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Government proposals actually increase proportion of unelected, Church of England Bishops in Parliament

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. 

Under current arrangements, 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 commented:

‘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. 

Mr Copson continued, ‘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 1000 people from different backgrounds.

For further comment or information, contact BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson on 07534 248596, or BHA Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips on 07540 257101.

Find out more information about the 2010 ICM poll.

Some further figures from other polls:

42% of people questioned said that the Government paid too much attention to religious groups and leaders (ICM December 2006)

For more information read the BHA’s briefing on Bishops in the Lords. Key points include:

The presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords as of right entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one particular religion that cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious. 

The claim that Bishops are uniquely qualified to provide ethical and spiritual insights is factually incorrect and offensive. 

The presence of Church representatives in the legislature has ceased to be an accurate reflection of UK society and, indeed, increasing numbers of people are opposed to political privileges for religion (‘Religious groups and leaders’ are the domestic group that people are most likely to believe has too much influence on government (MORI, 2006))

Read more on the BHA’s work on Bishops in the House of Lords.

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