Lords role for bishops under attack

IN the very peculiar British institution which is the House of Lords, superannuated politicians sit alongside a few hereditary peers, captains of industry, men and women of letters, and not an insubstantial number of others who have paid quite a few bob to bankroll our political parties.

By Graham Dines

IN the very peculiar British institution which is the House of Lords, superannuated politicians sit alongside a few hereditary peers, captains of industry, men and women of letters, and not an insubstantial number of others who have paid quite a few bob to bankroll our political parties.

And then there are the bishops, clothed in clerical purple, adding a touch of colour to the red benches just below the woolsack on which the Lord Chancellor - on in New Labour speak, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs,

For nearly 100 years, attempts to reform the upper house have ended in failure. Their lordships have been stripped of their veto over financial matters approved by the Commons, especially the Budget, and Harold Macmillan brought in life peers to give the Lords some semblance of modernity.


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Now Tony Blair, in one of his last acts as Prime Minister, is determined to introduce democracy to the Lords, which means we the people will have a vote on who sits in the chamber.

Just how many members will be directly elected will be down to MPs, who will have a free vote before Easter on options ranging from a fully-appointed chamber to a 20%, 40%, 50%, 60%, 80% or 100% elected element. An innovative alternative vote system will be used to ensure they reach a decision, avoiding the deadlock of 2003 when all options for reform were rejected.

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But the archbishops and bishops of the Church of England will remain although the Government believes there is a strong case for a more flexible approach which would allow the church to determine which bishops entered the House of Lords on the grounds of their suitability rather than on their seniority.

Currently five of the Anglican prelates - Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester - sit by virtue of their office and the remaining 21 sit by order of seniority from date of first appointment to the diocesan see. The Bishop of Chelmsford the Rt Rev. John Gladwin and the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich the Rt Rev. Richard Lewis, who retires this year, both have places.

Bishop Richard has defended their presence but says their role “needs to be rethought in relation to the way in which 'faith groups' are represented in the political process. Given the inter-cultural issues around the world, the faiths need to be firmly and responsibly part of political thinking,”

But a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs believe it's time to give bishops the heave-ho - Lib Dem Evan Harris says they “embed sexism” and have “no good basis” in present constitutional arrangements.

Commons Leader Jack Straw this week backed the bishops, saying their removal “could raise the whole question of the relationship between Church and state and monarchy with unpredictable consequences.”

Essex Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) said those consequences would be “very welcome.” He asked MPs to raise their hands if they were C of E communicants before being told to “be quiet” by Speaker Michael Martin.

Mr Straw said: “If folk want to pursue the disestablishment of the Church of England that's fine. But we should not do this by the back door and we should take account of the fact that most of the other faith groups actually want to keep some representation of the Anglican bishops in the House.”

Perhaps we should look on the bright side - 26 Anglican prelates give the Lords an English bias, compensating in no small measure to the pervasive Scottish influence in the House of Commons.

THE QUIRKS OF LIKE IN THE LORDS

APART from the odd rebellion on hunting, life is fairly serene in the Lords, where ear trumpets are still much in vogue allowing some of the more elderly lordships to follow proceedings.

So when the late Lady Gaitskell - widow of the former Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell - read out pages one, three, five, seven and nine of her speech, and then turned her notes over and read pages ten, eight, six, four, and two in that order, nobody noticed anything amiss.

Harold Macmillan, who became the Earl of Stockton, once remarked: “If, like me, you are over 90, frail, on two sticks, half dead and half blind, you stick out like a sore thumb in most places, but not in the House of Lords.”

On a celebrated occasion, in February 1988, a band of raucous lesbians abseiled into the chamber from the public galleries, protesting about gay rights. The fact that a number of their lordships did not know what a lesbian was added to the confusion and perplexity, and this spectacular demonstration made no difference to anything.

BLIZZARD BACKS IPSWICH UNITARY BID

WAVENEY Labour MP Bob Blizzard is supporting Ipswich's application to break free from Suffolk and become a unitary authority. “I am happy to commit to the statement 'that a single unitary council for Ipswich would bring considerable advantages, reduce duplication, generate better performance and help Ipswich meet the very strong growth challenges it faces over the next 20 years.'”

Mr Blizzard, a former leader of Waveney district council, joins Ipswich MP Chris Mole in backing the bid, along with the three main parties on the Borough Council.

PARLIAMENTARY BOUNDARIES ORDER TO BE DEBATED

THE Government is expected to lay an order on February 26 implementing Boundary Commission proposals to amend parliamentary constituencies.

The changes - which create new Essex seats in Chelmsford, Witham, Braintree, Harwich & North Essex, Clacton and Basildon - will be debated by MPs before the end of April.

A survey by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University for the Press Association, BBC, ITN and Sky News has estimated that had the 2005 General Election been fought under the proposed changes, the Labour majority would have been 48, compared with the actual 66.

MP WANTS DOCTORS TO PRESCRIBE FREE CONDOMS

GETTING to see your GP is difficult enough, but it could get a whole lot worse if Natascha Engel (Labour, Derbyshire North East) gets her way. Expect a stampede should her Access to Contraceptive Services Bill, given a formal unopposed first reading on Tuesday, become law - it enables doctors to issue free condoms.

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