observe that the whole arrangement is for one denomination of the Christian Church. If we are to have religious people in the other place in the 21st century, surely they should be more representative of all Christian denominations and, indeed, should reflect all faiths.

Mr Gyimah:

The Bill is very focused. It does not seek to change the composition or powers of the House of Lords, but to allow something that will happen anyway—the admission of female bishops to the House of Lords—to happen sooner than it otherwise would.

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con):

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Church of England provides a structure right across the country for faiths to come together? It is the only Church of any size to do so and, as such, it plays a vital role. Other faiths support the role of bishops in the other place; it is not controversial, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said.

Mr Gyimah:

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very valid point. The Bill is not controversial. As the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), has pointed out, it has cross-party support from Members throughout the House. It is not to do with the composition of the House of Lords.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con):

Through the Minister, may I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) what Her Majesty the Queen said at the start of her diamond jubilee year? She said:

“The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”

Mr Gyimah:

I could not put have put it better or more eloquently than my right hon. Friend.

We lost the bishops, briefly, under Cromwell’s commonwealth, but they were welcomed back to Parliament at the restoration. No new bishoprics were created until 1847, when the population had increased and previously small towns were becoming industrial cities. The Church responded by increasing the number of bishops, but it was agreed that the new bishops would not add to the number of Lords Spiritual. The Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847 and subsequent Acts kept the number of Lords Spiritual at 26. The Government have introduced the Bill in a similar spirit to those Acts, which adapted the constitutional arrangements in line with the changes made by the Church as it modernised.

The current arrangements by which Lords Spiritual sit in the House of Lords are set out in the Bishoprics Act 1878. Twenty six bishops—the two Church of England archbishops and 24 of its diocesan bishops—are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. Five of the 26 bishops automatically receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords on the basis of their see: the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):

Given that women in the Church have waited so long for this to happen, and that many of them hold senior positions but are not yet bishops, does the Minister think that we might see a woman automatically going into one of those five senior positions rather than having to work her way through the diocesan route?

Mr Gyimah:

That is an interesting point, but it is a matter for the Church. The Bill seeks to affect the process by which female bishops can enter the House of Lords, but the question of which female bishops occupy which position is a matter for the Church. I agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment that women have waited for this for a long time.

The remaining 21 bishops take their seats on the basis of seniority. When a vacancy occurs, it is filled by the longest-serving bishop, and that is why we have the Bill before us today. Clearly, the present seniority rules mean that it would be many years before a female bishop would be eligible to sit in the House of Lords. In consequence, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with the Lords Spiritual and others, requested on behalf of the Church of England that amendments be made to the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 to enable female bishops to enter the House of Lords sooner than they would under the current rules.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):

As a Stockport Member of Parliament, I was delighted when Rev. Libby Lane was appointed Bishop of Stockport. However, she is a suffragan bishop and will therefore have no automatic right to take a seat in the other place. What assessment has the Minister made of the Church of England’s ability to appoint women bishops to represent dioceses, so that they will become eligible to sit in the other place?

Mr Gyimah:

The length of time involved will be a matter for the Church. The Bill, which could come into effect by the end of this Parliament, would mean that whenever a vacancy occurred in the House of Lords, a female bishop occupying a diocesan seat would be able to leapfrog the next male bishop in line. So we could see the first female bishop in the House of Lords as early as the start of the next Parliament, but the question of who that will be is a matter for the Church. I shall say more about that later.

The arrangements that the Bill will put in place will last for 10 years, by which time it is expected that there will be a pool of both male and female bishops. This is therefore a temporary arrangement that will sunset at the end of that 10-year period, by which time it is anticipated that the issue it is intended to address will have ceased to exist.

Andrew Gwynne:

I accept what the Minister says about introducing measures to allow women bishops to leapfrog others so that they can be appointed to the House of Lords, and I appreciate that individual appointments are a matter for the Church, but what assessment has he made of the number of bishops in the Church of England who are coming up for retirement? That assessment could be useful in informing us about the appointment of women diocesan bishops.

Mr Gyimah:

It is not for the Government to make such an assessment, but we believe that the 10-year period will allow enough time for the Church to appoint a sufficient number of women as diocesan bishops and that, once they have become eligible for appointment to the House of Lords, they will be able to fill those positions as and when they become available. However, that is a matter for the Church, and the Bill has been put together in consultation with the Church, which will ultimately control the number of bishops. Ten years is seen as sufficient time in which to enable the Lords Spiritual to reflect the number of women bishops.

Sir Tony Baldry:

As my hon. Friend will be aware, several diocesan vacancies—in Gloucester, in Oxford and in Southwell and Nottingham—are being considered at the moment by the Crown Nominations Commission. It is perfectly possible that one—or indeed all—of those new diocesan bishops could be a woman. The Bill will ensure that if and when they are consecrated, they will be able to go straight into the House of Lords without having to wait behind every male bishop who is, at present, ahead of them in the queue. Depending on when those dioceses determine who they have as their new diocesan bishops—that will depend to a certain extent on the Crown Nominations Commission—we could see a woman bishop in the House of Lords very speedily.

Mr Gyimah:

My right hon. Friend makes the point clearly. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) asked about the Government assessment, but, as my right hon. Friend points out, vacancies are available. I would not want to speculate from the Dispatch Box on whether a vacancy will be filled by a male or a female, but the Church has shown its commitment to increase the number of female bishops and the number of female bishops who become members of the Lords Spiritual. That is, after all, why we are here today. One retirement from the Bishops’ Bench in the next Parliament has already been announced: the Bishop of Leicester will retire on 11 July 2015.

Diana Johnson:

I wonder whether the Minister will be able to help me to understand this fully. An assessment has been made, because 10 years is the time period in the Bill for when the sunset clause will come into effect. On that basis, is the assessment that in 10 years’ time we will have 50:50 male and female bishops in the House of Lords? What does the Minister think will be the position after 10 years?

Mr Gyimah:

There are no quotas and there is no target for 50:50 representation. The intention of the Bill is to enable the Church to fast-track women bishops into the House of Lords. The system, as it currently operates, is based on length of service. If we allow it to operate, then even in 10 years’ time it is theoretically possible that we will not have any women bishops at all. The Bill will allow the Church to reflect on the number of women bishops represented in the House of Lords, but there is no target. This is not about 50:50, but about being able to reflect the fact that women bishops, appointed on merit, can serve in the House of Lords and not be limited by the rules on length of service.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):

Why is there a need for a sunset clause? I do not understand why we feel that everything will have been solved in 10 years. Would it not be better to leave it open-ended and repeal the legislation in 10 years’ time if we feel that the situation has been dealt with? I would hope that in 10 years’ time we will have moved to a democratically elected House of Lords.

