Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

Policy background

2. The two Church of England Archbishops and 24 of its other diocesan bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords, as the Lords Spiritual. They do so by virtue of ancient usage and statute. Five of the 26 automatically receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords on the basis of the sees they occupy (Canterbury, York, Durham, London and Winchester; 'the five ex officio sees'). The remaining 21 are issued with writs of summons on the basis of seniority (i.e. length of tenure as a diocesan bishop) when a vacancy arises. This mechanism is set out in section 5 of the Bishoprics Act 1878.

3. On 17 November 2014 the General Synod of the Church of England enacted the final legislation necessary to allow women to become bishops. Were the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 to be left unchanged it would obviously take some years before a newly appointed female diocesan bishop became sufficiently senior to take a place in the House of Lords (unless she were appointed to one of the five ex officio sees). In consequence, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after consultation with the Lords Spiritual and others, has requested on behalf of the Church of England that amendments be made to the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 to enable the accelerated entry of female bishops to the House of Lords. The Government has welcomed the decision by the Church of England to enable women to become bishops and wishes to see female bishops represented in the House of Lords as soon as possible.

4. The Bill makes time-limited provision for vacancies among the 21 places which are normally filled by seniority to be filled as they arise by eligible female bishops if there are any available at that point (an eligible bishop is a bishop of a diocese in England who is not already entitled as such to a writ of summons). Essentially, for a period of 10 years, the most senior eligible female bishop at any time would fill a vacant Lords Spiritual seat in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop.

5. Male bishops would continue to enter the Lords, in accordance with the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 for determining seniority of precedence, if there were no eligible female bishops at the time a vacancy arose. After the end of the period, the provision made by the Bill would come to an end and the current arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 for determining which bishops are to fill vacancies among the Lords Spiritual will be restored. The arrangements in relation to the five ex officio sees are left unchanged since any woman appointed to one of those sees will under the present law become a Lord Spiritual immediately.