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Bishops in the House of Lords

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of bishops in the House of Lords.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. Some people, perhaps including members of my party, might wonder why a member of the SNP has secured a debate on the House of Lords, so I want to make it clear from the outset that my principal role here today is as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary humanist group, which comprises more than 150 Members of both Houses and has representatives from all the main political parties. I moved the motion in that capacity.

As secretary of the same group, I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, which is not only overdue, but timely: as he knows, yesterday in the Lords, there were amendments to the Government’s legislation. I suspect he agrees with the principle of those amendments—he and I differ on that—and he probably agrees with me that the archbishop who tabled them is a very distinguished Member of that House, but does he share my sense of unease about somebody who has not been elected or appointed, and who is merely in the Lords in his capacity as a bishop, potentially changing the law of this country?

Absolutely, and that goes to the core of the argument I am about to make, but I start by thanking all the members of the all-party humanist group, many of whom wanted to participate in this debate but could not make it today. I say that so that the public watching know that the interest in this question in Parliament is much wider than they might think from the number of people able to make it here on a Thursday afternoon. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I place on the record my thanks to Humanists UK, which supports our group in Parliament, for the work that it has done, particularly with our patron, Sandi Toksvig, in trying to raise the debate more generally among the press and public.

There are only two countries in the world where clerics are automatically guaranteed a place in the legislature. One is the United Kingdom, and the other is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The question before us is whether we wish to be able to make that same comparison in future.

The hon. Member is broadly accurate, but I am sure he would want to be complete in what he says. They might be small jurisdictions, but the Tynwald, which is older than this Parliament, last month reinstated the cleric who sits in that Parliament. Also, the Dean of Jersey is a member of the States Assembly in Jersey. I say that for completeness. Within these islands, what happens here is not unique.

I am talking about national Parliaments and legislatures, so it is only the United Kingdom and Iran to which this applies. The question before us is about an arrangement made in pre-democratic, feudal times, under which the Church of England is, at the heart of our constitution, guaranteed automatic representation. Does that have public legitimacy in the 21st century, in a country that aspires to be open and democratic, and in which a clear majority of citizens do not identify with that Church? Is it appropriate that we should continue with that? I submit that it is not.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way again. I apologise for intervening, but I have to leave for a Bill Committee in a moment and I want to get these points on the record; I am grateful to him for letting me. Does he agree that there is a way in which religious people could be represented in the Lords, and indeed are already? We already put the Chief Rabbi and the Chief Iman into the Lords through appointments. If we are to continue to have an appointed Lords—opinions differ in this place on that—people in the Church of England could be appointed to the Lords in the same way. It just should not happen as of right.

Absolutely. The hon. Member again pre-empts what I will say. I shall come on to that, because I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that people of faith, or faith leaders, should not play a major role in our public life and public discourse and be representatives in Parliament. What we are concerned about here is the automatic right of one Church—one institution—to a privileged position and guaranteed representation at the heart of power.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate, and for his really good speech. The UK is an increasingly diverse place when it comes to religion and belief. I speak as a humanist —I declare that as an interest. That is my belief, but I champion the rights of all religions and beliefs. On the point about one particular branch of one particular belief being represented, does he agree that that is not really where we should be in a pluralistic society?

I do; again, the hon. Lady pre-empts what I will say. I am coming on to exactly that point. However, I wanted to say, just in case anyone thinks otherwise, that we are not talking about a ceremonial arrangement; there is nothing cosmetic or decorative about the situation of the bishops in the House of Lords. We are talking about real, effective, political power. The bishops vote on matters in the legislature, and there are plenty of occasions when their votes have been decisive. It does not really matter—in answer to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell)—whether I agree or disagree with the position that a bishop takes in any vote; the question is whether they should have an automatic right to that vote.

Generally, of course, the bishops’ influence is what one might call socially conservative, particularly when it comes to controversial and passionate arguments about equalities, same-sex marriage, assisted dying and many other issues that have a moral dimension. That element of the legislature tends to create an in-built conservative majority, which places the legislature and Parliament at odds with the attitudes of the general public.

Also, of course, in the House of Lords, the bishops are effectively a group. They have their own chair, and they are treated as a political party, in terms of the information and consultation that they get on the framing of legislation. Some people probably do not know that they even have priority and privilege over other Members of the House of Lords. By convention and protocol, when a bishop stands up to speak, whoever is speaking must shut up, sit down and give way, whereas in the House of Commons, a speaker has discretion to decide whether to take an intervention. That is not the protocol in the House of Lords.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the bishops have that right, but if he observes debates in the Lords, he will find that the bishops are very generous and gracious in giving way to other speakers. It may be a right that they have, and he may be right that it is old-fashioned—I would perhaps agree with him on that—but in practice, I think he will find that the bishops are generous and gracious about having their arguments and points tested in debate.

But there are plenty of occasions when it has happened, much to the chagrin of Members of the House of Lords who contributed to the Humanist Society’s report on the matter.

The final thing that I want to say about the way that the bishops operate is that the code of conduct in the House of Lords, and particularly its strictures on conflicts of interest, does not apply to the Lords Spiritual. In effect, it is accepted that they would not have a conflict of interest, or if they did, that it should be ignored. In effect, one Church—the Church of England—has 26 paid professional advocates, right at the heart of the constitutional arrangements of this country, who are there to protect and advance the interests of that institution. That gives the Church of England an unfair advantage in this democratic system.

In preparing for this debate, I looked at what happened in deep history, because the relationship between Church and state, and the history of bishops in the Lords, is very old. I read about a controversy in the time of Richard II, centuries before the country that I represent in this place was even part of governance arrangements. At that time, a majority of Members of the legislature were Church representatives. In fairness, no one would claim that was democratic, but a bunch of people took decisions, and the majority of them were representatives of the Church.

That changed with the dissolution of the monasteries, after which Church representatives became a minority in the upper Chamber, and in 1847 the number of bishops in the House of Lords was capped at 26. The situation has not been reviewed since. Some on the conservative side of the argument will say that the fact that the arrangement is so old is reason in itself to protect and not challenge it, but we are talking about our democratic constitution; it is not good enough to leave untouched and unreviewed an arrangement that is so obviously out of touch with our times.