Mr Gyimah:

The 10 years is because the Church believes that that will be enough time to ensure that the Bishops’ Bench better reflects the gender diversity in the Church. At the end of 10 years, there is nothing to stop the Government of the time asking for the Bill to be extended. We are responding to the request of the Church. Whether it is 10, 20 or 30 years, it is down to the Church. Women bishops will end up serving in the Lords based on how fast they are appointed as bishops. The key driver is not the length of the sunset clause per se, but how speedily the Church appoints women to be bishops.

Sir Oliver Heald:

If one looks at the experience of women priests—who now make up roughly half of the priests out there—there is no reason to think that there will not be plenty of women bishops coming through. This provides an opportunity for them to go into the House of Lords.

Mr Gyimah:

Indeed. The Church proceeded speedily with women priests and I suspect it would move speedily with the appointment of women bishops, based on merit. The Bill would ensure, as I have pointed out, that female diocesan bishops, as they are appointed, will not have to wait to join the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual.

The Church’s decision to ordain women has been gradual and has taken place over the past 30 years or so. It has been something of a journey for the Church, beginning in 1975 when the General Synod passed the motion

“that there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women into the priesthood”.

In 1985, it passed legislation to allow women to become deacons; in 1992, it allowed women to become priests; and in 2014, it took the historic decision, warmly welcomed in this House and elsewhere, that women as well as men could become bishops. Last December, the Rev. Libby Lane was announced as the future suffragan bishop of Stockport in the diocese of Chester. As a suffragan, rather than diocesan bishop, she is not yet eligible to join the Lords Spiritual.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con):

Just in case the Minister is coming to the end of his remarks, may I refer him back to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell)? Tomorrow, in the chapter house of Westminster, 100 yards away, we will be celebrating the 750th anniversary of our first Parliament. Back then, of course, every bishop would have been Catholic. I and my hon. Friend are not asking for a statement today. Bearing in mind the fact that women priests unfortunately make union between our two Churches less likely, we simply ask that the Government have an open mind about allowing bishops of other denominations to enter the House of Lords.

Mr Gyimah:

As the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), made it clear during the brief debate on the timetable motion that this is a tightly focused Bill with one substantive clause, and that is what we would like to focus on today.

The Bill would come into effect on the first day of the next Parliament. Subject to the Church appointing a female diocesan bishop, we could therefore have a female bishop among the Lords Spiritual as early as next year. The Bill is supported by the Church and the Opposition. It has been brought forward by the Government, working closely with the Church, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the bishops, senior clergy and Church officials for their help. In particular, I thank the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I am delighted to see in the Gallery today.

This is a modest but important Bill, and it has one simple aim: to bring female bishops among the Lords Spiritual sooner rather than later. Given how long women have waited to become bishops, that is right. The House of Lords should not have to wait for an unknowable period before its Lords Spiritual Benches reflect the new make-up of the episcopate. I look forward to further debating these provisions in today’s debates.

3.57 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op):

The Bill has a single and momentous purpose: to enable vacancies among Church of England bishops in the House of Lords to be filled by female bishops, instead of the male bishops who would otherwise have become Members of the House under the current law. It is about recognising the important reform that the Church has undertaken and ensuring it is reflected fully in Parliament.

As the Minister said, the journey has been long, and there has been heated and passionate debate within both the Church and wider society. Over 20 years ago, the Church decided women could be priests. It took a long time, but the success of equality campaigners shows the merits of considered and careful argument taking on a thorny issue and creating a consensus about the need for change, and on 17 November 2014, the General Synod enacted the final legislation necessary to allow women to become bishops.

The Bill represents an important milestone towards gender equality. As the Minister said, if the arrangements legislated for under the Bishoprics Act 1878 were left unamended, it would take years for a newly appointed diocesan bishop to become sufficiently senior to take a place in the House of Lords. For that reason, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with the Lords Spiritual, requested that changes be accelerated to allow the entry of female bishops into the House of Lords. The Opposition welcome this important change. We applaud the Church’s decision to appoint female bishops and we support its decision to speed up their introduction into the House of Lords.

We are proud of Labour’s record on reform of the House of Lords and the equality agenda. In government, we removed all but 92 of the hereditary peers. We created an elected Lord Speaker and a Supreme Court and we introduced people’s peers. We were the party that introduced the Equality Act 2010, establishing a clear legislative platform to tackle discrimination, including barriers to women in all areas of public life. Against that background, the significance of today’s Bill cannot be overestimated.

For the Church, allowing women to take up a diocese will show a renewed relevance. Experience from other countries is interesting. Research from Denmark shows the effect the Church of Denmark’s decision to promote gender equality has had on the service and presence of the Church in communities up and down the country, with a renewed emphasis on pastoral work and delivering everyday, often practical help to families and communities. Having women at the very top of any organisation not only ensures a female perspective and voice at the top table; it can also improve that organisation’s ability to achieve its wider aims. Research has also shown that female clergy are often less interested in tribal conflicts within the Church and more focused on getting the work done for their members and the community. That is perhaps yet another argument for improving female representation in this place as well.

We should not forget the effect this change will have on wider society. Although church attendance is not as high as it used to be and more people do not identify with any faith, the Church of England remains the established Church in England. It is central to many state occasions and many other aspects of community life. Its presence in wider society remains important. We know from our constituencies, including my own, the impact the Churches have, including the Church of England—for example, in running food banks and working with homeless people and various other community groups—as well as the crucial role the Church plays in education. Although operating in different ways, the Church remains a vital institution in our society, so to have gender equality at the very top of its hierarchy is a necessary and long overdue step in the modern world. Ensuring that that is properly reflected here in Parliament seems to me a basic step in affirming this important change.

Let me say something about the broader context of reform of the other place. In supporting the Bill, the Opposition are in no way moving away from our commitment to a democratic second Chamber. We favour an elected senate of the nations and regions, which would ensure a clear voice for the nine English regions in the other place, as well as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sir Edward Leigh:

Presumably the Opposition are also open-minded about representatives of other religions and denominations being Members of the House of Lords.

Stephen Twigg:

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Part of the argument that I would make for a democratic second Chamber would be about ensuring that the diversity of our modern society is reflected, including people who are from or are representatives of other faiths. There are practical issues with different faiths, such as the representative institutions they have, but as we debate reform of the other place it is absolutely right that, in seeking to have a second Chamber that is a senate of the regions and nations, the diversity of faiths is reflected, alongside the representation of the Church of England.

Diana Johnson:

I am very interested to hear what my hon. Friend is saying. He paid tribute to the role of the established Church in this country and then said that it is important, if there is reform of the House of Lords, that other faiths are reflected. Does he think there is a special place for the established Church, while it remains established, in any second Chamber?

Stephen Twigg:

My hon. Friend is tempting me to go beyond the realms of this legislation. Let me say this in answer to her. Personally, I am in favour of fully electing the second Chamber, which clearly has implications for whether any Church or other faith is directly represented in it. However, it is important that we engage fully with all sections of society as we look at reforming the second Chamber. That is why, as we said, we think this matter should be considered by a citizen-led constitutional convention, to be set up as soon as possible to examine precisely how we best ensure a senate of the nations and regions. The very proper point my hon. Friend has raised about what that means for direct representation through the bishops in the second Chamber should be part of that consideration.

