4.24 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I recognise the importance of this Bill, and am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his work and to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), for the way in which he has set out the matter. I recognise that there are many in the Church who welcome the Bill, and I do not seek to do otherwise. None the less, I do seek to raise constructively just one caveat by way of context, which is that the strength and value of the Church of England as our established church is the richness that it brings to our public life. While we have the House of Lords in its current form, I certainly firmly believe in the importance of the role of the Lords Spiritual. It is important of course, and the argument has been made, that the Lords Spiritual should represent and be reflective of the Church. To that extent, the Bill fulfils the necessary and appropriate function of recognising the will of the Church decided through Synod.

The only caveat I seek to make is this: the other great richness of the Church of England has been its ability to band together various traditions within the Christian faith, and the fact that we have within the Church of

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England those who might be regarded as broadly traditional or evangelical and those who, like me, identify strongly with the Catholic tradition; such a mix enriches the role of the Church. A degree of diversity reflecting that broadness of reach within the House of Bishops is also important. I recognise the value that bishops bring, both collectively and individually, to the upper House. I know that the work of my own diocesan bishop, Bishop James of Rochester, in relation to prison reform is second to none and contributes greatly to our public life.

Although I understand the reason for not holding back women bishops, we must ensure that there is proper diversity of all traditions of the Church within the Lords Spiritual. I mention that because the five principles in the bishops’ declaration particularly refer to recognising those traditions that have a difficulty—for theological reasons with which some may disagree—with the ordination of women. None the less, they should be able to “flourish” within the family, and the life and the system of the Church of England, and I hope that that can be reflected in the appointments in due course to the upper House. I say that because there is at the moment only one diocesan bishop of the Church of England who is clearly identified with the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. I am talking about the Bishop of Chichester, who would, under normal circumstances, be the second in line to enter the Lords after the Bishop of Lincoln.

Although I do not seek to prevent the advancement of women bishops, I hope that when appointments are made it is recognised that there is an important, valued and ancient tradition of the Church of England that should have the opportunity to have a proper representation within the Lords Spiritual, which it probably does not have in the Church itself as it is currently constituted. That is not for this House or for Government to dictate. But it is a point worth making in a constructive spirit in ensuring that we have the best possible representation of the Lords Spiritual in the upper House.

4.28 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill in front of us today. Indeed, I think we can all appreciate that it is a direct consequence of the decision by the General Synod of the Church of England on 17 November 2014 to allow women bishops. It is worth paying tribute to it once again for passing that legislation. It is something for which many of us have argued for many years. Indeed, in making the arguments to have women bishops, we often employed the exhortation that we should have women represented in all aspects of public life in this country, and at all levels of decision making, including at very senior levels not only in the Church but in Parliament as well.

This Bill is very much to be welcomed. But it is, none the less, worth taking just a few minutes to explore why we need a measure that will speed up the ability of women bishops to sit as Lords Spiritual in the other place. We know that the existing system of appointment of bishops to sit as Lords Spiritual is prescribed by the Bishoprics Act 1878.

Under the terms of the Act, the number of Lords Spiritual is fixed at 26, five of whom automatically receive writs of summons to attend the House of Lords

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on the basis of the diocesan see that they occupy. As we heard earlier, these ex officio sees are Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester. I shall come back to them in a moment. When a vacancy arises the remaining 21 are issued with writs of summons on the basis of seniority, which means their length of tenure as a diocesan bishop. The bishops of 40 Church of England diocesan sees are eligible to be Lords Spiritual. That means that at any one time there can be up to 26 diocesan bishops in the Lords and up to 14 outside the Lords awaiting a seat. Places become vacant as bishops leave office, usually through retirement. By law, diocesan bishops have to retire at 70. The waiting time obviously varies according to the rate of turnover and can be anything between four and seven years.

A bishop is unable separately to resign his membership of the House of Lords and therefore cannot create a vacancy in that way. There is also no provision for a bishop to opt to forgo entitlement to a writ of summons on reaching the top of the list. So, were the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 to be left unchanged, it would take some years before a newly appointed female diocesan bishop became sufficiently senior to take her place in the House of Lords.

Andrew Gwynne: Of course, it is important that we introduce this measure so that senior women bishops in the Church of England can take their rightful place in the other place. It was interesting to hear the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) use the example of the Bishop of Lincoln as the next in line to be appointed to the other place. It is now incumbent on the Church of England to appoint women diocesan bishops because otherwise that would still be the case.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I am sure that people from the Church who are listening today will take it on board. I certainly hope that they will.

I was saying that a newly appointed female diocesan bishop would have had to wait her turn to take up a seat in the House of Lords unless she were appointed to one of the five ex officio sees. I hope that when vacancies arise for bishops in those areas, the Church will consider appointing a woman. That definitely affects my constituency. I should say that we have recently got a new bishop in Durham and I am not trying in any way to push him out of the door, as he is doing an excellent job, but when the time comes for him to retire I hope that a woman bishop will be on our agenda.

