On 19th December 2017 the House of Lords debated its size, in the form of a Motion from Lord Burns ‘That this House takes note of the Report of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House’. The Bishop of Birmingham and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, Rt Revd David Urquhart, spoke in support of the Committee’s proposals and said that bishops would look at the question of their numbers when legislation on Lords reform, backed by consensus, was forthcoming:
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, as convener of the Lords spiritual, I welcome warmly the report of the Speaker’s Committee and pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his fellow committee members for their thoughtful and thorough attention to the question of the size of the House, which we all agree is in need of urgent resolution. I notice that the word “magic” has already been used in the debate, but the desire for love has also been added at Christmas time. To hear the leader of the Lib Dems imploring the work of the Lord in becoming pure is a most encouraging start to this debate.
The main recommendations of the committee are ones that I hope most of us in this House can rally behind. They offer a set of suggestions which, with good will and a spirit of co-operation, not least from the party leaderships, will provide us with a route map for reducing the membership of this House to a more acceptable level. That is something that my predecessors as convener and many others on these Benches have supported consistently. Rather than comment on the detail of the proposals, I thought that it would be helpful to focus my remarks on what the report did or did not say about the Lords spiritual.
A central feature of the recommendations of the report, as we have heard, is their non-statutory approach. In my own submission to the committee I suggested that a statutory solution was one that was most likely to stick. But these are finely balanced judgments and I can certainly see the case for moving quickly if there is a broad consensus behind achieving these changes without legislation. As the committee noted, a side-effect of the non-statutory approach is that there can be no change under this method to the number of Lords spiritual. As many noble Lords will know, as well as a retirement age of 70, these Benches operate under a cap fixed by legislation dating back 170 years, which would require further legislation to amend.
At the time that cap was placed on these Benches, Bishops made up around 5.7% of a much smaller House. To put that into some context, had the Victorians decided to fix Bishop numbers by proportion instead of a number, there would currently be 45 of us squeezing on to these Benches. As it is, while the number on these Benches has remained fixed and static at 26 for the best part of two centuries, our proportion in relation to the rest of the House has fluctuated as the number of Peers has risen, fallen, and risen again. It currently stands, as noble Lords have already calculated, being mathematically accurate like the chairman of the committee, at 3.3%.
In my submission to the committee, I made it clear that there is a variety of views on these Benches about reform of this House, numbers and proportions. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who said in a recent newspaper article that the most important thing was to get the major structure in place and not to be distracted from that by more complicated details such as legislation for Bishop numbers. We have no wish to be a distraction to the House on this urgent work. Having canvassed opinion on these Benches, I will briefly say something about the general consensus that I believe there is.
The proposals of the committee would see this House reduced to three-quarters of its current size. One has to go back over 30 years to when this House debated a government proposal on Sunday trading to find an occasion when more than three-quarters of the Lords spiritual took part in a single Division. That is partly a natural result of the Bishops’ Benches not operating in a bloc or as a party. The Bishops are 26 independent Members and, though I am a convenor, I am neither their leader nor their Whip, as we have heard with a similar group in the House this morning. Perhaps, like the Convenor of the Cross Benches, I may have some influence; that is no reference to our origin in Scotland, but to a possibility for making things work under the arrangements that we have.
Unlike other Benches in this House, 100% of the membership of these Benches have significant—some would say full-time—external responsibilities covering the regions of the country. It is fair to say that any problems of overcrowding experienced in the House are not generally caused by too many Bishops filling the Lobbies, blocking the gangways or occupying any other part of the House where people may gather.
I cannot envisage another situation, certainly while the process of achieving a reduction is ongoing, where a similarly high proportion on these Benches would attend for a debate or vote.
When legislation for reform looks set to come before the House that has the backing of the Government and commands the support of a wide constituency we will of course engage closely on the issue of Bishops’ numbers and proportions. Until then, we will continue to be as committed and active servants of the House and the country as we can, all the while operating fully within the spirit of the committee’s proposals.