Examination of Witnesses |
The British Humanist Association [Andrew Copson]
and Theos [Elizabeth Hunter] (QQ 452-463)
Chief Executive, British Humanist Association, and Elizabeth
Hunter, Director, Theos
Q452 The Chairman:
Thank you very much for coming. I apologise for the fact that
we did not start you at 6.45 but we got hung up before the Archbishop
arrived and the Archbishop, understandably, took a little longer
than we had expected. I apologise for that. Would either or both
of you like to make a short statement before we start the questioning?
Hello and thank you very much for the invitation to give evidence
this evening. My name is Elizabeth Hunter and I am the Director
of Theos. We are a Christian think tank and carry out research
into the role and place of religion in society. We work with a
wide variety of denominations and other non-Christian faith groups,
but it must be stressed that we are a research organisation, not
a lobby or campaigning group. We cannot be seen to speak on behalf
of any religious institution or for religion in general. That
said, like all think tanks, we have a broad perspective: that
religious people and institutions already make a significant,
positive contribution to society. We have sketched out how in
our written submission. We believe that having religious voices
in a reformed second Chamber is well within the logic of the draft
Bill and we would say a good thing per se. In 2007, we published
a report on this issue, Coming Off the Bench: The Past, Present
and Future of Religious Representation in the House of Lords,
which concluded by endorsing the Wakeham commission's recommendation
of a reduction in the number of Bishops in a reformed second Chamber
and a broadening of that religious element to reflect the increased
religious diversity of the United Kingdom. This draft Bill obviously
creates a very different scenario from the situation that was
looked into by the Royal Commission in 2000, but we would be in
favour of a similar arrangement in principlethat is, the
principle of religious voices as a good thing per se and a broadening
of those religious voices. However, we see a number of ways that
these principles could be applied in practice under the general
proposals of the Bill. I am sure that we will speak about those.
Thank you. My name is Andrew Copson and I am the Chief Executive
of the British Humanist Association. Our position on the questions
of Lords reform and religious representatives is that we are against
Bishops or any religious representatives ex officio, as of right,
having a place in a reformed House of Lords. We have laid that
out in our submission to your Committee. Our views are also extensively
explored in the really good House of Lords Library note that I
was just reading this morning. It is excellent. We think that
ours is inside the mainstream of the view of the issue that people
take outside this room. In 2002, 85 per cent of those who responded
in the Lord Chancellor's consultation to the question of Bishops
were for their removal. The ICM opinion poll in 2010 found that
74 per cent of people surveyed were against the presence of Bishops
as of right in the reformed Chamber.
We have four main responses to the four principal
arguments that are made in favour of Bishops as of right in the
Chamber that lead us to this view. First is the argument from
traditionthe idea that it has always been this way. We
do not think that that argument has any particular potency at
a time of reform. The question is not what problem the removal
of the Bishops would solve but why they should be there in the
House of Lords as part of our Parliament. We certainly reject
the idea that their removal would have any negative effect on
establishment. We are with the Wakeham Commission when it said
that there was no direct or logical connection between establishment
and Bishops in the Lords. Secondly, we certainly do not think
that Bishops provide a unique or significantly distinctive spiritual
insight, as many Members of the Lords may do so. Even if they
did, it would only be one narrow view. Clearly, there are many
lay members, as your declarations showed in the previous evidence
session: many people from the Christian religion are present in
the Lords and make that contribution. Thirdly, we do not accept
the argument that the Church of England can somehow represent
a co-establishment of all people of faith. They obviously only
ever speak for people of other faiths with whom they are in agreement.
It would not be true to say that Bishops in the House of Lords
speak for Hindus, for example, who are against faith schools.
Clearly they associate themselves only with Hindu groups that
are in favour of faith schools, as the Church of England is. Fourthly,
we reject the idea that, as the UK's largest NGO with penetration
into every local community, the Church of England should have
ex officio a right to seats in the Lords. Why not other NGOs that
are just as significant or, in the case of NGOs like the National
Trust, perhaps even larger in terms of their national membership?
For those four reasons and obviously our main reason of principlethat
we believe in a secular state where no one is disadvantaged or
privileged because of their religious beliefs or lack of themwe
do not think that Bishops in the House of Lords ex officio is
a good idea.
