I agree with the bishops on welfare reform – but they shouldn’t be in the House of Lords at all

House of Lords
After the bishops, the Father Christmases should be the next to go

Have you ever found your opinions torn by a news item? I have this morning, by the news that the Government’s benefits cap was “wrecked” by the House of Lords. Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has put forward a bill capping the welfare a household can receive at £26,000, the equivalent of a £35,000 pre-tax salary. They claim that 70,000 families receive more than this amount, and that it is an unfair burden on the taxpayer. But the bill has been altered in the Lords, who attached what ministers describe as a “wrecking amendment”, exempting child benefit from the cap.

This is a serious argument, which Daniel Knowles looked at yesterday. It lies at the heart of the Left/Right divide, and it captures a moral difference between the two. What do we want our benefit system to do? Is it a) to help unfortunate but hard-working people while they find a job after losing one or b) to keep people out of extreme poverty, whether or not it’s their own fault? The more we aim for a), the more likely we are to leave people – including those who don’t “deserve” it – seriously struggling to pay their household bills; the more we aim for b), the more likely we are to find ourselves paying for lifetime unemployed, and incentivising a welfare lifestyle. Which would side would you rather err on? There is no absolute right or wrong, just a value judgment, although personally I lean towards the latter. And so, it seems, does the House of Lords.

But what’s interesting is who led this fightback in the upper chamber: the bishops. The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds described the bill as unjust, saying: “It makes no provision for the additional costs of bringing up children. I do not believe a child can have a good childhood in circumstances such as this.”

The Bishop is standing up for what he believes in, and I applaud him. In this instance he’s also standing up for what I believe in, broadly speaking. But I don’t see why an unelected figurehead of a minority group should be allowed to block the democratic decision of the nation’s chosen representatives.

That is what’s happening, here: let’s not mistake the issue. People who consider themselves religious are a majority in this country. But Anglicans aren’t. There are no Catholic or Methodist bishops, or Presbyterian deacons, appointed to the Lords by virtue of their office; nor imams, for that matter, or rabbis, or Seventh-Level Thetans. Or Quaker leaders, or humanist or atheist leaders. There are just the 26 Lords Spiritual, chosen from the 44 Anglican bishops in Britain.

But every member of the House of Commons was elected by the people of their constituency. I don’t think that they’ve made the right decision here, but if the country agrees with me about that, they can vote them out next time around. We can’t vote out the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds if we think he’s wrong about benefit caps. I don’t doubt he is an intelligent and humane man, but he should not arbitrarily be given a leading role in our country’s lawmaking apparatus on the basis of which church he goes to.

Of course, many of these arguments could be made about the other members of the House of Lords as well. Why should Lord Sugar be allowed to vote on health reforms? Does he have any special expertise in health policy? Is he elected to the position by the people he represents? No: he made a lot of money making occasionally functional electronic equipment and then appeared on a mid-market reality show, so the last government gave him a peerage in an odd attempt to sprinkle celebrity on their dying re-election campaign. He has no more reasonable right to a voice in the upper chamber than I do.

But while that’s true, and the case for some sort of elected or otherwise legitimised House of Lords is strong, with the bishops the arbitrariness is overpowering, partially disenfranchising every other religious and non-religious group. Of course Anglican bishops should be allowed to be parliamentarians – but they should have to go about it in the same way as everybody else, not get waved through when they get the big hat. Lords reform is hugely overdue – and the obvious place to start is with the Lords Spiritual. Even when they agree with me.


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