Lord Burns, Chair of the House of Lords Committee responsible for reducing the number of peers, has stated that the Committee believes there should be a reduction in the number of seats reserved for Church of England bishops but has not recommended as such as it would have caused a ‘distraction’. His statement follows the announcement of proposals last week to reduce the number of peers from approximately 800 to 600. Humanists UK responded to the Committee’s consultation and criticised the lack of any proposed changes in the number of bishops, but today welcomes Lord Burns’ comments.
Lord Burns claims that a reduction in the number of bishops did not form part of the proposals because it would have caused a ‘distraction’ from the main aim of the Committee’s work which was to reduce the number peers without introducing new legislation. Reducing the number of bishops would require legislation. However, he suggested that a reduction in bishops should be addressed at a later point.
Several current bishops, as well as the former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, have also suggested that the question of the number of bishops should be addressed. The Rt Rev David Urquhart, the Bishop of Birmingham and convenor of the bishops in the House of Lords, has stated that the bishops are not averse to discussing a reduction in their numbers in principle and that there were different views among them as to their number and proportion.
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented, ‘We are pleased that the Lords reform committee, and indeed some of the bishops themselves, have recognised that the number of bishops in the House of Lords needs to be addressed. We were disappointed that the committee’s proposals don’t directly address this issue. It is unfair, unjustified, and unpopular that we remain the only democratic sovereign state to have religious leaders sit as of right in our Parliament. This has long been egregious but is only becoming more so as our society gets more diverse.’
Context to the proposals
The UK is the only democratic sovereign state in the world that gives seats in its legislature to religious representatives as a right. Currently, 26 bishops from the Church of England are selected automatically to sit in the House of Lords. These bishops vote on legislation, make interventions and lead prayers at the start of each day’s business.
Any proposed reduction in the overall size of the House of Lords without a corresponding reduction in the number of seats reserved for bishops will result the Church being a more effective voting bloc able to further the church’s agenda. This is despite the recent British Social Attitudes Survey revealing that only 15 percent of the public describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, with this figure falling to 3 percent among young adults.
The removal of the bishops is a popular proposal with an opinion poll from 2012 revealing that 74 percent of the public, including 70 percent of Christians, believe that it is wrong that Church of England bishops are given an automatic seat in the House of Lords.
For further comment or information please contact Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7324 3072.
Read more about the Humanists UK’s campaigns around bishops in the House of Lords: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/secularism/constitutional-reform/bishops-in-the-lords/
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Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/