In all of the excitement this week of the Church of England finally appointing their first female Bishop some bizarre behaviour by the Government could easily get overlooked. In the Church of England, Bishops are usually addressed by the title Bishop (rather than the formal Right Reverend) and their first name. This means that the Rev Libby Lane will soon be referred to as Bishop Libby. However her role will be as a Suffragen Bishop (or perhaps subordinate or junior Bishop) and the full impact of the changes recently introduced by the Church will not be felt until the first woman is appointed as a Diocesan Bishop. This is expected to be announced early in 2015. The actions by the Government to which I refer will not be implemented until some time after that stage of the change is completed but they must not be overlooked.
The House of Lords is crying out for meaningful reform (as is the Commons) and whilst there is a strong case to be made for a root and branch review of our whole legislature, it is easy to understand why this will take time to achieve and probably should not be rushed (although I use that term with heavy irony). However this week the Government announced that it intended to introduce a minor piece of legislation relating to the work of the Lords, specifically in terms of the colleagues of Bishop Libby ASAP. As things stand the House of Lords includes within its membership 26 Diocesan Bishops, made up of a small number of Bishops or Archbishops whose posts are Senior to the rest, along with the most senior of the others on the basis of their longevity in their posts. This new legislation is an attempt to allow Women Bishops to leap frog their place in the queue for the next 10 years so that the gender mix is achieved much quicker than would otherwise be the case. Whilst this is not entirely unexpected given the time it has taken for the State Church to agree to appoint female Bishops, this response shows just how out of touch our State and Church have become with one another as well as with the rest of us.
In the first instance to legislate for gender balance amongst the Bishops in the Lords, whilst ignoring the rest of the Lords is desperately sad. The gender balance in the Lords may be better than in the current House of Bishops, but it is far from 50:50. If there is to be a bar on all but the most senior male Bishops being elevated to the Lords Spiritual, what about preventing any male Lords being announced until such time as there is a propoer gender balance in the upper house? The rest of the Lords is entirely appointed by the Government in any case. That would be a change that would make a real difference but of course it would threaten the future career prospects of too many of our existing male MPs including our Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet.
Secondly for our two coalition parties to legislate for a women only shortlist of Bishops entering the Lords when they are not prepared to introduce the same sort of ruling into the selection processes at any level in their own parties or in the selection of members of their own Cabinet has to be one of the most hypocritical actions of this Parliament.
Finally and in some senses the most important, bearing in mind the cost to the public purse of every piece of legislation that Parliaments passes, why legislate at all? Simply persuade the House of Bishops that waiting for natural processes to achieve a balance is not appropriate and ask the next few male Bishops to give up their place in the queue whilst the first few women Bishops take their place. This Government has often suggested it does not believe in unnecessary legislation, their actions this week show how false that claim is. Although 26 Bishops are eligible to sit in the Lords, it is rare for more than 2 of them to be in the House at any one time so the appointment of women to the House of Bishops will have an imperceptible impact on the Lords. In many senses this is tokenism at its very worst.