Thursday, 5 July 2012

Oh Lordy

The government recently published the House of Lords reform bill which proposes  radical changes to the Upper Chamber.  However, there is one area that remains unaltered: the unique privilege awarded to the Church of England. Although there will be a reduction in the number of free seats for the Lords Spiritual, (from 26 to 12)  this matches the overall cut in numbers to the Lords.

I am in favour of reforming the Lords but believe reform should include the removal of automatic representation for the Church of England (CofE). 

Currently, the Lords are split into Lords Spiritual (CofE Bishops) and Lords Temporal.  The Lords Spiritual are in the minority making up just 4% of the total.  Interestingly the 2007 Tearfund report on church attendance in the UK found that only 4% of the public regularly attend a CofE church. Church attendance is in decline and it is estimated that when the Lords transition is complete in 2025, church attendance will have dropped by a third.

If the Lords was set up for purely religious issues this proportion would  have been fair, five years ago.  In this scenario, in addition to the CofE bishops, there would be 72 leaders of other Christian religions, 39 leaders from other faiths, and 305 leading atheists. With 205 'cultural' Christians all 650 Lords would be Lords Spiritual and there would be no Lords Temporal! 

In reality, none of these other groups get free places and the House of Lords does not arbitrate spiritual disputes. The CofE representation is therefore totally inequitable and out of all proportion.

One would imagine that the Lords Spiritual would be amongst the hardest working of our peers, to show their appreciation for their privileged position. Well actually, they do very little in the House.

Reviewing the attendance records for bishops over the last three months,  they clocked up a total of 224 days  or  19.1% of the days they could have attended. Not only that, but their contribution to debate is poor and they only vote on 4.5% of issues. 

A clue as to why there is a huge mismatch between the attendance and voting can be found in the report of  the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill

"They attend as their episcopal duties allow and a rota system ensures that there is always at least one bishop in the House each day, to read prayers at the start of the day's business."
Essentially, the Bishops turn up to churn out their prayers, collect their expenses and leave.

It makes no sense to give the CofE disproportionate representation. They don't appear to be anything other than an expensive ceremonial throwback. This bill needs to be amended.   If you feel the same, you can pass on your thoughts on the matter to your MP at the Holy Redundant website.

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