Cross-party MPs today called for an end to the automatic right for bishops to sit in the House of Lords. The calls came in a Westminster Hall debate organised by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Chair Tommy Sheppard MP. Humanists UK, which as Secretariat to the APPHG helped organise the debate, welcomed it and echoes parliamentarians’ calls for reform.
26 Church of England bishops have the automatic right to sit, speak, and vote in the House of Lords. This does not reflect the diverse make-up of the UK. The 2019 British Social Attitudes Survey shows that the share of British adults belonging to no religion now stands at 53%, with just 12% identifying as Anglican. The bishops represent one denomination of one religion and one part of the UK at that. Further, they enjoy privileges over and above other peers including special consultation privileges prior to legislation being brought before Parliament, privileged speaking rights in the chamber (if a bishop stands to speak, all others are expected to shut up and sit down), and exemptions from the Code of Conduct.
The debate, called by SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, had been backed by more than ten cross-party MPs including from Conservative, Labour, SNP, and Plaid Cymru. In his opening speech, Tommy highlighted:
‘We’re not talking about a ceremonial arrangement. We’re not talking about something democratic or cosmetic. We’re talking about real, effective, political power. Bishops vote on issues that matter and there have been plenty of occasions where their vote has been decisive’.
He stated ‘the time is right for a review’ considering the population of the UK.
Aaron Bell MP (Conservative) and Secretary of the APPHG, emphasised that removing the automatic right of the bishops to sit in the House of Lords would not impact on the ability of religion or belief representatives to get places in the Lords like everyone else, and gave the example that the Chief Rabbi already sits in the House of Lords this way. He said ‘there could potentially be exactly the same role for the Church of England to be appointed the Lords, it just shouldn’t be as of right’.
Rachel Hopkins MP (Labour) and Vice Chair of the APPHG said that the status quo of having ‘one particular branch of one particular belief’ is not where we should be in a pluralistic society.
Andrew Selous MP opposed the removal of the bishops. Selous is Second Church Estates Commissioner, meaning that he has a formal role in Parliament as the Church of England’s spokesperson in the House of Commons.
Alex Burghart MP, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, and speaking on behalf of the Government, thanked Tommy Sheppard for calling the debate. But he suggested that if anything Anglicans were underrepresented in the Lords as he said 14% of the population in Britain are Anglican and bishops only make up 3% of the total membership of the Lords. For context, and as Tommy reminded hin, bishops are not the only Anglicans in the Lords. Anglicans are already vastly over-represented with over 60% of peers being Christians, compared to under 40% of the population as a whole.
Earlier this week, Humanists UK patron Sandi Toksvig backed the debate with a column in the Guardian which called for an end to the automatic right of bishops to sit in the Lords. In February, she called for the bishops to be removed over its opposition to conducting same-sex marriages, and the debate happening this week is a consequence of that.
In 2020 the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group published its report, Time for Reflection, which examined the presence of bishops in detail. It identified nine recent incidents where bishops’ votes have changed the outcome of legislation, including one where the bishops voted to exempt the Church of England from employment equality laws, and another where the bishops voted to give the Church more control over its state schools. The bishops also voted strongly against the introduction of same-sex marriages and have consistently opposed abortion and assisted dying.
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:
‘Congratulations to Tommy Sheppard for securing this debate, and thank you to those others who spoke up in favour of reform.
‘The Church of England is unique in being both a religious group and having automatic seats in Parliament. That is unfair, undemocratic, and unjustified. It is past time this system is brought to an end and we look forward to taking the conversation forward from here.’
In 2022, the Labour Party announced it would replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, which would have the effect of removing the Lords Spiritual. SNP policy supports House of Lords reform on a similar scale, and Liberal Democrat and Green standing policy favours abolishing the Lords Spiritual. Humanists UK is urging MPs from all parties to recognise that constitutional reform of the Lords is growing increasingly urgent, not least because of the widening gap between our clerical legislators and today’s religiously diverse society.
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at email@example.com or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Watch the debate which took place on 6 July 2023 from 13:50.
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