Let me start by following on immediately from what you have just
said. It is the ex officio bit that you really object to.
Yes it is.
You do not mind Bishops or any other religious denomination being
represented in the House of Lords so long as they are not there
as of right.
Yes, I think we would have no problem if there were to be an appointed
Chamberwhether wholly or partly appointedin which
Bishops came through the Appointments Commission and were only
Would you find it objectionable supposing Bishops had been appointed
and there were 12 Bishops sitting in the House of Lords as part
of an appointed system, either on the recommendation of the Prime
Minister or anybody else, and they had gone through an Appointments
My objection would perhaps not be to their actual presence but
to the means by which they ended up appointed through the procedure.
If 12 Anglican Bishops ended up in a smaller, appointed House
of Lords, I would question whether it was a wise and proportionate
exercise of appointment powers by the commission to have ended
up with so many Anglican Bishops.
So it not their theology that you object to but their status.
Personally, I object to their theology but, when it comes to making
a constitution, I would object to the method of selection.
Bishop of Leicester:
I note that in your submission, Andrew, you say that the BHA does
not take a position on what a reformed House of Lords should look
like. That intrigues me because it sounds as if you really do
not mind what it looks like as long as it does not have Bishops
in it. Is that actually your position? Are you really a single-issue
lobbyist here, with no wider view at all about what kind of House
Bishops should be excluded from?
I could not claim that I or the BHA has any wider personal expertise
on what sort of second Chamber would best suit our Parliament
in the future and the type of reform. I am and the BHA is particularly
concerned with discrimination within our constitution on grounds
of religion or belief. That is a narrower range of concerns than
one might have if one was concerned with everything. The BHA is
committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as many
NGOs of course are. I think it would be difficult for us to find
a knock-down argument in favour of a wholly elected or wholly
appointed Chamber within the confines of our mission in those
terms. It is quite right to say that election is not the only
democratic method. You could choose your Peers by ballot, through
an Appointments Commission or have them ex officio because they
ran a learned society or whatever. Personally, I see all sorts
of interesting solutions that could present themselves. The BHA
as an organisation, being concerned predominantly with religion
or belief discrimination in the constitution, would not take a
view one way or the other.
Bishop of Leicester:
Could I just pick up a point that arises from that? You also say
that the best constitutional system is one that is secularthat
is, one where state institutions and religious institutions are
separate and the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief.
Bishop of Leicester:
It does not sound as if your argument is neutral on matters of
religion or belief.
In what way is it not neutral?
Bishop of Leicester:
You have already declared the fact that you are against religious
representation and against the theological position of the Bishops.
You have a view. My point is: is it not an illusion to argue that
a secular state is a neutral state? A secular state is one that
has an attitude towards religion.
I understand your point. No, I do not think it is an inconsistent
position. I would also be against the President of the British
Humanist Association ex officio having the right to sit in the
House of Lords, in the unlikely event that you proposed that.
Neutrality in that sense is about objective, fair and balanced
treatment of people of different religions and beliefs in the
system. I am not opposing Bishops in the Lords because I do not
like Bishops; I am opposing ex officio places for Bishops in the
Lords because I think that that is unfair.
Q456 Bishop of Leicester:
Perhaps I could ask just one more question, arising out of what
Andrew said. You said that this argument, which I think you described
as specious, that Bishops in some way can speak for other faiths
and other interests beyond the church and that other faiths support
our presence here is supported only by those who happen to agree
with us and that there is a wider faith view. How do you square
that with what, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain and
the Chief Rabbi, who are two very significant voices, have said?
Do you just discount those as being in some way a distorted voice
and completely unrepresentative of the wider faith communities
of this country?
My point was not that the other religious groups that might speak
up for Bishops in the Lords and the establishment of the Church
of England did so only because they agreed with the Church of
England. My point about that was that the Church of England could
claim to speak for other religions only to the extent that they
were speaking for the other religions that agreed with them, so
the point that I was making was the other way round. On the second
point, about my view of those things, it is relatively easy to
stitch up a sort of multi-faith consensus on the question of establishment
among the leadership level of national religious organisations,
but I would be very surprised if that 74 per cent of people who
are against Bishops in the Lords as of right did not contain any
Muslims, Jews, Hindus or people of other religions. I can see
very easily how in discussions you might come to a particular
agreement with the Chief Rabbi, but I do not think that that should
be taken as indicating any particular views among British Jews.