The time is right for a review. We first need to identify the mores, attitudes and norms of the society in which we live and which our Parliament is meant to govern. Everyone will admit that they have changed remarkably, even in our lifetime. In the 1950s, one might have been able to describe England or Scotland as a Christian country, but that is no longer the case. In the last British social attitudes survey, 52% of the population identified themselves as non-religious, and a further 9% did not answer the question, so the number of people who identify as religious is getting towards a third of the population these days. Within that, only 12% of people say that they identify with the Church of England—and the Church says that only 1% of the population are active in the Church, in the sense of attending services and being part of it in any normal sense. Clearly, there is a great disjunction between the type of country we are and whether the Church should continue to have this privileged and separate representation at the heart of our constitution.

I am not saying—I repeat this point—that it is wrong for people of faith to be involved in our public life and public discourse, and to be representatives in Parliament. I am saying, however, that it is clearly wrong that one Church and one institution in our country has guaranteed and automatic representation at the heart of our governing arrangements. After all, we do not apply that to any other section of society. We do not say that university vice-chancellors, representatives of the royal colleges of medicine or any other part of society should appoint Members to the House of Lords, and we certainly do not say that any other Church or religious group should, so why is this anomaly allowed to persist?

In this debate, we will necessarily engage with the wider context, on two fronts. First, we will invariably get into a debate about the general role of Church and state, and whether the time has come to disestablish the Church of England and have a proper separation of powers, so that we have secular arrangements for our governance. Some time ago, there were plenty of examples of established Churches—indeed, the Anglican Church was established in many other countries—but over time disestablishment has taken place, and I submit that it has been to the benefit of both Church and state. Demonstrably, the state has continued to be there, without being subject to partisan interests, and the Church has been freed from the responsibility, and has been better able to play the role it should in debates taking place among the population: the role of our social and moral conscience.

We can point to no example of the disestablishment of a Church being anything other than beneficial. No one would consider going backwards to re-establish a Church that has been disestablished. That said, there are plenty of examples of established Churches that do not have privileged or guaranteed representation in the legislature. Again, the UK is exceptional in that regard. We need a wider debate about the role of the Church of England in our diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-faith society, but that is not germane to the argument about representation in the House of Lords. We could remove the Church of England’s representation in the House of Lords without disestablishing the Church of England.

The other argument that we get into is the general question of Lords reform. I took part in a radio discussion on this issue this morning, and one caller asked why we were even talking about bishops in the House of Lords, because we should have been talking about having an unelected second Chamber. To some extent, I agree, but I think the bishops’ presence in the House of Lords is a good place to start, because in many ways it is a double affront to the notion of democracy. Not only are the bishops not elected by, or accountable to, the public; they are not even scrutinised and subject to the normal appointment mechanisms for the House of Lords. They are completely separate from that, so if we want to talk about the balance between elected and appointed representatives, and about the role of scrutiny and transparency, the bishops are the best place to start.

Lords reform has been talked about for so long—certainly for all the time I have been in Parliament, and for many decades. I think it was 113 years ago that the Labour party committed to the abolition of the House of Lords. I say that not to have a go; I simply point out that it has been an intractable debate for a very long period. It is useful to have this debate, and to see whether we can engage on the subject. An electoral contest in the United Kingdom is coming, and parties will have to frame propositions on this matter. I wait to be educated by the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), about His Majesty’s Opposition’s thinking with regard to the upper Chamber, but I note the report published by the Labour party at the end of last year, which talked about having a second Chamber. It did not say how the second Chamber would be elected or appointed, but it talked about a Chamber of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I think the presumption is that representatives would be elected in some way. Even within that model, however, there is simply no role or logical place for the Lords Spiritual, so on those grounds, they would have to go.

Hon. Members will hear from the SNP’s Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), about our party’s thinking on this issue, but I should explain why I am engaged in this debate. Of course, my colleagues and I want Scotland to become a politically independent, self-governing country in these islands, and we want a much better, co-operative relationship between the national Governments of Britain. That is something we aspire to, and there is not really any conceivable place for the House of Lords in that arrangement. In many ways, there is a particularly Scottish aspect of this issue, because the bishops represent the Church of England; they do not even represent the Anglican community throughout these islands.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making a very interesting speech. On a point of curiosity, if the worst were to happen and Scotland became independent, would there be an upper Chamber in its legislature? Is that in the SNP’s plans?

That would be a matter for the people of Scotland. My party’s proposal is that if we had consent to move forward and become an independent country, a modern, democratic constitution would be written. We would spell out the rights of each citizen and the process of government. That would be when to debate whether it was necessary to have a bicameral Parliament, or whether a single legislative Chamber would suffice. I note that part of the argument in this place is that we need an upper Chamber because the House of Commons makes so many mistakes. That seems an argument for reform of the House of Commons, rather than justification for an unelected Chamber.

There is a particular attitude in Scotland; people look at the House of Lords, and at the role of the Lords Spiritual within it, and see this very much as another country. They see this as part of the rationale for doing something different, and moving forward to become an independent country.

I will wind up in a moment because I want others to have a chance to contribute, but I want to say that we need to continue this debate. It is very much overdue in this place, and I know that the public are with us on that. I gave some figures about how many people identify as non-religious. When we ask people whether the Church of England should have automatic and guaranteed representation in Parliament, we find that the majorities against that arrangement are phenomenal: 68%, including a majority of Conservative voters, say that it cannot and should not continue.

This is a debate whose time has come. We should make time for it in the main Chamber as we go through to the end of the year, in a time slot that I hope—with all respect to the Backbench Business Committee—will allow more colleagues to participate and engage in the discussion. This is something that gives our democracy a bad name, and it does not do any favours for the Church of England.

I will finish by repeating this point: it is so important that people of faith are engaged in public life. I say that as a humanist and an atheist, but I respect everyone’s right to practise their religion and to have their own belief system. I want to see a pluralist, tolerant society where everyone is respected, so, of course, I want people and faith leaders such as bishops to be involved in our public discourse. I agree with many of their statements and arguments and the way in which many of the bishops vote on many topics of the day. I am not saying in any sense that they should be excluded from our parliamentary system, but they should be there on the same basis as every other citizen. They should be subject to the same rules as everyone else. At the end of the day, surely that is what democracy means: everyone is treated fairly and everyone has the ability to hold others to account.