Today, however, is in a sense an opportunity to leave to one side those wider debates around constitutional reform and the House of Lords. They are important matters, but matters for another day. Today we can all come together to recognise what could be a momentous occasion for our Church and our Parliament—another step towards true gender equality.

We know there is a long way to go. As the Minister said, female priests were introduced 20 years ago, and out of 8,000 full-time priests in this country, 1,700 are now women. In the original draft of my speech, I pointed to the slow progress that that represented, but on reflection, when I worked out the percentages, I found that there was about same proportion of women priests in the Church of England as we have women Members of Parliament in this House. In other words, the Church of England has achieved in 20 years what we have achieved in over 100 years, so it is very significant progress none the less. Today’s Bill provides an opportunity to build on that progress. It is an important symbolic moment, which is why the Labour party is very pleased to support the Bill today.

4.5 pm

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry):

In my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, I should like to thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for the support they have personally given to this Bill. I should like also to thank the Leader of the House, the business managers and the usual channels for providing an early opportunity for the Bill to have its Second Reading and other stages undertaken, so that, if agreed by this House, it can go promptly to the House of Lords for consideration, ensuring sufficient time for it to be enacted before this Parliament is dissolved at the end of March.

When in 2012 the General Synod failed to agree a measure that would have enabled women to become bishops in the Church of England, I was summoned to this Chamber to answer an urgent question. Shortly after that, we had a half-day debate. The number of hon. Members present on those occasions—from every part of the United Kingdom and from all political parties—who asked questions and made speeches indicated that Parliament was keen for the Church of England to get on and ensure that women could become bishops. When the General Synod did agree the measure, there was genuine rejoicing and happiness that that could now happen, and that sense of happiness was well reflected in the debates on the measure for women bishops in the House of Lords on 14 October last year and in this House on 20 October.

Bishops have been part of Parliament ever since Parliament began. This year, for example, we will celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and it is worth recalling that the whole idea of Magna Carta had been initiated by Stephen Langton, the then Archbishop of Canterbury who dusted off a 113-year-old proclamation of King Henry I and showed it to the barons, when the idea of a new improved charter, “a great charter” took hold. Indeed, Magna Carta begins, and I translate from the Latin:

“John by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, to his Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Earls, Barons, Justices, Forresters, Sheriffs, Reeves, Officers and all his Bailiffs and faithful subjects, greetings. Know that for the sake of God, and the salvation of our soul and the souls of all our ancestors and heirs to the honour of God and the exultation of the Holy Church and of the reform of our Realm, by the advice of our venerable Father, Stephen Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England and Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church; Henry Archbishop of Dublin, William Bishop of London, Peter Bishop of Winchester, Jocelain Bishop of Bath and Glastonbury, Hugh Bishop of Lincoln, Walter Bishop of Worcester, William Bishop of Coventry and Benedict Bishop of Rochester”.

So, it is quite clear that archbishops, bishops and abbots took precedence over earls and barons, and that the list of those from whom the King had taken advice was headed by the bishops. Indeed, we rightly remember that Magna Carta has a number of noble sentiments, such as:

“No free man is to be arrested or imprisoned or disseized or outlawed or exiled or in any other way ruined nor will we go or send against him except by the legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of England”,

and that

“to no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice.”

In fact, the opening commitment of Magna Carta, chapter one, clearly states beyond all of those other commitments to the rights of barons or freedoms of individual citizens:

“Firstly, we have granted to God and confirm by this our present Charter for us and our heirs in perpetuity that the English Church—

“Ecclesia Anglicana” in the original—

“shall be free and shall have its rights in full and its liberties intact and we wish this to be thus observed which is clear from the fact that before the discord with our Barons began we granted and confirmed by our Charter free elections which are considered to be of the utmost importance and necessity to the English Church.”

Sir Edward Leigh:

I am very disappointed that my right hon. Friend did not read all that out in Latin. I am sure that you would have been happy to let him do so, Mr Speaker.

Earlier, in an excellent intervention, my right hon. Friend said, quite rightly, that the established Church represented all our churches. I am a warm supporter of the Church of England and its establishment nature, but—I mentioned this earlier—presumably it has no principled objection to the representation of bishops from other denominations, or leaders of other faiths, in the House of Lords.

Sir Tony Baldry:

That was made clear in evidence to the Wakeham commission, and by the body that set up the Joint Committee earlier in the current Parliament. However, I think my hon. Friend will find that it is said by the Vatican and by the Roman Catholic Church itself—not just in England, but throughout the world—that bishops and cardinals cannot be members of national legislatures. That is entirely an issue of authority. By definition, any Catholic bishop who sat in the House of Lords would have to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen, and the Vatican is not willing to allow Catholic cardinals or bishops to take an oath of allegiance that acknowledges the authority of the Crown.

Sir Edward Leigh:

We do not want to become involved in too theological an argument. My right hon. Friend is of course entirely right, but the Catholic Church has absolutely no objection to the appointment to the other place of lay people who can represent the Church. Believe me, I am not trying to talk myself into a job; I am merely making a point.

Sir Tony Baldry:

There are some excellent members of the Roman Catholic Church in the other place, including recent Lord Great Chamberlains such as Lord Camoys, whose ancestors fought at Agincourt. Nevertheless, others who are much more senior than me may well take what my hon. Friend has said as an indication that if there were ever a need to augment the galaxy of talented Catholics in the other House, there would be a willing and, I am sure, very worthy volunteer.

Bishops have continued to contribute to our national decision making down the centuries, although, rightly, they played a much less prominent role as we moved into the modern era. The number of Lords Spiritual has remained at 26 since the Reformation. In 1847, when the passing of the Bishopric of Manchester Act created a 27th diocese, Parliament broke the ancient arrangement whereby all diocesan bishops immediately became Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, and a queuing system became necessary. Today there are 40 English diocesan sees, five of which confer immediate entitlement to a writ of summons, while the other 35 confer entry to a queue according to seniority for the other 21 places.

There are those who might ask why we still have Bishops in Parliament. That issue is much wider than the issues dealt with in this modest Bill, and there will be a range of views on it in both Houses. It is worth remembering, however, that the Wakeham report on reform of the House of Lords concluded:

“The Church of England should continue to be explicitly represented in the second chamber”,

although it added that

“the concept of religious representation should be broadened to embrace other Christian denominations, in all parts of the United Kingdom, and other faith communities.”

I think it fair to say that the Church of England supported that approach.

Earlier in the current Parliament, the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill resolved that

“bishops should continue to retain ex officio seats in the reformed House of Lords.”

Of course, the Committee was recommending the establishment of a considerably smaller Second Chamber. It agreed

“that the number of reserved seats for bishops be set at 12 in a reformed House.”

That would have been proportionate to their present membership.