I think that Theos ought to comment on that.
We need to be careful about taking one answer from one survey
as creating a broad picture of public opinion. We have tried to
look at as many different polls as possible and I think that the
picture that you get is one of ambivalence. What we see is that,
in that same 2010 ICM poll, 43 per cent of people thought that
it was very or fairly important for institutional religion to
a role in public life. In 2007, a YouGov survey found that 46
per cent of people were indifferent to the question of Bishops
in the Lords, followed by 28 per cent who thought it was a good
thing and 17 per cent who thought it was a bad thing. In that
same year, a BBC and ComRes poll showed that there was 48 per
cent support for Bishops in the Lords versus 43 per cent against.
We need to look at a broad spectrum of information and come to
the conclusion that there is no easy or clear argument to make
here from public opinion.
Although none of those figures indicates a majority of people
in favour of Bishops.
That is true. There is no easy or clear argument in either direction.
The Chairman: It
is like a ping-pong match.
Can you give me a clue where you are coming from in all this?
I have to confess that I am not as clear as I should be about
what exactly humanists stand for.
I cannot answer that.
I am the humanist. A good definition of a humanist would be someone
who had a view of life that was not religious, who located values
and meaning in the here and now, who trusted to a scientific and
rational approach to finding out about the universe and who had
a human-centred, present-world-centred approach in deciding what
was right to do and what meaning there could be in life. The British
Humanist Association is an organisation that promotes education
about and public awareness of that view of things. It also provides
certain community servicesfor example, non-religious funerals
and other services that non-religious people in the community
find it difficult to access where those things have traditionally
been provided by, for example, religious groups. A third area
of work that we engage in is advocacy and public policy issues,
particularly in questions of discrimination either in public life
or in the treatment of individuals on the basis of religion or
belief. Our interest in this particular question is in having
a constitution in this country where there is no in-built privilege
in favour of or disadvantage against anyone on grounds of their
religion or belief.
Where does Theos come from?
Theos comes from a broadly ecumenical Christian perspective. We
are a research organisation seeking to draw on Christian political
thought in our thinking around what makes a good society. We look
at the place of religion in society and the role it should play
in 21st-century Britain and the role that it is playing. We draw
both on empirical research and on theological, philosophical and
sociological existing arguments.
Q459 Lord Trefgarne:
Thank you both.
This is a question for Andrew. Perhaps you could clarify this
point. You say in paragraph 8: "The proposals do not simply
maintain the status quo but create a new, independent and largely
unaccountable bloc for the Church of England in Parliament."
Do you think that Bishops currently act as a bloc?
Obviously not in terms of all voting together or all turning out
on particular issues necessarily, but I can think of a couple
of instances where one might describe their activities as bloc-ish.
One example is when they were speaking up on Equality Act exemptions
on grounds of sexual orientationthey were looking for exemptions
for religious groups, the Church of England being one of them,
from the duty to treat people equally on grounds of sexual orientation.
I think that their behaviour then was that they were of one mind
and behaved in that way. Obviously, the Bishop of Leicester is
about to tell me that that is not true, but I think also that,
in relation to the Private Member's Bill on assisted dying for
the terminally ill, an impartial observer would have seen their
behaviour as caucus-like. Generally, obviously, I accept the point
that they are not all there at the same time and that they have
different portfolios, responsibilities, areas of interest and
specialisms, but none of that affects my view that they should
not be there as of right at all.
Might I come in on that? I would just like to make it clear that
in neither of those cases were the Bishops' votes decisive. In
the Joffe case in 2006, we saw 14 out of 26 Bishops, which was
the largest turnout in a very long time. I would like to point
out that there will be cases in which all kinds of Peers end up
in the same Lobbies, because they have shared convictions. Not
agreeing with the way that they voted is not necessarily a reason
to assume that they are indeed voting as a bloc.
I would agree with that, of course.
I think that I will cede to the Bishop of Leicester.
Bishop of Leicester:
On the Equality Bill, the issue was: where is the boundary of
state interference appropriately located and how far should it
legislate for the internal organisation of faith communities?