I commend this discussion to the House and I look forward to it continuing as the months go by. Perhaps we will actually see the framing of some policy on this matter, with will feed into the political debate at the election, and we may even see some change. Or perhaps Scotland will become an independent country first—I do not know.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I had an email from one of my humanist constituents a few days ago asking me to speak in this debate. I told him that I would do so and that I would take an alternative view, but come with a listening ear, and I hope that will be the same for everyone who speaks.

I get the passion that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has for this issue. However, having had the privilege of being a Member of this House for 22 years, I can say that it is not regularly at the top of my constituents’ lists of demands. The good people of South West Bedfordshire are not short of things they want me to get done in this place, but this issue probably does not make the top 50 or even the top 100. I also gently observe that in a House with 650 Members of Parliament, there are only six MPs here this afternoon who do not have to be because of their Front Bench or Parliamentary Private Secretary responsibilities. I know that there are other important debates in the Chamber, and that we may even be on a one-line Whip now and other considerations may call, but it is worth putting that on the record.

I, too, will start with some history—it is important that we remember our history, because if we do not remember where we have come from, we are in danger of repeating the failures of the past. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East is right. In 1301, in addition to the two archbishops and 18 bishops, there were 80 abbots and priors entitled to sit in the House of Lords, but the temporal peers rarely exceeded 50. The hon. Member, who introduced the debate very well, would indeed have a point if anything like those numbers and proportions were the case today. However, bishops today make up just 3% of the House of Lords. I think that it is the second biggest legislature in the world, after that of the People’s Republic of China, and that it tops 850. Of those 26 bishops, it is usual for just one or two to vote. I am told that a large number would be four or five, and six would be right at the top of the scale. I am unsure of how many votes the bishops have swung because they tend to come down on a rota system. They have a pastoral and a spiritual role, and they say Prayers like our Chaplain does in the House of Commons.

I dispute the figures that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East quoted. My reading of the 2021 census is that a majority of people in England and Wales declared a faith. I counter the notion that is put about sometimes that faith is dying; I think that is a myth, and it is unhelpful for the positive development of a modern society. It leads to a disconnect between people of faith and others, and it can lead to problems in the delivery of services. In fact, it is nearer to the truth to say that, in many parts of our country, faith is not just alive, but thriving. That is particularly true in London, where 62% of people identify as religious compared with 53%, which is still a majority, outside London.

The census produces different data from the social attitudes survey, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there is much concern about how the faith questions on the census are asked? It asks about affiliation, rather than belief. There are many people who answer “C of E” or whatever to that question because that is what they were born into. It is not what they believe and who they are now.

The hon. Gentleman is right in that how a question is asked can determine the answer, but it was a free choice and plenty of people put down, “No faith”. In the last census, a majority of people in England and Wales declared a religious faith, and it is important to put that on the record.

The Church of England, as the established Church, takes its responsibility to uphold religious freedom for all extremely seriously. No one put this better than the late Queen. At Lambeth Palace in February 2012, she said:

“The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

Those were wise words from Her late Majesty the Queen, and we would do very well to heed them 11 years after they were spoken.

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner for the Church of England for giving way. The established Church of Scotland, which is really a national Church, not an established Church, takes its role of creating a better society very seriously—we can look at the role of the Committee on Church and Nation in the development of the Scottish Parliament—but it does not sit in an unelected Chamber to create a better society.

I accept that there are different arrangements in different nations around the world, but if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I develop my argument, he will understand why I am making it.

No other major denomination or faith argues for the removal of bishops from the House of Lords. In 2012, other faiths argued for their retention in evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which scrutinised the coalition Government’s Lords reform plans. Indeed, I have spoken to Muslims, for example, who would much rather live under a benign and welcoming established Christian Church of England. What they fear more is a sort of dominant secularism, which they think would cause problems for them as Muslims and for people of all faiths.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman seems to be touching on very dodgy ground. What is he trying to allude to here—if there is a Government led by a Muslim in this country—because there happens to be one in Scotland? And in London.

I did not deny that was the case. I am just pointing back to what actually happened when evidence was being taken by the relevant Bill Committee under the coalition Government for Lords reform. Other faiths argued for the retention of bishops in the Lords, and that is a matter of fact and is on the record.

I suspect that the intention of some Members present would not be to stop with the bishops. I think that some here would like to eradicate the whole footprint of the Church of England across their country. They are entitled to that view—I do not have a problem with that—but it is not a view that I agree with and share, and we argue these things out in this place.

Another important point is that the bishops—

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman pursues his next point, I am slightly alarmed by the number of pieces of paper he has in front of him. I aim to get to the Front Benchers by 2.40 pm. The hon. Gentleman has had almost 10 minutes, and there are three other people who want to speak, and they will already have to have substantially less time than that. In the interests of fairness, it would be welcome if the hon. Gentleman perhaps curtailed what he had intended to please us with.

I will do that, Mr Davies—my apologies. You did not give any guidance on time, and I was not sure whether everyone here had stood up to speak. I accept what you say, and I shall certainly speed up.

We have a big footprint. We have a lot of social action from our churches. A million children are in Church of England primary schools, and the Church of England is the biggest provider of academies. Some 27% of charities are faith-based, and the number of faith-based charities has increased in this country, from one in four to one in five. Those voices need champions here in Parliament. There are wider benefits in terms of the life chances of children in faith schools. There are lower rates of attempted suicide and better health outcomes. That is all in the Bloom review, which was published earlier this year.

You will be pleased to hear me say that I am moving to my conclusion, Mr Davies. I want to make a broader point about values and culture in our public discourse. We have an angry and divided public square, social media lynch mobs, and so on. The world view that we pick up from the Church, however imperfectly demonstrated by the bishops, is one of love, forgiveness and grace, and we have never needed that more in our public life than we do at the moment. We need humility and hopefulness, and that is part of what the bishops point to. That is very necessary and extremely important in a troubled and hurting world. If it’s not broke, don’t change it.

