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Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

Volume 591: debated on Monday 19 January 2015

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Clause 1

Vacancies among the Lords Spiritual

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

This is a very short Bill, with just one substantive clause. As we have already heard, the Bill has a single purpose, which is to enable vacancies among the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords to be filled as they arise by the most senior female bishop at the time, if there are any appointed at that point, in preference to the most senior male bishop. Male bishops would continue to become Members of the Lords if there were no qualifying female bishops at the time a vacancy arose. The seniority of a bishop is determined under clause 1(3) by reference to the date at which her election as a bishop of a diocese in England was confirmed. This reflects the way in which seniority is determined for the purposes of the Bishoprics Act 1878, which currently provides for bishops to become Members of the House of Lords.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should like briefly to clarify one point. In the Church of England, there are two types of bishop: diocesan bishops and suffragan—essentially assistant—bishops. Future diocesan bishops are often, but not always, given a suffragan appointment first. The Bill relates only to diocesan bishops in England as the Lords Spiritual are drawn only from among their ranks. As the Lords Spiritual are drawn from the diocesan bishops, the Bill will not immediately affect the first female suffragan bishops until and unless they are appointed to a diocese.

While the 1878 Act provides for 21 of the 26 Lords Spiritual to become Members of the House of Lords on the basis of seniority, a further five are automatically Members of the House of Lords on the basis of the see they occupy. These are the holders of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York and the bishoprics of London, Durham and Winchester. Because the holders of those sees are automatically Members of the House of Lords, clause 1(5) effectively provides for vacancies among those senior ex officio sees to be excluded from these transitional arrangements. When a vacancy arises for one of those five sees, it could be filled by a woman or a man.

Clause 1(1)(a) will ensure that the provisions are time-limited and that they cease to have effect 10 years after the Bill comes into force. The special arrangements must last long enough to provide sufficient opportunities to appoint women as bishops and for female bishops to become Members of the House of Lords as vacancies among the Lords Spiritual arise. Nonetheless, this is rightly a short-term transitional measure that will last until such time as it has become routine for women, like men, to have been in office for several years. The point was made earlier that if representation has not reached the expected level, action could be taken to address that. If the Church is unhappy with the change at the end of the 10-year period, it could ask the Government to take action. I think the Government of the day would respond positively.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking up that point. Would it be sensible to build a review into the Bill, or at least assure the House that it is on the Government’s agenda, so that the legislation can be examined in good time to ensure that it can be extended or new mechanisms can be put in place?

That is a matter for the Church and I am sure it will want to keep that under review. It will be able to see, through its own appointments process and the legislation, the impact on the number of women bishops and Lords Spiritual. If the Church feels in future that there is a need for the Government to take action, I am sure the Government would want to address that. As the years move by, I am sure that the pressure for equal representation will grow even more significantly, and that the Church and this place will have to respond to it effectively.

The Church believes that 10 years will be enough to ensure that the Bishops’ Bench in the Lords better reflects the gender diversity of bishops in the country, and to address the inherent inequality presented by the current system in the shorter term. After the end of the 10-year period—effectively at the start of the 2025 Parliament—the existing arrangements will resume.

I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer than is necessary, because I very much support the Bill, as does everybody who is left in Parliament this afternoon. However, I want to probe the Minister a little further on the time-limiting measures—on which we have just had a very useful exchange, through interventions, on Second Reading—and to make a helpful suggestion.

When Parliament was considering what more it could do to address the lack of gender equality in this place back in 2002, the Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Bill was amended to enable political parties to take positive action to reduce inequality. The measure today seeks to do something similar. At that time, a sunset clause, which expired in 2015, was introduced. It was extended in the Equality Act 2010, so that political parties, should they so choose, could have the ability to take actions that in other ways would be considered to be positive discrimination. When the Minister draws the Committee stage to a conclusion, will he indicate whether, should it be necessary at the end of the 10-year sunset period and should the Church feel it desirable, Parliament could again consider the Bill and add an extension, just as the Equality Act 2010 extended the previous sunset clause to 2030?

I intervene briefly to support what the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have just said. The Church, as the Minister reminded us, has requested the 10-year period. All of us on both sides of the House hope we will see sufficient progress during the 10-year period for the sunset clause to come into effect. However, it would be useful to hear from the Minister a commitment, which could be shared on both sides of the House, that if significant progress is not made the Government of the day will talk to the Church about extending the legislation in exactly the same way as the legislation relating to political party selections was extended by the Equality Act 2010.

Clearly, as I stated earlier, this is a matter for senior clergy, including senior female clergy, to keep under review and to raise with Governments if they feel it has not been addressed within the 10 years. There could be many factors at play that make it impossible to meet any target if they or we were to set one at this point. As I said, therefore, this is a matter for the clergy to respond to. While I personally could make a commitment regarding what will happen in 2025, it would rather prejudge certain factors, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) knows, no Government can commit a future Government to any particular action. However, it is certainly something that future Governments would, I hope, want to consider positively if a further request were made and if, at the end of the 10 years, the representation of women bishops or Lords Spiritual had not been addressed in a way that the clergy and House of Commons thought appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Commencement, extent and short title

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I warn Members that my comments on clause 2 will be even shorter than those on clause 1.

The clause covers commencement and territorial extent, and gives the short title of the Bill. It is a technical clause that provides that the Bill will come into force on the day Parliament first meets after the forthcoming general election. It extends to all parts of the United Kingdom as it relates to membership of the House of Lords and may be cited as “Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015”.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I will be very brief. The Bill responds to the welcome decision of the Church to allow women to become bishops. It will ensure that female bishops will not have to wait to join their male counterparts in the House of Lords, thereby addressing a temporary unfairness in the current system until the appointment of both male and female bishops becomes routine. As we conclude our debate, I would like to thank hon. Members across the House for their support in making quick progress with this short, but important Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

When he spoke earlier, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) described the Bill as “unopposable”. I agree with him. The speeches at each stage of our proceedings over the last two hours demonstrate the strength of support for the Bill on both sides of the House. It is an intelligent measure, it is an equality measure and it is something the Church has asked us to do. I am delighted to support its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.