That was the issue on which the Bishops stood togetherto
try to define where that boundary should be. I just make that
point for the record, Lord Chairman.
Baroness Scott of Needham
Market: Before I take
any notes from the Bishop, I would ask him the question the other
way round: where does one appropriately define the boundaries
of how far the church can interfere with the state in terms of
legislation? Nevertheless, he is not in the witness stand. I really
wanted to ask Theos a question. At the moment, Peers do not represent
anyone. We are here in our own right. Clearly we all have interests.
Many of us have a sort of representative role but it is not formalised
in any way. The only exception to that is the Bishops, who are
there as of right in a particular way. Why do you think, of all
the groups one could possibly have sitting in the House of Lords
by right, Church of England Bishops should be the one group?
I would like to make it clear that we are not ideologically committed
to that mode of achieving the objective of having religious voices
represented as religious voices. That is one way and there are
lots of pragmatic and symbolic reasons for it. We see the House
of Lords as a constituency of constituencies. We see institutions
of civil society representedof rather, reflected. We need
to be quite careful about the language of representation. Any
appointed section of a reformed House of Lords would not be in
any commonly understood sense representative. As the Archbishop
of Canterbury pointed out, the existing Lords spiritual do not
see themselves as representative of the Church of England or indeed
Christianity. They are individual Lords of Parliament. It may
be that the rest of the world assumes that that is what they are
doing, but that is now how they conceive of their role. We do
not think a system where religious voices are seen as representative
is workable. We think that in that appointed section, where the
voices and major institutions of civil society and important groups
within the UK today see their voices reflected, it is entirely
within the spirit of the Bill that religious voices are among
Baroness Scott of Needham
Market: I was simply trying to make the
pointwhich, with respect, I do not think you addressedthat
all these other organisations and organs are not represented as
of right. They may happen to be represented by Members of the
House of Lords who happen to be there, but there is nothing constitutionally
that ensures that different parts of civil society are represented,
except for Church of England Bishops.
That is certainly the case.
Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield:
Andrew, I respect your positiongenuinely I dobut
of all the people to get upset about, the Anglican Bishops are
almost entirely herbivorous and socially sensitive. They are great
company. You seem to have a real animus towards them, which I
am sure does not fit with your aim. That is just an observation.
My question is about this: the opinion surveys suggest that, even
though we are a very secular society, particularly in England,
we are still very strongly in the UK a believing but not a belonging
society. People do not turn up on the day. A million people still
go to Anglican churches every Sunday or most Sundays, but by and
large people do not go to church in the way that they used to,
even when I was younger. But opinion surveys show that they still
believe. Normally, about three-quarters of the population on most
surveys still believe. So in many ways the C of E in particular
speaks to many people's faith instincts in this country. I just
want you to recognise that. I rather have the feeling that you
do but the manner of your attack on my herbivorous friend, the
Bishop of Leicester and his colleagues has perhaps taken my breath
I have absolutely no animus against Bishops per se, only against
the position that Bishops are accorded in the current set-up of
the House of Lords. It is worth pointing out that although they
may be mainly herbivorousin the sense that I think you
meant to imply of placidity, mild manners and so onthey
have taken actions where I think they have done great damage.
For example, if you are someone who believes in the right of someone
who is terminally ill to have access to an assisted death, you
would have a slightly more carnivorous view of what they have
done and the effect of it than the one that you have expressed.
In terms of the second point, that we are a society that is believing
without belonging, I do not think that that is true. There is
data to suggest quite the oppositethat actually people
are more belonging than believing. More people describe themselves
as Christians than believe in Jesus Christ, for example, or God.
The percentages of people taking on that self-identification are
much higher than the percentages of people believing. Professor
David Voas of the University of Manchester is probably one of
our best demographers on religious matters. His very good article
on belonging without believing is the corrective to that view.
Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield:
Perhaps you could send me that.
Yes, I will do, certainly.
Q462 Gavin Barwell:
I will try to ask a question of each of you to give you both a
chance to express a view. I am not sure if you have had the chance,
Andrew, to see the written evidence that Theos put in.
No, I have not seen the Theos evidence.
Gavin Barwell: I
will very briefly summarise the point that I wanted to make. They
make four arguments about the principle of religious representation.
