A proposal to reform the House of Lords by making it entirely elected has been put forward by the government.
There have been complaints from the British Humanist Association that the Ministry of Justice White Paper envisages the retention of the 26 bishops of the Church of England who sit in the Lords.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester have the right to sit in the Upper House, along with the 21 longest-serving diocesan bishops.
The House of Lords has voted against many of the gay rights legislation brought forward by the current government.
Between 1998 and 2000, they rejected laws to equalise the age of consent so often that the Commons had to over-rule them.
The House of Lords was partially reformed in 1999, when all but 92 of the hereditary peers were removed. A Commons vote in 2003 failed to find a way forward.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw laid out his latest proposals yesterday. It is unlikely any moves to reform the Lords will be made before the next general election.
“In March 2007 the House of Commons voted then for a wholly elected second chamber, and for a mainly elected second chamber and rejected all other alternatives by a large margin,” Mr Straw said yesterday.
“Their Lordships took a different view and voted for a fully appointed second chamber and rejected all other alternatives by a large margin.
“The White Paper sets out how a wholly or mainly elected second chamber might be created within a bicameral legislature in which the House of Commons retains primacy.”
The proposals from the Ministry of Justice include Lords being elected to serve a single, non-renewable term of between 12 and 15 years.
Elections would be held at the same time as MPs, with peers representing larger constituencies.
A cut in Lords membership from the current 745 to between 400 and 450 is proposed.
“The White Paper does not take a view between the options of either a 100% or an 80% elected second chamber, but the White Paper includes detail on a possible 20% appointed element, should the latter option be chosen,” said Mr Straw.
“There would then be a statutory appointments commission and published criteria for appointments. Any appointed members would serve for three electoral cycles in the same way as elected members.
“If the second chamber became fully elected, there could be no seats appointed or reserved, including for Church of England bishops.
“But in recognition of the wide and important role played by the Lords Spiritual in the life of the nation and the special constitutional position of the Church, we propose that their representation should continue in a mainly elected House.
“In that instance, their numbers would not contribute to the 20% appointed element.”
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has urged the Government to ensure that there will be no reserved places for bishops.
Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education and Public Affairs, said:
“The UK is the only Western democracy to give religious representatives the automatic right to sit in the legislature.
“Modern Britain is a society with a great diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs and it is outrageous that both Labour and Conservatives are proposing that this anachronistic policy should continue.
“The claim that Bishops are uniquely qualified to provide ethical and spiritual insights is factually incorrect and offensive.
“Religious ‘leaders’ cannot speak for the whole population – their views are often controversial and rejected by people with equally deeply held religious or ethical convictions.”
The BHA said that the Anglican Church claims only 1,650,000 members in the UK and its Sunday services are attended by only about 1.9% of the adult population.
12% of the adult population are members of any church.
Many polls have provided evidence of high levels of unbelief in the UK.
The Ministry of Justice White Paper said a discussion would be needed to decide what to do with the current life peers and sets out three options for managing the transition.
First, for all existing life peers to leave in tranches, allied to the three electoral cycles; secondly, for all to leave on the third cycle; and thirdly, to remain as now for life.
“We are now keen for there to be a wide-ranging and thorough debate on our proposals,” Mr Straw said.
“But I hope that all members of the cross-party group share my view that to have got this far on such an important but highly complex issue is a considerable achievement.”