The Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill, which was tabled and thus received a First Reading in the House of Commons on 27 June 2012, proposes that the United Kingdom’s second Parliamentary chamber be reduced in size and become mainly elected.
However, one-fifth of its membership would still be appointed, and, in the plans, there is a continuing place for Church of England bishops sitting as the Lords Spiritual, albeit their number would be reduced from the present 26 to 12 (five holders of nominated sees and seven ‘ordinary’ bishops). Details are at Part 4, Sections 19-23 of the Bill.
To judge by a YouGov poll on House of Lords reform, commissioned by The Sun and published on 27 June to coincide with the First Reading, a majority (56%) of the 1,614 adult Britons interviewed online on 25 and 26 June 2012 believed that, with the opportunity of reform in the offing, the time has come to remove Church of England bishops from the Lords entirely. 26% wanted them to keep their seats, and 19% had no opinion. Full data tables can be found at:
Unseating the bishops was supported by a majority of all the three main political parties: 62% of Liberal Democrat voters, 53% of Labourites, but even 52% of Conservatives. There were regional extremes, with as many as 70% of Scots wanting the bishops out of the Lords (Presbyterian sentiments evidently die hard) but only 49% of Londoners. Men appeared to be keener than women to unseat the bishops, and the over-60s more than the 18-24s, but this was partly a function of the greater number of ‘don’t knows’ among women and the youngest age cohort.
Other surveys in very recent years have also suggested that just a minority of the public endorse the concept of Lords Spiritual in the upper chamber, for example:
- January 2012 (YouGov): 24% wanted bishops to continue to sit and vote in the House of Lords, and 58% were opposed
- April 2011 (Ipsos MORI): 26% supported an episcopal presence in the House of Lords, 32% were opposed, and 32% neutral
- March 2010 (ICM): 21% thought it right for bishops to have automatic seats in the House of Lords, and 74% wrong
These results can be compared with the situation in July 2007 when ComRes found the public fairly evenly divided about the continued presence of the bishops in the House of Lords, with 48% agreeing and 43% disagreeing. So, attitudes to the Lords Spiritual may be hardening.
What these polls cannot tell us, of course, is the strength with which people hold their views against an episcopal presence in the House of Lords or their rationale for doing so.
Nevertheless, there will doubtless be some commentators who will interpret YouGov’s latest findings as further evidence of popular demand to terminate the constitutionally-embedded role of religion. And perhaps this may even tempt some Parliamentarians to move amendments to the Bill in an attempt to exclude the Lords Spiritual from a reformed House of Lords. Watch this space!