One of them you will not agree with, but there are the other three.
A significant proportion of the population still have religious
observanceone can argue about the exact figure, but there
is certainly a significant proportion. High levels of social capital
come from that. Some of the issues that Parliament looks at are
moral issues and it is right that people of religious backgrounds
and faith should be part of the mix of people who get to comment
on that and make observation on it. I entirely understand your
arguments against anyone being there as of right but I was quite
surprised when, in the Lord Chairman's question to you at the
start that suggested that you might have 12 representatives out
of 300, say, in the House, you thought that that was a large number.
I put it to you that, given the number of people in the UK who
have some kind of religious faith, that does not seem to be an
unreasonable number. I am not talking about being there by right,
but if an Appointments Commission placed that sort of number of
people of a faith background into an appointed second Chamber,
that would not strike me as unreasonable. Can I ask the other
question at the same time? In the Theos evidence, you say in paragraph
4b, in terms of the Bishops being appointed: "The existing
arrangements are ecclesiologically and theologically appropriate
to the Church of England". Do you think they are constitutionally
appropriate to the UK? You say that they are right for the church
but are they right for the UK as a whole?
I will try to answer both points of your question very quickly.
In relation to the first part, obviously there are people in Britain
today of many different and contrasting religious and non-religious
world views, beliefs and practices. I hope that an Appointments
Commission would end up withwhether they were clergymen,
ministers or notan appropriately representative range of
those views, either just incidentally or, I suppose if they specifically
wanted to plug some gaps, maybe that way. As I said, there are
plenty of Christians in the House of Lords who are not Bishops
and plenty of Members of the House of Lords of other religions
who are not clerics in the same way. The second question
Q463 Gavin Barwell:
Can I just push you on that? Do you think that leading people
of the major faiths in this country have not unique but particular
expertise on moral questions that come before Parliament?
Leaders? People who are particularly high up in the hierarchy?
Yes. They might not have unique expertise, and there may be others
with expertise, but would you accept that they have expertise?
I should think that probably the Archbishop of Canterbury has
an equivalent level of expertise as a chair of moral philosophy
at some university. If you were going to have one, I could see
that you would have the otherthrough an Appointments Commission.
I can see that there might be expertise there. On the second point
about the number 12, I was answering specifically the question
of whether 12 Anglicans in a Chamber of that size would be appropriate.
I think you were asking in your question about 12 religious people
generally. Professor Iain McLean in his little table of all the
different numbers of different religious people whom we would
have in a truly representative House, with 77 religious people
including 16 Anglicans and 17 Roman Catholics in order to achieve
that sort of representation, gives a reason why it is not possible.
That is to take an obviously unworkable number of people within
any appointment mechanism.
My answer would be that, yes, it is constitutionally appropriate,
given where we are now, which is that establishment is part of
our unwritten constitution and we are constitutionally, at least,
a Christian nation. We are not here to defend establishment, but
that is a fact of our current situation. Also, we probably want
to echo what a 2007 UCL Constitution Unit report, Breaking
the Deadlock, said. Reform of the House of Lords and the establishment
of the Church of England are two very complex and intertwined
issues. It is probably sensible, given that there is no major
consensus or real clamour for disestablishment or to move in that
direction as part of the reform of the House of Lords. Bishops
in the Lords are not entirely necessary for establishment. We
know that it is an ecology of things, a cord of many strands.
But any removal of Bishops from the House of Lords as part of
this reform would move towards disestablishment and that is a
significant knot to begin to unpick. I will just make the further
point that we are not in any way aberrant across western Europe
or among flourishing democracies in having intertwined relationships
between church and state. The now truism that only Iran has religious
representation like that in the House of Lords becomes a little
jaded when you see that, across western Europe, Finland has an
established church, Denmark collects taxes and pays the clergy,
and Greece, Germany and Switzerland all have very entangled relationships
between church and state. It does not seem to hamper their democracy
unnecessarily. I think that is a long way of saying, "Yes,
at the moment".
Thank you very much. I understand that we are about to become
non-quorate, in which case I fear that we have to call this session
to an end. I thank both of you for coming. You have been very
helpful. What you said in conjunction with the papers that you
put in has made things much clearer for us. Thank you very much
indeed, as it was very helpful.