I am grateful to Mr Selous. Three Members are standing, and I want to get to the Front Benchers by no later than 2.40 pm, so we are talking about five or six minutes maximum for each remaining speaker. I call Neil Coyle.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me in this debate. To make it clear, I speak in a personal capacity as someone who would welcome the formal extension of invitations to sit in the House of Lords to representatives of other faiths: imams, rabbis and representatives of other Christian denominations. I serve a community with two cathedrals and was proud to attend the 175th anniversary of St George’s Cathedral, which is a Catholic cathedral, just this week.

I support reform of the House of Lords, but just targeting bishops for removal would leave the House full of Tory donors and political patronage, and that is not a House I would be happy to see. This debate puts form before function. Frankly, the composition of the upper House is less of an issue than its role. I would prefer an upper Chamber with regional representation, elected council leaders and directly elected Mayors, whether or not I agree with their politics.

I am mindful that a bishop at least represents a diocese, which gives them—more than others they sit with—a constituency, of sorts, to reflect in the House of Lords. I am also mindful that bishops are seen as the spring chickens—the upstarts and whippersnappers—of the House of Lords, because they are forced to retire at 70, which is younger than some of their peers, who, of course, are also peers. The bishops’ contributions come from their expertise and experience, are based on years of service, and are underpinned by values that are integral to what they bring to our upper Chamber. The Bishop of Durham yesterday described the Government’s Rwanda plans as “horrifying” and “immoral”, and I share that sentiment. Although there are so few bishops in the Lords, they have been crucial to narrow recent wins. Their votes have been decisive—I thank them for their service—including on the Government’s plan to sack nurses for daring to strike in favour of their employment rights and pay, which their union voted for. Lords should be commended for serving until 4 am, rather than being told that their contribution is unwelcome.

I also believe that Parliament should be on top of issues facing our constituents. I am sure that, in Edinburgh, they talk of nothing other than Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords, but I have had three requests to be here today. I represent an extremely diverse, vibrant central London community, which includes at least five mosques, and this is a non-issue for the vast majority of the people I serve. Week in, week out, I deal with issues to do with housing, the cost of living and Home Office failures. I am proud to work with peers and bishops on my constituents’ top concerns, which the bishops see reflected in their congregations. They share those values, and I respect that.

I speak in unity with the other representatives of Southwark: my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and Bishop Christopher of Southwark, who sits in the House of Lords. I am proud to share a platform with them in representing and serving Southwark.

I welcome Bishop Christopher of Southwark’s work here in Westminster and in Southwark, where the cathedral was integral to the rebuild after the horrific terror attack at London Bridge and Borough Market. The work of the cathedral, Bishop Christopher and Andrew Nunn, the dean, who is now retired, was fundamental in ensuring that we rebuilt quickly. The love and strength with which they served was commendable, and I am glad to have seen it and been part of it.

The Bishop of Southwark has recently spoken about the 1 million people waiting for council homes. He has supported the Bishop of St Albans’ plan to prevent leaseholders from paying fees to remove dangerous cladding, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for a 10-year plan in partnership with other countries to tackle the refugee crisis and human trafficking. The Bishop of Southwark has spoken about children detained under Home Office plans that he called “most alarming” and “unedifying”, the Home Office’s failure to tackle sexual exploitation and modern slavery, and other issues. It is hard to disagree with those contributions; I welcome them.

One backer of this debate said that bishops have been intervening pointedly in politics. I would be disappointed if the Church were not standing up on these issues and did not take a view on the Government’s devaluing of human life. I would be disappointed if it did not request that, rather than crossing the road, we should be the good Samaritan and intervene to help others where we can.

It is disappointing that this debate is focused on one group in the House of Lords, based on their faith, rather than their role. We can compare them with some of the other contributors in the other Chamber, including Lord Lebedev, whom the intelligence services said should not be there; Lord Archer, who has never spoken and never bothered to turn up; Lord Bamford, who has made five contributions in a decade—one contribution for each £1 million contribution he has made to the Conservative party—and the Earl of Rosslyn, who has spoken once since—

Order. I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that this is not an opportunity to make personal attacks on individual Members of the House of Lords. I would be grateful if he refrained from doing that. In the House of Commons, we do not pick out particular individuals. We must stick to the subject of the debate.

Certainly, Mr Davies. I will move on. The point I was making is that there are others I feel should be a more legitimate target for removal from the House of Lords. The bishops should not be targeted purely because of the denomination they represent, their understanding of British values, how they demonstrate that through their faith, the communities they serve and their experience working in churches and dioceses.

I stood for election to help to tackle the real problems in my community and those that the country faces, not to bash bishops—Members can do that in their own time—or get consumed in an academic political debate that makes no meaningful difference to the people I serve. I would sooner hear more from the Bishop of Southwark and the rest of the Lords Spiritual from the Church of England here and elsewhere, rather than the Prime Minister’s shameless hypocrisy yesterday in quoting from Matthew, chapter 25, at the service for the NHS’s 75th anniversary.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as churchwarden for my home parish in my constituency of West Dorset. I have had more constituents getting in touch with me about the matter than my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) may have. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate.

As I have told my constituents, I do not necessarily agree with them in principle, but it is important to have an objective, clear and frank debate about why there are constituents and even members of the Church who feel increasingly strongly about the issue. Although I may disagree in principle with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, we should understand why increasing numbers of people feel strongly about the role of the bishops in the House of Lords.

The Church of England has an incredibly important role to play throughout the land in unifying people with different views. It has a critical role to play in bringing people together and finding ways to have more in common than that which divides us. We need to reflect on that when we start to hear very clear political views from bishops in the House of Lords.

I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), but I suspect one reason that I disagree in principle is that I disagree wholly with what he says about why bishops should be in the House of Lords. It is not right that bishops, who have an important role to play in unifying their communities and who have the cure of souls, regardless of political view, are in effect being made to feel alienated from their own parishes and their own church communities.

