The UK Parliament automatically awards 26 seats in the House of Lords to bishops of the Church of England. These bishops are able to (and do) vote on legislation, make interventions, and lead prayers at the start of each day’s business.
The UK is the only democratic country in the world to give seats in its legislature to religious representatives as of right. This is not just a harmless legacy of a medieval constitution but a present example of discrimination, religious privilege and undemocratic politics. It survives in spite of the Church of England commanding little public support, with only 16% of the population professing to affiliation according to the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey (and only 1.4% being in Church on any given Sunday, according to the Church’s own attendance figures).
Our campaign for a secular state that treats everyone equally, regardless of religion or belief, means we campaign to see the bishops no longer have an automatic right to seats. If religious representatives wish to be in the House of Lords they should seek to gain representation through the same channels as everyone else.
In 2011, during the last major proposals on reform of the Lords, we led the debate with our ‘Holy Redundant’ campaign, calling for the bishops to lose their automatic seats. When Lords reform is next high up the political agenda we will again lead calls for this change.
The presence of the Church of England in the House of Lords entrenches a privileged position for one particular branch of one particular religion. This cannot be justified in today’s society, which is not only multi-faith but increasingly non-religious. It is at odds with the aspiration for a more legitimate and representative second chamber and with affirmation of a plural society.
Humanists UK’s detailed 2011 briefing Religious Representatives in the House of Lords provides a background to the issue, and sets out the arguments made for and against retaining the Bishops and those for increasing and diversifying religious representation. The briefing also provides information on the wider context of secularism and disestablishment, and sets out what can be done about the present situation.
There are a number of other areas where Parliament needs reforming to remove religious discrimination. In the Houses of Parliament, business starts each day with prayers. After the prayers members are not required to leave the chamber before following business. This means that if the first debate of the day is very popular, then those MPs and peers who do not wish to take part in prayers often struggle to get a seat and therefore are less likely to be chosen to speak in the debate. Members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group complain to us about this issue more than any other. This fundamentally affects the ability of all views to have equal opportunity to be heard. Prayers should be scrapped or at least replaced by ‘time for reflection’ that rotates amongst different religious and non-religious worldviews, as is the case in the Scottish Parliament.
Equally egregious is that if in a debate in the House of Lords a bishop stands up to speak, then they always get precedence over any other individual, who must give way.
What we’re doing
We have long argued for the removal of the right of Bishops to sit in the House of Lords, especially since the prospects for reform became (slightly) greater in 2002, and the public are strongly on our side in wanting to remove this religious privilege. An ICM survey conducted on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in March 2010 found that 74% of the British public – including 70% of Christians – believe it is wrong that Bishops have an automatic right to a seat in the House of Lords. The Lord Chancellor’s 2002 consultation showed a similar pattern of responses: 56% wanted no Bishops, and 15% wanted them only as individual appointments through the appointments procedure.
Most recently, in 2011-12, the government proposed to retain a (proportionately greater) number of seats for Church of England Bishops in a smaller, partially appointed but mainly elected chamber. It also proposed to give the Church of England new powers to choose which bishops represent the Church, and to exempt those Bishops from provisions which would apply to other members, including those on expulsion and suspension, creating a new, independent and largely unaccountable bloc for the Church of England in our parliament. Thousands of members of the public protested by writing to their MP and the minister then responsible for Lords Reform Nick Clegg. We also submitted written evidence to the Joint Committee looking at the draft House of Lords Reform Bill, and were subsequently invited to give oral evidence to the Committee on our position. The wider reform proposals were subsequently dropped, but ministers later said that they received more correspondence speaking against the place of the bishops than they did on any other issue related to Lords reform.
Since then Humanists UK has continued to work with MPs and peers to speak out against the place of the Bishops. For instance, in 2015 we pointed out that the introduction of the first female Bishop still meant that they represent a tiny proportion of the population; we also helped young humanists speak out from within the Lords chamber on the need to strengthen our democracy, including getting rid of the Bishops. In 2016 MPs from the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group also voiced concern at the Bishops’ continuing presence.
You can also support Humanists UK’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.