Speaking recently at a lunch in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, the Archbishop of Canterbury observed in response to a question:

“it is helpful to have an institution that thinks in terms of centuries rather than weeks, which considers the eternal as well as the temporal, the global as well as the local, the grassroots as well as the establishment.”

The House of Lords now has some 790 members, and I think that a total of 26 bishops—in fact, two archbishops and 24 bishops—focusing on the eternal, the global and the grass roots constitutes a worthy and useful addition to Parliament. Each of these bishops has a portfolio or policy area on which they focus. For example, there is a lead bishop for education, a lead bishop for welfare reform and a lead bishop on overseas development, and the bishops work hard at understanding their policy areas and how the Church of England might best make a contribution to policy development.

It is also worth remembering that the Church of England is part of the Anglican Communion. There are 37 other provinces in the Anglican Communion, mostly in the global south, mostly poor, and many in areas of war and persecution. We have a worldwide network of contacts and briefings different from that, say, of the Foreign Office, and through the archbishops’ and bishops’ membership of the House of Lords we are able to share the benefit of those briefings, intelligence and contacts with Parliament.

As Archbishop Justin observed when he spoke to the Parliamentary Press Gallery:

“We are, by tradition…a Christian society”.

He went on to say:

“The Church generally—and perhaps the Church of England especially—has influence in two ways. First, it is everywhere in England and it does the stuff we think Jesus wants done…Since 2008, the networks of food banks have been set up by the churches. Local churches…are involved in the renewal of the credit union movement, usually with debt counselling. We have chaplains in every prison, every unit of the armed services, every hospital, people living in every parish…we educate almost 1 million children a day, we bury the dead, we marry, we baptise, we care for those ignored, and the list goes on.”

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con):

My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. On geographical representation, does he agree that often, bishops represent parts of our country that are under-represented in Parliament? My own Bishop of Truro does such a good job of representing remote rural communities in the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, for example.

Sir Tony Baldry:

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I think the whole House was grateful for the work done by the Bishop of Truro in co-chairing an inquiry by the all-party group on hunger and food poverty.

Archbishop Justin concluded that

“the Church of England remains one of the glues of society”,

and I would suggest it is a worthy glue to be included within the fabric of parliamentary life.

As my hon. Friend the Minister made clear, the provisions in the Bill before the House are straightforward. It is a two-clause Bill which, if passed, will mean that for a period of 10 years the most senior eligible female bishop will fill any vacancy that arises on the Bishop’s Bench for the 21 places in the House of Lords filled by seniority, in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop.

A helpful comment in the Bill’s explanatory note makes it clear that unless the law is changed, it will take “some years” before a newly appointed female diocesan bishop will be eligible to enter the House of Lords. Quite what “some years” means is hard to specify because the period between appointment and going into the Lords has varied greatly over the decades, depending on when retirements and other unexpected vacancies occur. In the past three Parliaments, it has ranged at times from less than four years to at one point more than seven. I think this House, as much as everywhere else in the country, would find it unacceptable if, having waited so long to get women bishops, we then had to wait perhaps the duration of a further Parliament before they started to reach the top of the queue.

Under the current law, the two Church of England archbishops and 24 of its other diocesan bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual. This Bill enables women diocesan bishops to skip the queue, which, when all sees are filled, is 14 bishops long. It is a Bill which, I can assure the House, has the very broadest support across the Church of England. The Bishop of Lincoln, the Right Rev. Christopher Lowson, who is the diocesan bishop currently at the head of the queue—the bishop who, if the law were not changed, would be the next to enter the House of Lords—has with characteristic generosity welcomed the Bill and has observed:

“On the one hand, this is quite frustrating because greater Lincolnshire is under-represented in the House of Lords. However far more frustrating has been the wait for women to be able to be ordained bishop, and for an anachronism to be consigned to history. For that to happen completely, it is absolutely right that women bishops are fully represented in all levels of society, Parliament and the Church, and I look forward very much to seeing that happen.”

The campaigning group WATCH—which stands for Women and the Church—has over many years led the campaign for the ordination of women bishops. Before Christmas it issued a statement, saying said it had

“always campaigned for women and men to be bishops on equal terms including as members of the House of Lords…Sometimes, however, equality is so far distant that some speeding up is necessary to make it happen within a reasonable time frame.”

WATCH went on to say:

“The Bill recognises the fact that for the first Diocesan bishops who are women this hasn’t been a level playing field and they won’t have had the same opportunities historically to fulfil their full and true calling.”

The Bishop of Leicester, who is convenor of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords, has made it clear that he believes that women bishops will “enrich and strengthen” the voice of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords.

As the Leader of the House made clear in business questions recently, if the Bill passes all its stages in the House today, the intention is for there to be sufficient time for the Lords to consider the Bill and for it to receive Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved. As a result, when women start being consecrated as diocesan bishops, they will be able to take a place in the House of Lords straight away.

I very much support the Bill and commend it to the House.

4.20 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab):

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who made a characteristically interesting and sensible speech. I am also pleased to support the Bill this afternoon. We have had a long wait for women bishops, and it is important that when women are consecrated as bishops in the Church of England they are seen to play a full role at the national as well as the diocesan level. Clearly, it would be unacceptable if there was a seven-year wait, and this Bill tackles that.

The Bill will also be an extremely popular measure. Before Christmas, I went to the annual general meeting of WATCH, the lobby group within the Church of England that has been campaigning, first, for women priests and, now, for women bishops. It is a dynamic group, and many there will be interested in what we do today. I have also received a letter from Rev. David Tomlinson, the vicar of Shildon, in my constituency, and there is support throughout the Church, from both men and women, for this Bill. The role of bishops in the House of Lords is important, and the Bill corrects an anomaly. If the Church of England were to continue to appoint only male bishops once women had been consecrated, it would bring into question the legitimacy of the Church having guaranteed places in the House of Lords.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who spoke from the Labour Front Bench, mentioned the great contribution that women can make to churches and drew on the experience of Denmark. I was particularly pleased about that—[Laughter.] I am half-Danish, so I was pleased. The first time I saw a women priest was on Ascension day in 1972. As a teenager, that was a complete revelation to me, but I knew then that it was possible, and it has become possible in this country, too. Like him, I want to see reform of the second Chamber and an elected second Chamber. In 1998, I gave evidence to the royal commission on House of Lords reform, suggesting that we should have a Chamber that was elected, but on a non-geographical basis, rather like the city guilds. That would allow us to have people elected by the trade unions, elected from the professions and, indeed, elected from all faiths—that matter was raised by the hon. Members for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). After all, the House of Commons represents people in their communities, and what matters to people is not just where they live, but other issues, too. However, it is clear to all of us that major reform of the House of Lords continues to be some way off, and as long as we have the House of Lords in its current form and constitution, women should be appointed on an equal footing with men. In particular, women bishops should sit in the House of Lords.