There are likely to be some female diocesans, as there are some male diocesans, for whom membership of the Lords becomes a significant part of their ministry. Without the Bill, a woman appointed as a diocesan bishop would effectively join the back of the queue to get into the House of Lords. As I have said, at anticipated rates of retirement it could take up to seven years for the first female diocesan bishops to get into the Lords, a period that could cover the lifetime of the next Parliament. That would create an anomaly whereby women were actively and visibly involved as bishops in all aspects of the Church’s national ministry except as Members of the Bishops’ Bench in the other place.

Whether and how the system should be adjusted was the subject of discussions by the Lords Spiritual and the House of Bishops in consultation with women holding

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senior office in the Church. There was a widespread acknowledgement that the House of Lords had been denied the contribution of female Lords Spiritual and that this deficit should be tackled as soon as possible. The Archbishop of Canterbury, to his great credit, was involved in these consultations and made a specific request of Ministers. The effect of that is before us today.

The changes being proposed with the backing of the bishops have broad cross-party support and reflect a desire both in and outside the Church to see women represented in those places where the Church exercises its national public ministry. That is in the interests not just of the Church, but of Parliament, and we do not want any part of Parliament not to have adequate gender representation. The Bill makes time-limited provision for vacancies among the 21 Lords Spiritual 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. This is to be done for a period of 10 years. It is hoped that the most eligible female bishop at any time would fill a vacancy in preference to the most senior eligible male bishop. Ten years is the length of two Parliaments and it is not far from the average period in office of a diocesan bishop.

If there were no eligible female bishops at the time a vacancy arose, male bishops would continue to enter the Lords in accordance with the arrangements under the Bishoprics Act 1878 for determining seniority of precedence. After the end of the period, the provision made by the Bill would come to an end and the current arrangements under the 1878 Act would be restored.

The Bill, as a number of speakers have commented, has the merit of simplicity. The issue has been taken up by WATCH. A recent e-mail to me from WATCH suggested that this was a straightforward measure. It does not aim to set a quota or even to change the seniority principle permanently. It is not proposed that we should introduce a permanent rule prioritising the admission of women bishops over men. The measure is introduced temporarily for the length of two Parliaments to allow women to reach a critical mass on the Benches of the Lords Spiritual. By the time the provision expires, the hope is that sufficient numbers of women will have reached sufficient levels of seniority and that an extension of the provision will be unnecessary. However, I suggest to the Minister that we should seek a review of the measure and of the sunset clause if, a couple of Parliaments down the line, there is not adequate representation of women on the Benches of the Lords Spiritual. In that case the measure might need to be extended or another measure put in place.

My constituent, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, the vicar of Belmont and Pittington in Durham, is the vice-chair of WATCH. The role of that organisation was very effectively outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). My constituent has written to me stressing that the measure was proposed by the bishops themselves, in consultation with women in the Church. It was based on consensus about how to take the matter forward. She points out that this is a constitutional rather than a religious matter, and that the House of Lords and the House of Bishops both wished to see women represented as soon as possible among their number on the Bench of Bishops. That was the impetus behind the Bill.

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My constituent says that it is

“very clear, in the public outcry that followed the disastrous ‘no’ vote in General Synod in November 2012, that the vast majority of the British public wish to see women fully represented at all levels of our decision making as soon as possible”,

and she goes on to say:

“The convention that bishops are appointed to the bench of bishops in the Lords is simply that—a convention—and is of course inherently discriminatory in the changed situation that we now have where women can now be appointed as diocesan bishops. Any arrangements that rely on time served discriminate against those who were not permitted, until now, to gain the necessary years of service. This legislation is therefore a short-term remedy for a long-term injustice: it is not ‘positive discrimination’ but a partial redress of the results of historic discrimination.”

She urges all Members to support the Bill, and I hope they do.

4.39 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Thank God for women priests, because the Anglican Church would be in dire trouble in many parts of the country if there were no ordained women. I pay tribute to the women priests of the Church of England in my constituency over the past 30 years.

I speak as somebody who is not an Anglican. I come from good non-conformist stock, brought up in the Congregational Church and now in the United Reformed Church. My great-grandfather was a Congregational minister, one grandfather was a lay preacher, and my parents were leading members of their churches. As Members can gather, that has obviously become diluted through the generations. I am intrigued by the lords a-leaping—the bishops’ gymnastics—that we have heard about, and I have a wonderful picture as to how that will be carried out.

The Bill is great news and I shall support it, even though I am not an Anglican. As I said earlier, of all the Christian denominations—clearly, I am a Christian—only one denomination is guaranteed 26 places in the other place, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has briefed me that a female Methodist priest has been in the other place for many years, so it is good to see them catching up. The Christian Church is stronger as a result of having different denominations with people of all views, whether they be evangelical, high church, non-conformist or Salvation Army, and so on. There is a breadth of denominations, yet only one denomination has guaranteed places in the other place.

