The Government’s proposal to retain 12 reserved seats for Church of England Bishops would actually mean an increase proportionately of the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords. Keeping any reserved seats for the Bishops would be an affront to democracy and antithetical to the aims of a fairer and more egalitarian parliament, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has claimed.
The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out the Government’s plans in a statement to the House of Commons from 15.30 on Tuesday 17 May. The Government’s proposals include a significant reduction in membership of the chamber, from nearly 800 at present to 300, and between 80-100% elected and the remaining appointed. At present, 26 Bishops of the Church of England are entitled to sit in the House of Lords as of right; the only such example of clergy holding automatic membership of a legislature in a modern democracy.
At present, Bishops make up 3% of the House of Lords. Under the Government’s proposals that would increase to 4%. Reducing the number of reserved seats for Bishops from 26 to 12 would actually increase their presence proportionately in the chamber.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has commented as follows (and I wholeheartedly agree):
‘The presence of unelected prelates is an anomaly within our system of government, and their retention, even in diminished numbers, would be an indefensible affront to democratic principles. In no other legislative chamber are elected or appointed representatives deemed so insufficiently qualified to deal with matters of belief and morality that they require supplementing by clergy. Retaining the Lords Spiritual and actually increasing their presence proportionately is completely at odds with the aspiration of a more legitimate and representative second chamber.’
A 2010 ICM poll found that 74% of people think it is ‘wrong’ for Bishops to be given an automatic seat in the Lords, and that 48% said that it was not important for Church of England Bishops to have a role in the Lords. The poll questioned over 1,000 people from different backgrounds.