4.24 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):

I recognise the importance of this Bill, and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his work and to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), for the way in which he has set out the matter. I recognise that there are many in the Church who welcome the Bill, and I do not seek to do otherwise. None the less, I do seek to raise constructively just one caveat by way of context, which is that the strength and value of the Church of England as our established church is the richness that it brings to our public life. While we have the House of Lords in its current form, I certainly firmly believe in the importance of the role of the Lords Spiritual. It is important of course, and the argument has been made, that the Lords Spiritual should represent and be reflective of the Church. To that extent, the Bill fulfils the necessary and appropriate function of recognising the will of the Church decided through Synod.

The only caveat I seek to make is this: the other great richness of the Church of England has been its ability to band together various traditions within the Christian faith, and the fact that we have within the Church of England those who might be regarded as broadly traditional or evangelical and those who, like me, identify strongly with the Catholic tradition; such a mix enriches the role of the Church. A degree of diversity reflecting that broadness of reach within the House of Bishops is also important. I recognise the value that bishops bring, both collectively and individually, to the upper House. I know that the work of my own diocesan bishop, Bishop James of Rochester, in relation to prison reform is second to none and contributes greatly to our public life.

Although I understand the reason for not holding back women bishops, we must ensure that there is proper diversity of all traditions of the Church within the Lords Spiritual. I mention that because the five principles in the bishops’ declaration particularly refer to recognising those traditions that have a difficulty—for theological reasons with which some may disagree—with the ordination of women. None the less, they should be able to “flourish” within the family, and the life and the system of the Church of England, and I hope that that can be reflected in the appointments in due course to the upper House. I say that because there is at the moment only one diocesan bishop of the Church of England who is clearly identified with the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. I am talking about the Bishop of Chichester, who would, under normal circumstances, be the second in line to enter the Lords after the Bishop of Lincoln.

Although I do not seek to prevent the advancement of women bishops, I hope that when appointments are made it is recognised that there is an important, valued and ancient tradition of the Church of England that should have the opportunity to have a proper representation within the Lords Spiritual, which it probably does not have in the Church itself as it is currently constituted. That is not for this House or for Government to dictate. But it is a point worth making in a constructive spirit in ensuring that we have the best possible representation of the Lords Spiritual in the upper House.

4.28 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab):

I very much welcome the Bill in front of us today. Indeed, I think we can all appreciate that it is a direct consequence of the decision by the General Synod of the Church of England on 17 November 2014 to allow women bishops. It is worth paying tribute to it once again for passing that legislation. It is something for which many of us have argued for many years. Indeed, in making the arguments to have women bishops, we often employed the exhortation that we should have women represented in all aspects of public life in this country, and at all levels of decision making, including at very senior levels not only in the Church but in Parliament as well.

This Bill is very much to be welcomed. But it is, none the less, worth taking just a few minutes to explore why we need a measure that will speed up the ability of women bishops to sit as Lords Spiritual in the other place. We know that the existing system of appointment of bishops to sit as Lords Spiritual is prescribed by the Bishoprics Act 1878.

Under the terms of the Act, the number of Lords Spiritual is fixed at 26, five of whom automatically receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords on the basis of the diocesan see that they occupy. As we heard earlier, these ex officio sees are Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester. I shall come back to them in a moment. When a vacancy arises the remaining 21 are issued with writs of summons on the basis of seniority, which means their length of tenure as a diocesan bishop. The bishops of 40 Church of England diocesan sees are eligible to be Lords Spiritual. That means that at any one time there can be up to 26 diocesan bishops in the Lords and up to 14 outside the Lords awaiting a seat. Places become vacant as bishops leave office, usually through retirement. By law, diocesan bishops have to retire at 70. The waiting time obviously varies according to the rate of turnover and can be anything between four and seven years.

A bishop is unable separately to resign his membership of the House of Lords and therefore cannot create a vacancy in that way. There is also no provision for a bishop to opt to forgo entitlement to a writ of summons on reaching the top of the list. So, were the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 to be left unchanged, it would take some years before a newly appointed female diocesan bishop became sufficiently senior to take her place in the House of Lords.

Andrew Gwynne:

Of course, it is important that we introduce this measure so that senior women bishops in the Church of England can take their rightful place in the other place. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) use the example of the Bishop of Lincoln as the next in line to be appointed to the other place. It is now incumbent on the Church of England to appoint women diocesan bishops because otherwise that would still be the case.

Roberta Blackman-Woods:

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I am sure that people from the Church who are listening today will take it on board. I certainly hope that they will.

I was saying that a newly appointed female diocesan bishop would have had to wait her turn to take up a seat in the House of Lords unless she were appointed to one of the five ex officio sees. I hope that when vacancies arise for bishops in those areas, the Church will consider appointing a woman. That definitely affects my constituency. I should say that we have recently got a new bishop in Durham and I am not trying in any way to push him out of the door, as he is doing an excellent job, but when the time comes for him to retire I hope that a woman bishop will be on our agenda.

There are likely to be some female diocesans, as there are some male diocesans, for whom membership of the Lords becomes a significant part of their ministry. Without the Bill, a woman appointed as a diocesan bishop would effectively join the back of the queue to get into the House of Lords. As I have said, at anticipated rates of retirement it could take up to seven years for the first female diocesan bishops to get into the Lords, a period that could cover the lifetime of the next Parliament. That would create an anomaly whereby women were actively and visibly involved as bishops in all aspects of the Church’s national ministry except as Members of the Bishops’ Bench in the other place.

Whether and how the system should be adjusted was the subject of discussions by the Lords Spiritual and the House of Bishops in consultation with women holding senior office in the Church. There was a widespread acknowledgement that the House of Lords had been denied the contribution of female Lords Spiritual and that this deficit should be tackled as soon as possible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, to his great credit, was involved in these consultations and made a specific request of Ministers. The effect of that is before us today.

The changes being proposed with the backing of the bishops have broad cross-party support and reflect a desire both in and outside the Church to see women represented in those places where the Church exercises its national public ministry. That is in the interests not just of the Church, but of Parliament, and we do not want any part of Parliament not to have adequate gender representation. The Bill makes time-limited provision for vacancies among the 21 Lords Spiritual places, which are normally filled by seniority, to be filled as they arise by eligible female bishops if there are any available at that point. This is to be done for a period of 10 years. It is hoped that the most eligible female bishop at any time would fill a vacancy in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop. Ten years is the length of two Parliaments and it is not far from the average period in office of a diocesan bishop.

If there were no eligible female bishops at the time a vacancy arose, male bishops would continue to enter the Lords in accordance with the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 for determining seniority of precedence. After the end of the period, the provision made by the Bill would come to an end and the current arrangements under the 1878 Act would be restored.

