On the 21st October 2016 Conservative Peer Lord Elton introduced the ‘House of Lords Bill’ – a Private Member’s Bill to reduce the size of the House of Lords. The Bishop of Birmingham, Rt Revd David Urquhart, spoke in support. A number of other Peers made reference to the Lords Spiritual and extracts of their remarks can be found after the Bishop’s speech, below.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am resisting the temptation to tear up my notes and respond to the noble Lord’s last quote. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for again bringing before us this important matter. It is widely agreed in many places that as weseek to be effective as a House, the size of the House is of great concern. Of course, as has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, recent changes have attempted to alleviate the size of the House—we have adopted retirement provisions—yet they have not been sufficient to alleviate the flow of new Members. The statistics have already been referred to.
From this Bench, the Lords spiritual have spoken consistently over the past few years in support of reform aimed at addressing the size of the House—and we do so again, keeping in mind the aim of the House to improve the core functions of our scrutiny of legislation and government proposals from the other House, and of offering expertise and independence, which have already been referred to. That the initiative for change, responding to a clear need with a focused and incremental approach, is once again being led by your Lordships’ House rather than imposed from outside is to be welcomed. But taking decisive responsibility for making delicate if radical constitutional improvements is something that we can do, keeping in mind our determination to better serve the country. I believe that it is a good way forward.
In detail, your Lordships’ House and this Parliament have already made a change to allow women to serve on this Bench in a small constitutional change. I will also refer to the debate this week in the other place that has already been mentioned. Noble Lords may also like to know that there are some such as myself on this Bench who were born and bred in Scotland and have strong roots in that part of Britain—but if that is too detailed a point to make, noble Lords may ignore it and I will continue.
This current Bill leads the Lords spiritual untouched at this stage and applies only to the Lords temporal. Noble Lords may think that that is appropriate, given the different circumstances that pertain as to how we on this Bench arrive and leave your Lordships’ House. Nonetheless, when it comes to the size of the House, including the most recent government Bill in 2011-12, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, we acknowledge that if the overall size of the House is to be reduced, of course the Lords spiritual must play their full part in that arrangement. That means that we would indeed continue to look constructively at a decrease in our own numbers in proportion with an overall decrease in the size of your Lordships’ House.
Noble Lords may know that at the moment, the number of Lords spiritual is fixed at 26, which has been the case for more than 150 years. I cannot compete with the detailed statistics provided by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, but the proportion of bishops in your Lordships’ House has risen and fallen over that long period over successive decades. It is currently running at about 3% of your Lordships’ House and has been in recent years.
Lord Elton: Will the right reverend Prelate forgive an academic interruption to point out that before the Reformation, this House consisted of more Lords spiritual than Lords temporal?
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: I thank the noble Lord for his reminder of that. I did not want to give a history lesson today, but behind my remarks and the responsibility that we are taking for incremental change is the desire for stability and to give consistent service to the country at a time when there is widespread uncertainty in other areas.
Lords spiritual have some experience, therefore, under the present arrangements, of living within the constraints of an upper cap on numbers. We also have the experience of one of the alternatives to a cap on numbers—a compulsory retirement age. In your Lordships’ House, that is set at the ridiculously young age of 70—which is when a bishop has to leave their see and retire from stipendiary service. The 2011-12 Bill wisely left space for the Church to determine a mechanism for a smaller number of Lords spiritual to be selected to receive a Writ of Summons. As we go on in these debates, that is something that we might find useful in the process.
I will indulge in a pastoral note in passing. While we are having these discussions, we should not inadvertently regard newcomers to the House as an unwelcome nuisance, nor should we regard older Members—here I am not patronising the excellent initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Elton—as merely taking up space. There are many on all sides who will bring great value to this House during the years ahead.
There are many noble Lords here today who are better qualified to go into the detail of this Bill and suggest alternative schemes. In the proposals before the House today, there are, as has already been hinted, unresolved questions about patronage and the potential to add numbers during the period suggested, which might distort the process. I hope that the Bill proceeds from today so that we can have these and other matters discussed further for decisive action as well as careful consideration.
Other mentions made of the Lords Spiritual by Peers in their own speeches:
Lord Elton (opening the debate): The Bill avoids all the other wasps’ nests stirred up by the great debates on reform in 1999, because every one of them would cause enough disagreement to kill the Bill. It does not affect existing party balances, does not propose an age limit or a limited tenure or any involvement of the parliamentary electorate and does not stake out a particular number of seats for Cross-Benchers or anybody else. It does not even touch the Bishops’ Benches, although we shall be very interested to hear the account of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham of his brethren’s intentions. The Bill addresses the single question of size and no other.
Lord Rennard (LibDem)…. when we compare the size of the Houses, parity is not such a bad principle, but we need to agree on the relevant size of each House. If we consider again the size of each House, we also have to consider the representation of the Lords Spiritual in this respect, which the Bill does not.
Baroness Hayter (Lab)….The issue is one of balance between the Government, the Opposition and the Cross Benches. As always, we welcome the very non-political spiritual Members. Cementing the currently engineered relative numbers between those groups might not attract the wide political support which we will need for any move forward. This will probably be the issue that most needs addressing before we look at how each political grouping should be reduced pro rata.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.