I am delighted to have the Bishop of St Albans here in the Gallery. I was delighted to be in his congregation at the St Alban’s day festival not 10 days ago. It was very clear from the sermon at the lectern in that service that a very pro-immigration message emanates from his cathedral. That is his decision, but I am afraid we have to recognise that not everybody agrees with that position. We are increasingly seeing bishops in the Church of England becoming politicians who wear mitres. That is a decision for the Church of England and for individual bishops, but I think it is a damaging thing for the Church of England to do.

I have been a member of the Church of England for 30 years; if we were counting from baptism, it would be 41. I remember vividly that in my younger years I thought, “Why is the Church not being stronger on the issues that I feel strongly about?” I made representations to my priest at the time. It was probably part of the reason why, at an earlier point in my life, I had to discern whether I had a calling to the priesthood.

I will give way in a moment.

Many members of the Church of England, and not just residents of my constituency, have been in touch with me about this debate. That is not because they agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who thinks that bishops should be taken out of the House of Lords, but because a good number of them wholly disagree with what some bishops have to say—I recognise that the Archbishop of Canterbury was in Portland only a few weeks ago—and believe that they have spent their life supporting a Church from which they now feel wholly alienated, based on what the bishops have been saying. I am sorry to say that that includes a good number from the diocese of Truro. Everyone ought to note that the bishop, who is being translated to Winchester and will therefore have a seat in this place by default, has had many issues within his own diocese, not least the fact that the future of a good number of parishes is in question. It is important to consider whether bishops should focus on political matters of the day or on the cure of souls and taking care of their own diocese.

I am sorry; I wanted to give way to the hon. Member, but I think you are prompting me to finish, Mr Davies. I will happily speak to the hon. Member afterwards.

It is good to see you, Mr Davies, and solidarity to the Bishop of Salisbury. I might not think he should be sitting in the House of Lords, but the Christian message of love and charity should be heard loud and clear from pulpits across the length and breadth of these islands.

I am a doubting Thomas, as I said in the main Chamber the other week. In some ways I agree with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) when it comes to certain Members of the House of Lords. Some of us tried to raise the matter at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, but I am afraid the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland failed to answer the question of whether he agrees with MI5 or with the former Prime Minister about that appointment.

I am going to speak as a Scottish constituency MP. There are 59 Members from Scotland. I have been looking at evidence in the House of Commons Library about the way in which bishops of the established Church of England have participated since 2013 in legislation that has not only affected England and Wales. I am mindful that the Anglican Church is disestablished in Wales and that the Kirk is the national/established Church in Scotland; there is the Episcopal Church, but it is not the national Church.

The bishops of the Church of England participated in 615 Divisions between July 2013 and July 2023, on 187 pieces of business. Parliamentary research has identified 22 pieces of business on Scotland, based on the subject index—basically, those that cover all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. During those 22 pieces of business, 49 Divisions took place. Twenty-three bishops participated in 31 of those Divisions, casting 91 votes on 11 different pieces of business.

One of those Divisions was on the Scotland Act 2016, which was the then Government’s response to the referendum on Scottish independence, on which the bishops of the Church of England had more of a say than the 59 Members representing Scottish constituencies, no matter what party they belonged to. This is a matter of the constitution. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), will perhaps correct me if I am wrong, but in 1919 the convocations of Canterbury and York agreed addresses to the King that sought greater opportunities for the Church of England to discuss its own affairs and to review the legislative role of Parliament. Up until 1919, it was Parliament that dictated the governance of the Church of England, which seems absolutely ridiculous.

The point I am making is that if it is acceptable for the Church of England to review its own processes and mostly remove itself from the parliamentary process, why is it participating in the governance of the other nations of the United Kingdom? Why is it participating on issues that relate to Scotland and Northern Ireland? I have heard the excuse that Churches in those areas have asked it to participate, but there is no Episcopal national Church in Scotland; it is the Kirk.

I come back to the point about the role of religion in politics. I think it is central, because if it were not for the Church and nation committee of the Kirk, the Parliament of Scotland would most likely not exist. It was the voice of the Scottish nation itself prior to devolution, and I am extremely grateful to the Kirk for doing that work. We also need to go back to issues relating to Ireland, because the Anglican Church there covers the entire island of Ireland. If I were a Unionist in the north of Ireland, I would be asking myself, “What has the Church of Ireland got to do with the governance of Presbyterian issues specific to Northern Ireland?” I say that as a doubting Thomas Catholic.

There is also the question of replacing the bishops in the Church of England or adding to the religious ethos of the upper Chamber. I need to be very clear that I do not believe in an unelected, unaccountable upper Chamber; during our time in the Union there needs to be total, sweeping reform and a new premise on which people are elected or appointed to that upper Chamber.

The idea is also sometimes raised—it has been raised here before—that we should ask other religious leaders, such as the Chief Rabbi or imams, to go into the upper House. I have even heard cardinal archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church suggested. That will not happen, because Roman Catholic clerics are prohibited by canon law from taking up elected office: if they do, they are removed from holy orders.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on reminding us that the constitution and the way in which governance happens is important. It comes down to all the other issues that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark was talking about. I commend my hon. Friend and say to him that people like me will stand with him and continue to argue, with no personal animosity against the bishops of the Church of England, for the end of the House of Lords itself and for an elected upper Chamber to replace it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate. My first email from a constituent asking me to participate in the debate was in February, so I congratulate Humanists UK on the effectiveness of its campaigning machinery and the passion of its members. I echo the thanks to the all-party group, and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) have a record of making interventions on the subject of the Lords Spiritual and Lords reform, and they have wide agreement among our SNP colleagues. Our position is clear: the House of Lords should be abolished. There is no place in a modern democracy for an unelected legislature, let alone one that grants membership to religious clerics as of right.

In 2005, I was proud to move the resolution at SNP conference that most recently confirmed our party’s long-held position that no SNP member would take a seat in the unelected House. It is important to be clear, as we were in the debate that I led from the Back Benches in January about reform of the Lords, that we hold the individuals concerned in the highest regard; nothing we say is meant with any personal disrespect or questioning of their sense of duty and commitment to the roles that they have accepted.