The Bill, as a number of speakers have commented, has the merit of simplicity. The issue has been taken up by WATCH. A recent e-mail to me from WATCH suggested that this was a straightforward measure. It does not aim to set a quota or even to change the seniority principle permanently. It is not proposed that we should introduce a permanent rule prioritising the admission of women bishops over men. The measure is introduced temporarily for the length of two Parliaments to allow women to reach a critical mass on the Benches of the Lords Spiritual. By the time the provision expires, the hope is that sufficient numbers of women will have reached sufficient levels of seniority and that an extension of the provision will be unnecessary. However, I suggest to the Minister that we should seek a review of the measure and of the sunset clause if, a couple of Parliaments down the line, there is not adequate representation of women on the Benches of the Lords Spiritual. In that case the measure might need to be extended or another measure put in place.

My constituent, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, the vicar of Belmont and Pittington in Durham, is the vice-chair of WATCH. The role of that organisation was very effectively outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). My constituent has written to me stressing that the measure was proposed by the bishops themselves, in consultation with women in the Church. It was based on consensus about how to take the matter forward. She points out that this is a constitutional rather than a religious matter, and that the House of Lords and the House of Bishops both wished to see women represented as soon as possible among their number on the Bench of Bishops. That was the impetus behind the Bill.

My constituent says that it is

“very clear, in the public outcry that followed the disastrous ‘no’ vote in General Synod in November 2012, that the vast majority of the British public wish to see women fully represented at all levels of our decision making as soon as possible”,

and she goes on to say:

“The convention that bishops are appointed to the bench of bishops in the Lords is simply that—a convention—and is of course inherently discriminatory in the changed situation that we now have where women can now be appointed as diocesan bishops. Any arrangements that rely on time served discriminate against those who were not permitted, until now, to gain the necessary years of service. This legislation is therefore a short-term remedy for a long-term injustice: it is not ‘positive discrimination’ but a partial redress of the results of historic discrimination.”

She urges all Members to support the Bill, and I hope they do.

4.39 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):

Thank God for women priests, because the Anglican Church would be in dire trouble in many parts of the country if there were no ordained women. I pay tribute to the women priests of the Church of England in my constituency over the past 30 years.

I speak as somebody who is not an Anglican. I come from good non-conformist stock, brought up in the Congregational Church and now in the United Reformed Church. My great-grandfather was a Congregational minister, one grandfather was a lay preacher, and my parents were leading members of their churches. As Members can gather, that has obviously become diluted through the generations. I am intrigued by the lords a-leaping—the bishops’ gymnastics—that we have heard about, and I have a wonderful picture as to how that will be carried out.

The Bill is great news and I shall support it, even though I am not an Anglican. As I said earlier, of all the Christian denominations—clearly, I am a Christian—only one denomination is guaranteed 26 places in the other place, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has briefed me that a female Methodist priest has been in the other place for many years, so it is good to see them catching up. The Christian Church is stronger as a result of having different denominations with people of all views, whether they be evangelical, high church, non-conformist or Salvation Army, and so on. There is a breadth of denominations, yet only one denomination has guaranteed places in the other place.

I did my bit to break the mould in 1986-87, when I became mayor of Colchester and appointed the first woman ever to be the mayor’s chaplain—Deaconess Christine Shillaker. I had the great privilege and honour of being in Saffron Walden when she became a “Rev”—although still not a full “Rev”—and then of being in Chelmsford cathedral when she was in the first cohort of women in Essex to become fully-fledged clergy who were able to do everything, and not just have the pick-and-mix approach that the Anglican Church allowed them at different times.

Regarding that very important occasion, what also sticks in the memory is that some of the people there were opposed to women being ordained; I am not sure what they would do about them becoming bishops. There was—only British culture could allow for this—a formal protest. At the end of the penultimate verse of the last hymn, the whole proceedings stopped to enable a reverend gentleman, Rev. Bell from Stanway near Colchester, to go forward and explain why it was wrong to allow women to become priests. A bewigged gentleman from the diocese office then went forward and explained why it was legally okay to proceed. To Rev. Bell’s credit, as he walked the full length of Chelmsford cathedral, the packed congregation sang the last verse with even greater gusto. I am delighted to say that the Rev. Christine Shillaker later had her own parish near Harwich, where she did her time, and she is now happily retired, living back in Colchester. I am so pleased that it fell to me to invite a woman to be the mayor’s chaplain and thus break the mould.

It is obviously an historical outrage that there is not a diocese of Colchester. We are in the diocese of Chelmsford, and have been for a hundred years, and I had hoped that the Archbishop of Canterbury would have stayed just long enough to hear this plea. Kent has two Anglican cathedrals, so why, given its population growth, cannot Essex? The plea is stronger, coming as it does from a non-Anglican. The historical support for such a plea is that Colchester was once the capital of Roman Britain, and in my town, visible to this day, are the remains of arguably the oldest Christian church in the British Isles. It was a Christian church in the closing period of the Roman occupation. It has taken the Christian Church centuries to get this far, and the Anglicans are catching up on many of the non-conformist Churches. Today, Parliament can say yes to women bishops in the other place, but Anglicans are not the only Christian denomination in this country, and if the Anglican church is represented in the House of Lords, the other denominations should be too.

4.47 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab):

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which largely represents cross-party agreement on an important advance, notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell).

I welcome the ordination of women bishops and this Bill, which enables them to play a full part in the other Chamber, unreformed as it is for the moment. The ordination of women bishops was welcomed by Newcastle residents of all faiths and none. It is the only controversial step—in terms of the length of time it took to happen and the amount of fierce debate within the Anglican community and outside—on which I have received not one letter, e-mail or phone call criticising the decision. Wherever I have spoken on the subject, the decision that finally the great work done by women priests and deacons in the Church of England would be recognised up to the highest level was greeted with joy—a word that is not misplaced.

It is appropriate that women bishops should be able to play a full role in Westminster. As has already been said, women priests play a full role in the Church, and in Newcastle in particular I am well aware of the work that women priests do to represent, fight for and minister to their communities. We have so many excellent women priests in Newcastle that it would be wrong to name any one of them, but I hope that they will understand it if I say that at the Church of the Ascension in Kenton, which is where I first went to Sunday school, I am always very impressed by the work of the Rev. Lesley Chapman.

The excellent former Bishop of Newcastle, the right reverend Bishop Martin, retired in November. He is a great loss to the city. As bishop, he championed the causes of social equality and social justice, in keeping with the history of Newcastle, which has long championed social justice, and of the north-east more broadly, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned. That history ranges from the Jarrow march to support for all-women shortlists in the Labour party; I benefited from my constituency’s support for those.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, I do not want to anticipate the decisions of the Church of England, but it is only appropriate to say how much a woman bishop in Newcastle would reflect the city’s position at the forefront of social justice and the great support for women’s playing their full role in the Church, the economy and the city as a whole.

4.51 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con):

Tomorrow is the 750th anniversary of when barons, burgesses, bishops and abbots collected in the cathedral chapter, just 200 yards from where we are now sitting, to found our first Parliament. It is rather charming and appropriate that, the day before that anniversary, we should be celebrating a Bill that will apparently ensure the arrival of the first woman bishop in the other place. It has been quite a long wait, perhaps—750 years—although naturally, as a Conservative, I believe in organic change.

