House of Lords Reform

The last item of business at the July 2000 meeting of General Synod before the closing Eucharist was due to be a debate on the Church of England’s response to the Wakeham report on the reform of the House of Lords. Unfortunately this debate was cancelled because of pressure of other business. The following is the speech that I had hoped to give during the debate.

I want to talk about the nature of the Church of England’s formal representation in the reformed second chamber. The Royal Commission says that its recommendations will require the Church of England to think carefully about this and that the Church should take the lead in finding a satisfactory basis for determining how its representatives, whether bishops or not, should be identified.

The Church of England Response is based on keeping representation by bishops in order of seniority - so all (or most) serve for only a short time. Individual bishops now can devote only a few days a year to the House of Lords and there are typically only one or two there at a time. The present arrangements cannot work with many fewer than 26 bishops and the Response quite rightly points this out. But all it then does is start an argument over numbers; should it be 16 or 20 or some other compromise figure? It fails to tackle the real question: is the present system of representation the right one? Paragraph 17 mentions the Commission’s suggestion that others should fill some or all of the Church of England’s places, but can only say that continuity of service and the possible reduction in numbers both point in the direction of those places being filled by bishops.

Now I agree with the Commission’s view that many of the members of the second chamber should be part-time members, but there is a world of difference between someone who attends half-time and one who is there for only a few days a year. If the Church of England had several half-time members it would have a consistent presence and those members could get to know (and be known by) other members. Clearly our bishops cannot fulfil that role.

So, who should the Church of England representatives be? Now, I don’t want to get rid of all the bishops. Many of them make valuable contributions because they are bishops, and this should continue. However it should not be every bishop for a few years, but a few for a longer period so that they can gain experience. And note that I said “bishop” - not “diocesan bishop”.

And then the half-timers. I am sure that there are many, both lay and clergy, in this chamber today (and outside) who could fulfil this role. We already have clergy combining a half-time sector post with a half-time parish post. The selection procedure for the appointed members of the Archbishops’ Council showed that there were very many able, but often unexpected, people willing to give a great deal of time to the Church.

As the Commission’s Recommendation 115 says: "The Church of England should review the options for providing formal Church of England representation in the reformed second chamber." Now, I’m not saying that I have all the answers, but I am prepared to consider alternatives to the present arrangements, and I believe that the Church of England as a whole should do the same. It’s not good enough to take the unimaginative, backward-looking view of the Response.

Peter Owen
20 August 2000