Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

The Bishops

154. The Government's proposal is that the new chamber should contain 16 Church of England Bishops, instead of the present 26. To recognise the "significant contribution" other faiths can make to the chamber, the White Paper suggests that the Appointments Commission would be expected to give "proper recognition" to non-Church of England faith communities "as they seek greater representativeness in the independent members of the House".

155. The Royal Commission recommended a reduction in the number of Bishops to allow for the representation of other faiths. We took little evidence on this issue, but note that the continued presence of Bishops, described by the Constitution Unit as "a medieval hangover",[65] based originally as much on their role as landowners as on spiritual leadership, makes Parliament unique among modern European legislatures. The case against seats for the Bishops is only strengthened by the unwillingness of the Government to allow formal representation of other faiths. We note the analysis made by Professor McLean, who points out that the Government's aspirations in the White Paper for representation of other religions is made mathematically impossible by the presence of the Bishops.[66]

156. The Church of England, in a submission following the report of the Royal Commission,[67] made a case for the continued presence of a substantial body of bishops in the second chamber. This was based on the view that 'a Christian perspective is an important feature of debates that concern the common good and public life as a whole'. It called for a 'certain minimum level of representation' to ensure that bishops and similar groups of non-politicians can 'play an effective role in the complex and detailed processes of the legislature'.

157. But the debate has moved on considerably since the Royal Commission. We entirely accept the case that a healthy variety of opinions, which could include a range of religious, moral and ethical viewpoints, should be represented in the second chamber. However, the political support for a very large second chamber, of the sort that could accommodate the bench of bishops, has diminished, with the Conservative Party for instance now proposing a chamber of 300. The continuing process of reform, with a largely elected second chamber and the active statutory appointments commission we propose, would rapidly make the tradition of ex officio religious membership an anachronism. It is of course the case that distinguished senior figures in the Church of England (and other religious bodies) will be considered for membership of the second chamber through the appointments process (and they should be free to stand for election). This appears to us to represent the fairest approach.

158. If we are serious about equipping Britain with a modern Parliament and constitution, it is time to modernise this aspect of our constitution too, and to bring to an end formal representation of the church in Parliament. This need not lead to disestablishment: there is, as the Royal Commission acknowledges, no necessary connection between the establishment of the Church of England and places for its Bishops in the second chamber. Disestablishment in Wales in 1920 led to the disappearance of Bishops from that country from the House of Lords.

159. To give the new statutory Appointments Commission time to develop a policy on diversity in the new House, we recommend that the Bishops of the Church of England should no longer sit ex officio from the time of the next general election but one. There will be nothing to prevent the Appointments Commission from appointing Bishops, or retired Bishops, if they have a contribution to make and can give sufficient time to the House to make a real contribution, along with representatives from other faith communities.

65   Constitution Unit Submission (Cmd 5291) Back

66   HC 494-II, LR 58 Back

67   Church of England Submission to the Royal Commission (Cm 4534, 2000)  Back

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