We can also appreciate the role of faith leaders more widely across society. In Westminster Hall we often have debates about the importance of freedom of religion and belief around the world, and we hear of many places where these rights are not respected, so we should be proud to live in a modern, pluralistic society where people can practise their faith and speak openly about their beliefs in the public square.

Faith communities continue to make up a significant proportion of our society, and it is right and proper that the leaders of those communities are accorded respect and, where appropriate, a voice in our national discourse. We need only look at the service in St Giles’ cathedral yesterday, where leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and humanist communities were invited to greet the monarch after he was presented with the Honours of Scotland. Our views on a constitutional monarchy notwithstanding, that gives an indication of the importance of faith and belief communities to our wider civic society. But providing that kind of representative role, having a platform in the media or being a statutory consultee on certain aspects of public or planning policy is very different from having an active role in a legislative Chamber of Parliament.

The unelected Chamber is already anomalous. The presence of bishops as ex officio members is more or less unique in western democracies; it is even more peculiar when we consider the special privileges accorded to the bishops in the House, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire outlined. All that comes on top of the antiquated and essentially undemocratic role, and frankly existence, of the House of Lords itself. These points have been well made by my hon. Friends and do not need much more rehearsing.

Ironically, there are more people in the Lords than in the Commons who want the upper Chamber abolished or reformed, because so many Members of the Commons, particularly on the Government and official Opposition Benches, want to be appointed to the Lords at some point. That is why I concluded in my debate back in January—as the Lord Speaker concluded in his thoughtful intervention for the Hansard Society, and even Gordon Brown conceded in his latest weighty tome, which I think is already gathering dust on the shelves of the Leader of the Opposition—that the biggest barrier to reform of the Lords is that no meaningful reform of the Lords can be carried out without also reforming the Commons. And any meaningful reform of the Commons would mean taking power away from the Government. And no UK Government, of whatever colour, will readily give up that power.

Despite all the grand talk about parliamentary sovereignty, the House of Commons is essentially a plaything for the Government of the day. The Government set the agenda, control the time, and control the standing orders and rulebook, no matter what myths and conventions say otherwise. An elected Lords would challenge the primacy of the Commons. A cap on the size of the Lords would limit the powers of patronage held by the Prime Minister. The removal of the bishops would call into question the relationship between Church and state, meaning the relationship between the Church and Crown.

The Crown in Parliament and the royal prerogative are the Government’s free hand to wield Executive authority. No matter what nice words the Government use to dress up how much they value the House of Lords and appreciate the work of the bishops, the reality is that any tinkering at the edges or pulling on the thread of the UK’s constitutional tapestry risks unravelling the whole thing—and no UK Government would want to do that.

I do not have time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East again on securing the debate. Musing about reform of the House of Lords has been an entertaining parlour game in UK politics for more than 100 years, since the Labour party first promised and failed to deliver meaningful reform. I fear that the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism will continue to prevail. My hon. Friend and I both know that meaningful reform is not going to happen. The meaningful reform that will truly let democracy flourish in Scotland will come when the people of Scotland choose to leave the broken Westminster system and become an independent country.

Order. I want to get in before the hon. Gentleman finishes, because he may have a bit more time than he thought: he has up to 10 minutes. I did not want him to cut him off if he wanted to give way but was mistakenly thinking he did not have enough time.

Apologies, Mr Davies. I was pretty much finishing, but I will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire.

My hon. Friend was talking about the issue of establishment and the role of Church and state. The Cecil Committee in 1935 was very clear

“that a complete spiritual freedom of the Church is not incompatible with Establishment.”

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Cecil Committee?

My hon. Friend is right. The points about the establishment of the Church of England have been well made. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot unpick. This is the nature of the UK constitution, such as it is. Everything is so tightly interwoven that if we start picking at one part, the whole thing will fall apart. That is not in the interests of the Government, because the point of the UK constitution is to give the Government as much unlimited and unchallenged power as possible while retaining the pretence of democracy. The alternative to that, for the people of Scotland, is for us to vote to become independent.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to contribute to this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate and on the vigour with which he pressed his case. I agree with what he said at the outset: there is a high degree of interest in the issue. Thursdays are a tricky day to get colleagues to participate in this place, but in general there is a high degree of interest in this, in the wider issue relating to the House of Lords, and in the even wider issue relating to our constitution. That speaks to his point about having a constitution that has evolved slowly. There is a beauty in this place and its conventions and norms, but when that is tried—and, boy, has it been tried over the past decade—it sometimes starts to be flimsy and a bit weak. It is right that we discuss these issues, and the hon. Member made a good start.

There has been a range of interesting contributions from all sides. I agree with the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that faith remains a hugely significant part of British life. Last month, my community was really tested when the awful Nottingham attacks happened and, boy, did we lean on our faith community. The right reverend Bishop Paul Williams was a huge support for our community and for its Members of Parliament. We should recognise the anchors and fixed points in the lives we lead, but it is reasonable and—I would argue—necessary to discuss the place of that in a democracy, and particularly in a legislature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), with characteristic impudence, made a point that I will return to on a number of occasions. I believe the role of the second Chamber is much more important than the constitution of its membership.

I cannot quite agree with what the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) said. It is right we have the debate about whether the Lords Spiritual should be in the House. However, the moment we choose to have people in a political legislature, in which every question can be put to a Division if we so wish, they will take views. Asking people to be in a political environment but not be political worked for the Law Lords before we moved to a Supreme Court, because they had to not prejudge case law, but I do not think that that reads across here. We should expect people to take views. If we did not wish them to, that would be an argument for not having them here at all.

That links to what the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said. I understand the frustration. He raised a number of debates and even Divisions that might have gone another way without the bishops, just as they might have without any 26 Members. Again, however, I would argue that that is a debate about constitution. If we put those people in that place, they should choose their moments to speak and vote as they wish, and should exercise their judgment in that. I suspect that that is what happened in those cases.