The logic is that women bishops should take their position in the other place. I would have thought that the Bill was unopposable. Sadly, that means that the great county of Lincolnshire will have to wait a year or two more to get its bishop into the other place, but we are a patient lot in Lincolnshire, and our bishop, as has been mentioned, is a generous man.

This debate gives me an opportunity to make another point about representation. Nothing that I say detracts from my strong support for the established Church; if we were to de-establish the Church, that would send entirely the wrong signal in an increasingly secular world. The Church of England is such a broad-minded institution—perhaps, in some people’s view, so broad minded that it is sometimes difficult to see where the bounds begin and end, although that is not really any of my business. It seeks to represent all people. I am a warm supporter of the Church of England, of women bishops and of the Church of England being the established Church.

A tremendous amount of work has been going on between the Catholic and Anglican Churches over the past 40 years to try to achieve union. I was speaking recently to Archbishop David Moxon—a superb representative of the Church of England in the Vatican, where he tries to take the process forward. He said to me that excellent progress is being, and has been made, in achieving that union so that we can take joint communion. It is a matter of great pain to many of us Christians that we cannot take communion together. Huge progress—quite surprising progress—has been made on issues that for centuries have proved very difficult indeed, such as transubstantiation of the nature of the real presence in the Eucharist. I think the two Churches can come to some sort of unity of view that it is some sort of spiritual change in the person, so tremendous progress is being made on that.

Tremendous progress is also being made on the nature of the supremacy of the see of Peter: all Christian denominations can, while maintaining their own supremacy in their own dioceses—as does the Orthodox Church—view the primacy of the see of Peter.

Sadly, however, there is one block. I am sorry to mention it, but what appears to be an insuperable block for many years is the fact that we now have women priests in the Anglican Church. This is a difficulty for the Orthodox denominations in the east and the Catholic denomination in the west. I am not going to make any comment on whether having women priests in the Anglican Church is right or wrong; I am just stating a fact that, sadly, we seem to have reached an impasse, but we are where we are. I say that because, very sadly, that will be a situation where we will remain divided for many years.

I want to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and which I have already made in a couple of interventions. I hope that Members on both Front Benches will keep a very open mind when it comes to reform of the other place. Other denominations—other faiths—need to take their place in the House of Lords. I was delighted with the response of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), when I intervened on him. I was a tiny bit disappointed that when I put the same question to the Minister, he did not choose to answer it. I would have thought that it would be perfectly possible for the Government to announce that they are open minded about any reform.

The reason I say that is that, while I fully support the fact that there are 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords—they are all Anglican and I have no difficulty with that—I do not want people to say that, because there are already 26 religious people there, there is no room for representatives of any other denominations or faiths. We have heard that there is already a Methodist priest in the other place, and we have heard the reasons for there being no Catholic bishops. [Hon. Members: “And the Chief Rabbi.”] There is also the Chief Rabbi.

I sat on a senior committee that discussed what our attitude in the Catholic Church should be towards one of our bishops being invited to join the House of Lords. I believe that the late Cardinal Hume was invited to join the House of Lords. Indeed, the Queen referred to him once as, “My cardinal,” which was quite touching. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has made clear, there are difficulties in canon law relating to bishops of the Catholic Church taking their place in the legislature. Be that as it may, I am sure a way forward can be found to have representatives of the Catholic Church and more representatives of the Methodists and of other faiths.

As we discuss those things, I very much hope that we will keep an open mind on the issue. Meanwhile, we wish the Anglican bishops in the other place well and look forward to a woman taking her rightful place there for the first time in history.

4.58 pm

Tom Brake:

We have heard overwhelming support for the principles of fairness and equality behind the Bill, and I would like to pick up on a number of comments that have been made. I will start by thanking the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for his party’s support. Perhaps it was remiss of me not to mention that at an earlier stage, but I welcome it. He said that female clergy are less tribal than their male counterparts—I do not know whether that applies to this Chamber as well, but perhaps we shall see during the course of the rest of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Church remains a vital institution in our society. He then moved away from the purpose of this very simple Bill and touched on the issue of wider constitutional reform. If I am allowed a moment or two of deviation, Mr Deputy Speaker, I certainly support what the hon. Gentleman said about the idea of a citizen-led constitutional convention. Like him, however, my only concern is the extent to which that might scoop up such a range of issues that it would never be able to pronounce: it would take such an extended period that it could not come up with anything usable. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech.

The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) gave us a historical tour, a theological tour and then a topical tour of bishops’ roles and responsibilities. He helpfully underlined the wide-ranging support in the Church for the Bill.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) outlined her support for not only the Bill, but a wider change to how the House of Lords operates. She sensibly identified the fact that we have not yet been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion on that matter, but I am sure future Governments will want to return to it. I wish them greater success than we have had in effecting real change in the House of Lords, as well as in achieving 100% election to the second Chamber; that is my preference, although I would be happy to settle for a compromise of 80% election and 20% appointment.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is in his place, underlined the importance of ensuring that the widest possible range of Church of England traditions are represented among the Lords Spiritual. Clearly, it is not my place to speak on behalf of the Church of England and it would be inappropriate for me to do so, but I must say that it would be very surprising if it did not seek to represent the full range of traditions within its appointments.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) comprehensively set out why the Bill is needed. She said that it is for the Church to grasp this matter through its appointments in the next few years. Again, it would be surprising if the Church, having encouraged the Government to bring forward a measure as quickly as we have, did not respond by ensuring that its appointment process enabled some dioceses to have women bishops. That is not a matter for me, however, and we await the outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) had a picture in his mind of lords a-leaping; we all have our own picture in our minds. He underlined his very valuable role in breaking the mould in appointing the Rev. Christine Shillaker to support him when he was mayor. He made a very naked and very parochial plug—the only way is Essex—for the next diocese to be created, and I would expect nothing less.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con):

Will the Minister give way?

Tom Brake:

I am happy to give way, perhaps for another naked plug.

Bob Stewart:

I was confirmed by the Bishop of Chelmsford, so I think he is a great guy. I support the bid for Colchester made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). We could easily have another bishop down there.

Tom Brake:

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester welcomes that support for his cause. He may well rope in the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) to his campaign in the next few years.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is not in her place, rightly sang the praises of women clergy in general, and of those in her constituency in particular. That gives me an opportunity to sing the praises of the women clergy in the London borough of Sutton, who also do a fantastic job in the community.

Finally, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that the Bill is “unopposable”. From looking around the Chamber and listening to the speeches made so far, I think he is right that it will not be opposed tonight. I heard and understood his request for wider faith representation but, like the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I think that a dilemma is involved. We might want wider faith representation because that is a sensible thing to do in a second Chamber that has faith representation, but how do we reconcile that with the idea of a fully elected second Chamber? The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby did not have an answer to that, and I am not going to pronounce on it from a Liberal Democrat perspective from the Dispatch Box this evening.