To make a couple of points of my own, as we have heard, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England in the other place, sitting as Lords Spiritual, which is about 3% of the membership of the other place. They have a wide role—a wider role, I would argue, than I do as an individual. They provide spiritual and pastoral support to Members, including reading Prayers at the start of each sitting day, and like other Members they offer their perspectives on the various matters before Parliament, asking questions, speaking in debates, serving on Committees and scrutinising legislation.

There have been times in the debate when there has perhaps been a suggestion that the bishops are an homogeneous group. However, they represent a diversity of opinion within the church and a range of political views, and they have the independence to bring different perspectives to the work they do, informed by their faith and their local, national and international connections. Again, whether or not we choose to have them as part of our legislature in the future, we should recognise the contribution the bishops make to Parliament and thank them for their service. As I say, for us in Nottingham, that has been particularly important in recent weeks.

The other place does a hugely important job. I cannot agree with the point from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that, in some way, the case for a second Chamber is that we make so many mistakes in this Chamber and, therefore, that the actual issue is us being better. I would say, and I would hope—well, I believe this extends to everybody: I am a human being and I make mistakes all the time. In fact, I have just misspoken in this contribution, and I will make other such mistakes throughout the day. Who knows what they will be?

It is right that we have checks and balances in our democracy that will either curb the worst instincts of politicians or give us the chance to think again. That is a very important thing, and that model is, of course, popular around the world. I think the other place provides exceptionally important scrutiny and balance to the work that we do and enriches the quality of debate.

I also believe that it is possible to strongly hold that view, as I do, but also to recognise the case for reform and to understand that the other place has ballooned in size, as mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Bedforsh—Bedfordshire—another mistake from me there, Mr Davies. It has 777 Members, and I would argue that it is not sustainable at that size. Having a larger unelected Chamber than elected Chamber—a larger upper House than lower House—is, I believe, unique among bicameral Parliaments.

The next Government, whoever and whenever that might be, will have to grasp this issue. It is about the second Chamber, but it is also about maintaining, developing and sustaining public confidence in our democracy in general, and that is part of my quibble with this debate.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—I may be pre-empting what he is about to say—but what is the Labour party’s position on bishops in the House of Lords?

Well, the hon. Gentleman has not yet given me the chance to finish. I tempted him into a flourishing drive, and my slip cordon is, I suspect, better than the one the England team is operating today.

My major quibble with this debate is that we should not be pulling out a single element—in this case, a cohort of 3%—and making a single analysis of its merits or otherwise. It must be a fuller debate about the entire Chamber. However, that in itself is a smaller part of a wider conversation about our entire democracy. What are we seeking to do at what level? That is, at the national, regional, local, and parish and town council level. That cannot just be a debate among politicians; we have to let the public in.

I know that the Minister is well briefed enough to know where the Labour party stands on this matter at the moment: we have argued for a smaller second Chamber, and we have argued that we should use that as an opportunity to better recognise and involve all our nations and regions in our democracy. However, we are on a journey to the next general election; we have an important democratic staging post coming among our political parties. The Minister will see the full platform when he is ready for the general election, and I say to him gently that it can be any day he wants.

The hon. Gentleman is very generous to give way again. It is interesting to hear him talk about a big debate on the future of the constitution and about the involvement of everyone. If his party was to present plans for a reformed upper Chamber, would it be prepared to put those to a referendum of the people of this country?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to read the future. I am afraid that I will disappoint him. We have not finished our process of policymaking. The Government are hiding from the public—it seems like they intend to do that for a long time, and we understand why—but if the hon. Gentleman wishes for a quicker answer, he can give the public what they want, which is their chance to have their say on his Government.

Another issue that is hugely important for what we can do now and today—I hope to hear a little from the Minister on it—is that we know that our communities want greater power and control over their lives. A very important and significant degree of consensus has emerged across the political parties, and across the Chambers, over greater regional devolution. At the moment, we have an asymmetric settlement whereby some are in and some are out, and I hope to hear from the Minister his desire to improve and to move at a quicker pace on that. I depart from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), the Front Bencher for the Scottish nationalists, in that it is not my goal to hoard power in this place so that I might one day get a chance to sit where the Minister does and get all those nice levers to pull. That is not my desire in politics at all. I am here for devolution. I am here because I want to put the tools and resources into my community so that local leaders can shape our economy, shape our place and make it somewhere where everybody has access to the best opportunities.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way on the issue of decision making. The 23 Anglican bishops who sit in the upper House have no moral or theological authority in Scotland, so why are they participating in laws that impact Scotland and also Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman reiterates the point that he made earlier, with great gusto. It will be heard, and it has contributed to the debate. I think that that is an important question that needs to be resolved, but the point I am making is that we have to resolve this in the round. I do not think that a debate such as the one we are having today, which takes a granular look at the issue, serves the bigger picture.

I will conclude on that point. We have a constitutional settlement that has evolved over centuries, as we have heard, and with that come things that, if we were sitting down afresh, we would not design in the same way. It behoves all of us, as custodians of this place, to renew and refresh these things, but doing that in the round and doing it with the public, rather than to the public, have to be the strongest principles.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) both on initiating the debate and on the manner in which he spoke, which was non-partisan and direct to his point. Despite what I will say in the debate, I have the greatest respect for the humanists in the United Kingdom. I respect their values and the work they do. I know that there are members of the hon. Gentleman’s APPG on both sides of the House, because this is an issue that cuts across party lines, as we have seen this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman was right in saying that we ought to be having these constitutional debates. We ought to have them in every generation. We have had them in many generations, certainly over the past 400 years. In Cromwell’s day, the bishops were removed from the House of Lords, to be brought back under the Restoration 20 years later. In the 1840s, there was a groundswell of movement to disestablish the Church of England; that then faded away. Gladstone started off as an ardent supporter of the established Church, only to change his position 20 years later, based on what he had seen in Ireland. In around 1929, the Church of England itself toyed with the idea of disestablishment, in response to the Houses of Parliament having voted down its Book of Common Prayer, which Parliament deemed to be too Catholic in its tastes. Therefore, this is a debate that we have had over and over again, and it is right that we should return to it, because nothing in the British constitutional system is automatically eternal. The case has to be made again and again for the way in which we do things. And, over time, things have changed.

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

The hon. Gentleman referred to the pre-democratic feudal past, from which the Church emerged. Indeed it did. The Church in his country, his nation—Scotland—and in mine is older than the kingdom of Scotland; it is older than the kingdom of England. There were priests and churches before there was a king of all Scotland or a king of all England. I urge him not to be totally down on the pre-democratic feudal past. It was that past that also gave us Parliaments, law, the jury system, currency, local government and many other things. Not everything that emerges from that time is inherently bad—I used to be a teacher of medieval history.

The question that we are addressing is, how strong is the case for change? I was particularly drawn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about priorities. I will disappoint the hon. Member for Edinburgh East when I say that I have not come to Westminster Hall to announce that it is Government policy to disestablish the Church of England. The hon. Member will recognise that, although some people feel very strongly about this subject, their numbers are quite small, the challenges the country faces are very great and the time before the next general election is increasingly short. So this issue is not something the Government will be engaging in—certainly not in this Parliament.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East rather cheekily raised the parallel with Iran. I say “cheekily” because, although I would share his concerns if the Archbishop of Canterbury controlled the BBC, the courts, the military and the selection of MPs, that is not the case in the United Kingdom.

I will ask the same question that I asked the spokesperson for the official Opposition. The 23 bishops of the Anglican Church sitting in the upper House have no moral or theological authority in Scotland, Northern Ireland or, indeed, Wales. Does the Minister think they should participate in legislation that impacts those three nations of the Union?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point, which he has made several times in the debate. The truth is that we remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It remains the case that we have, on certain issues, a Westminster Parliament, which has an upper and a lower House. Members of the upper House are entitled to vote, just as, I might add, Members of the SNP are entitled to vote on certain issues that affect only England, and I have observed them so doing on a number of occasions. I know that the hon. Gentleman wishes not to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the people of his country chose otherwise in a once-in-a-generation referendum.

While we are on the subject, I have heard the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) say a couple of times that the SNP will have nothing to do with the unelected House of Lords. That is the SNP’s prerogative, and the SNP is entitled to take that position, but I do think there is something rather sad about it, because the people of Scotland chose to stay in the United Kingdom, and the House of Lords remains part of the constitution of this kingdom. The SNP has deliberately chosen not to represent its views in the upper House, and that is unfortunate; it is a narrow view that is depriving SNP voters in Scotland of a say in the upper Chamber.

Does the Minister’s sadness on that issue extend to those who seek to gag Church leaders from speaking about immigration? I am unaware of a nativity story that includes an innkeeper telling Mary and Joseph to take their donkey to Rwanda.

The hon. Gentleman specialises in jokes of poor taste. The Government certainly do not seek to gag bishops in any way. I take the view that I think he takes, which is that Members of the House of Lords should be free to talk about any issue that comes before them—even when I disagree with them. Obviously, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) takes a different view on that. I think it is important that people who sit in the Lords can speak their minds on any issue that comes before that House.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East raised points about how there was special pleading for the bishops in the Lords in one or two areas on privileges. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire pointed out, while there is a custom and a convention, these are not rules. Indeed, the customs and conventions are often more honoured in the breach than the observance.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned party blocs. Again, what he said is not quite the case. Bishops are not consulted as a party bloc on new legislation before it is tabled, they are not recognised by officials as a party grouping and nor do they get a separate meeting with the Bill makers. That argument does not quite work.

On the code of conduct, although it is true that there is a slightly different code of conduct for bishops, that is also the case for Ministers of the Crown and Members who are employees of non-departmental public bodies. I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman’s arguments there.

The hon. Gentleman talked, quite rightly, about how the social mores of society have changed, and they have. The position of the bishops has also changed over time. The arguments he will hear bishops advocate today are very different from those he would have heard 50 or 100 years ago. Do bishops today reflect society? I think the hon. Gentleman said 14% of people in the United Kingdom are Anglicans. Only 3% of the Members of the House of Lords are Anglican bishops. If one wanted to go down that route—I am not encouraging anyone to so do—one would say that the Anglicans were under-represented.

I know that the point the hon. Gentleman was actually making was a serious one about the ex officio status of Members of the House of Lords. Going forward, that is fertile ground for discussion, and I thought we were in the foothills of that serious discussion. However, the hon. Member for Glasgow North chose to make this a bigger debate about the House of Lords in totality, and he and I have had that debate a couple of times.

I was trying to tease out SNP Members’ position on an upper Chamber, should they get independence. I think I got three different answers. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said that that will be decided as and when; the hon. Member for Glasgow North said we should abolish the upper House; and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said he would like to see an elected upper Chamber—

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire says from a sedentary position that he would like to see an elected upper Chamber here. Let us address that point. From the Conservative party’s perspective, the problem with an elected upper Chamber is that all the experience that people bring to the House of Lords—people who do not wish to be part of a political group and who have perhaps come to a stage in their career where they do not want to stand for election—would be lost. That would be a terrible shame, very much to the detriment of democracy in this country. A challenging and revising Chamber needs to be a Chamber of all the talents. The best way to get that is by having the system we currently have and making sure that people who would ordinarily not find their way into an elected House can have a stake and a place in our democracy.

Mr Sharma, I think the hon. Member for Edinburgh East would like to say a few words to sum up, so I will sit down.

I am glad that this debate has at least brought to the fore in the Chamber those who wish to advocate on behalf of the Church of England, and they are right to do that. They can console themselves, perhaps, that I am not advocating a Cromwellian approach to this problem at least.

There is not sufficient time to deal with everything that has been said, but I want to stress that no one is suggesting that there is not a role for people of faith in our public life and in our Parliament. No one is suggesting that Anglicans should not be represented in the House of Lords or that bishops should not be in the House of Lords. In fact, 60% of the non-spiritual peers in the House of Lords identify as Christian, so it is hard to make an argument that that particular Church is under-represented in the upper Chamber. What we are talking about is whether this anachronistic situation of additional, guaranteed representation should exist for one Church and one institution alone, above all others.

I said earlier that I do not have a religious faith, but I want to give the last word in this discussion to someone who does: my friend and colleague Simon Barrow, the director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia. He says—


Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of bishops in the House of Lords.