As hon. Members will have noticed, this is a very short Bill. It addresses a particularly problem—namely, the delay in female bishops becoming eligible to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual if they were required to wait their turn under the present rules. Without the Bill, there would be a long wait before female bishops would be represented among their male counterparts in the House of Lords. That would not be fair. The Bill corrects that unfairness by ensuring that the Lords Spiritual benefit from having female bishops among their number as soon as possible. That is the question the Bill has been designed to address, with the support of the Church of England. It is a response to the historic decision of the Church of England to allow women to become bishops, and it is a proportionate and sensible adaptation of the existing rules to accommodate that decision. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).


Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill Considered in Committee  

(Order, this day)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Clause 1

Vacancies among the Lords Spiritual

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tom Brake:

This is a very short Bill, with just one substantive clause. As we have already heard, the Bill has a single purpose, which is to enable vacancies among the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords to be filled as they arise by the most senior female bishop at the time, if there are any appointed at that point, in preference to the most senior male bishop. Male bishops would continue to become Members of the Lords if there were no qualifying female bishops at the time a vacancy arose. The seniority of a bishop is determined under clause 1(3) by reference to the date at which her election as a bishop of a diocese in England was confirmed. This reflects the way in which seniority is determined for the purposes of the Bishoprics Act 1878, which currently provides for bishops to become Members of the House of Lords.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should like briefly to clarify one point. In the Church of England, there are two types of bishop: diocesan bishops and suffragan—essentially assistant—bishops. Future diocesan bishops are often, but not always, given a suffragan appointment first. The Bill relates only to diocesan bishops in England as the Lords Spiritual are drawn only from among their ranks. As the Lords Spiritual are drawn from the diocesan bishops, the Bill will not immediately affect the first female suffragan bishops until and unless they are appointed to a diocese.

While the 1878 Act provides for 21 of the 26 Lords Spiritual to become Members of the House of Lords on the basis of seniority, a further five are automatically Members of the House of Lords on the basis of the see they occupy. These are the holders of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York and the bishoprics of London, Durham and Winchester. Because the holders of those sees are automatically Members of the House of Lords, clause 1(5) effectively provides for vacancies among those senior ex officio sees to be excluded from these transitional arrangements. When a vacancy arises for one of those five sees, it could be filled by a woman or a man.

Clause 1(1)(a) will ensure that the provisions are time-limited and that they cease to have effect 10 years after the Bill comes into force. The special arrangements must last long enough to provide sufficient opportunities to appoint women as bishops and for female bishops to become Members of the House of Lords as vacancies among the Lords Spiritual arise. Nonetheless, this is rightly a short-term transitional measure that will last until such time as it has become routine for women, like men, to have been in office for several years. The point was made earlier that if representation has not reached the expected level, action could be taken to address that. If the Church is unhappy with the change at the end of the 10-year period, it could ask the Government to take action. I think the Government of the day would respond positively.


Roberta Blackman-Woods:

I am grateful to the Minister for taking up that point. Would it be sensible to build a review into the Bill, or at least assure the House that it is on the Government’s agenda, so that the legislation can be examined in good time to ensure that it can be extended or new mechanisms can be put in place?


Tom Brake:

That is a matter for the Church and I am sure it will want to keep that under review. It will be able to see, through its own appointments process and the legislation, the impact on the number of women bishops and Lords Spiritual. If the Church feels in future that there is a need for the Government to take action, I am sure the Government would want to address that. As the years move by, I am sure that the pressure for equal representation will grow even more significantly, and that the Church and this place will have to respond to it effectively.

The Church believes that 10 years will be enough to ensure that the Bishops’ Bench in the Lords better reflects the gender diversity of bishops in the country, and to address the inherent inequality presented by the current system in the shorter term. After the end of the 10-year period—effectively at the start of the 2025 Parliament—the existing arrangements will resume.


Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con):

I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer than is necessary, because I very much support the Bill, as does everybody who is left in Parliament this afternoon. However, I want to probe the Minister a little further on the time limiting measures—on which we have just had a very useful exchange, through interventions, on Second Reading—and to make a helpful suggestion.

When Parliament was considering what more it could do to address the lack of gender equality in this place back in 2002, the Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Bill was amended to enable political parties to take positive action to reduce inequality. The measure today seeks to do something similar. At that time, a sunset clause, which expired in 2015, was introduced. It was extended in the Equality Act 2010, so that political parties, should they so choose, could have the ability to take actions that in other ways would be considered to be positive discrimination. When the Minister draws the Committee stage to a conclusion, will he indicate whether, should it be necessary at the end of the 10-year sunset period and should the Church feel it desirable, Parliament could again consider the Bill and add an extension, just as the Equality Act 2010 extended the previous sunset clause to 2030?


Stephen Twigg:

I intervene briefly to support what the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have just said. The Church, as the Minister reminded us, has requested the 10-year period. All of us on both sides of the House hope we will see sufficient progress during the 10-year period for the sunset clause to come into effect. However, it would be useful to hear from the Minister a commitment, which could be shared on both sides of the House, that if significant progress is not made the Government of the day will talk to the Church about extending the legislation in exactly the same way as the legislation relating to political party selections was extended by the Equality Act 2010.

5.15 pm


Tom Brake:

Clearly, as I stated earlier, this is a matter for senior clergy, including senior female clergy, to keep under review and to raise with Governments if they feel it has not been addressed within the 10 years. There could be many factors at play that could make it impossible to meet any target if they or we were to set one at this point. As I said, therefore, this is a matter for the clergy to respond to. While I personally could make a commitment regarding what will happen in 2025, it would rather prejudge certain factors, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) knows, no Government can commit a future Government to any particular action. However, it is certainly something that future Governments would, I hope, want to consider positively if a further request were made and if, at the end of the 10 years, the representation of women bishops or Lords Spiritual had not been addressed in a way that the clergy and House of Commons thought appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.


Clause 2

Commencement, extent and short title

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tom Brake:

I warn Members that my comments on clause 2 will be even shorter than those on clause 1.

The clause covers commencement and territorial extent, and gives the short title of the Bill. It is a technical clause that provides that the Bill will come into force on the day Parliament first meets after the forthcoming general election. It extends to all parts of the United Kingdom as it relates to membership of the House of Lords and may be cited as “Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015”.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

5.17 pm


Mr Gyimah:

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I will be very brief. The Bill responds to the welcome decision of the Church to allow women to become bishops. It will ensure that female bishops will not have to wait to join their male counterparts in the House of Lords, thereby addressing a temporary unfairness in the current system until the appointment of both male and female bishops becomes routine. As we conclude our debate, I would like to thank hon. Members across the House for their support in making quick progress with this short, but important Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.18 pm


Stephen Twigg:

When he spoke earlier, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) described the Bill as “unopposable”. I agree with him. The speeches at each stage of our proceedings over the last two hours demonstrate the strength of support for the Bill on both sides of the House. It is an intelligent measure, it is an equality measure and it is something the Church has asked us to do. I am delighted to support its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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