I did my bit to break the mould in 1986-87, when I became mayor of Colchester and appointed the first woman ever to be the mayor’s chaplain—Deaconess Christine Shillaker. I had the great privilege and honour of being in Saffron Walden when she became a “Rev”—although still not a full “Rev”—and then of being in Chelmsford cathedral when she was in the first cohort of women in Essex to become fully-fledged clergy who were able to do everything, and not just have the pick-and-mix approach that the Anglican Church allowed them at different times.

Regarding that very important occasion, what also sticks in the memory is that some of the people there were opposed to women being ordained; I am not sure

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what they would do about them becoming bishops. There was—only British culture could allow for this—a formal protest. At the end of the penultimate verse of the last hymn, the whole proceedings stopped to enable a reverend gentleman, Rev. Bell from Stanway near Colchester, to go forward and explain why it was wrong to allow women to become priests. A bewigged gentleman from the diocese office then went forward and explained why it was legally okay to proceed. To Rev. Bell’s credit, as he walked the full length of Chelmsford cathedral, the packed congregation sang the last verse with even greater gusto. I am delighted to say that the Rev. Christine Shillaker later had her own parish near Harwich, where she did her time, and she is now happily retired, living back in Colchester. I am so pleased that it fell to me to invite a woman to be the mayor’s chaplain and thus break the mould.

It is obviously an historical outrage that there is not a diocese of Colchester. We are in the diocese of Chelmsford, and have been for a hundred years, and I had hoped that the Archbishop of Canterbury would have stayed just long enough to hear this plea. Kent has two Anglican cathedrals, so why, given its population growth, cannot Essex? The plea is stronger, coming as it does from a non-Anglican. The historical support for such a plea is that Colchester was once the capital of Roman Britain, and in my town, visible to this day, are the remains of arguably the oldest Christian church in the British Isles. It was a Christian church in the closing period of the Roman occupation. It has taken the Christian Church centuries to get this far, and the Anglicans are catching up on many of the non-conformist Churches. Today, Parliament can say yes to women bishops in the other place, but Anglicans are not the only Christian denomination in this country, and if the Anglican church is represented in the House of Lords, the other denominations should be too.

4.47 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which largely represents cross-party agreement on an important advance, notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell).

I welcome the ordination of women bishops and this Bill, which enables them to play a full part in the other Chamber, unreformed as it is for the moment. The ordination of women bishops was welcomed by Newcastle residents of all faiths and none. It is the only controversial step—in terms of the length of time it took to happen and the amount of fierce debate within the Anglican community and outside—on which I have received not one letter, e-mail or phone call criticising the decision. Wherever I have spoken on the subject, the decision that finally the great work done by women priests and deacons in the Church of England would be recognised up to the highest level was greeted with joy—a word that is not misplaced.

It is appropriate that women bishops should be able to play a full role in Westminster. As has already been said, women priests play a full role in the Church, and in Newcastle in particular I am well aware of the work that women priests do to represent, fight for and minister to their communities. We have so many excellent women priests in Newcastle that it would be wrong to name any one of them, but I hope that they will understand it if I

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say that at the Church of the Ascension in Kenton, which is where I first went to Sunday school, I am always very impressed by the work of the Rev. Lesley Chapman.

The excellent former Bishop of Newcastle, the right reverend Bishop Martin, retired in November. He is a great loss to the city. As bishop, he championed the causes of social equality and social justice, in keeping with the history of Newcastle, which has long championed social justice, and of the north-east more broadly, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned. That history ranges from the Jarrow march to support for all-women shortlists in the Labour party; I benefited from my constituency’s support for those.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, I do not want to anticipate the decisions of the Church of England, but it is only appropriate to say how much a woman bishop in Newcastle would reflect the city’s position at the forefront of social justice and the great support for women’s playing their full role in the Church, the economy and the city as a whole.

4.51 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Tomorrow is the 750th anniversary of when barons, burgesses, bishops and abbots collected in the cathedral chapter, just 200 yards from where we are now sitting, to found our first Parliament. It is rather charming and appropriate that, the day before that anniversary, we should be celebrating a Bill that will apparently ensure the arrival of the first woman bishop in the other place. It has been quite a long wait, perhaps—750 years—although naturally, as a Conservative, I believe in organic change.

The logic is that women bishops should take their position in the other place. I would have thought that the Bill was unopposable. Sadly, that means that the great county of Lincolnshire will have to wait a year or two more to get its bishop into the other place, but we are a patient lot in Lincolnshire, and our bishop, as has been mentioned, is a generous man.

This debate gives me an opportunity to make another point about representation. Nothing that I say detracts from my strong support for the established Church; if we were to de-establish the Church, that would send entirely the wrong signal in an increasingly secular world. The Church of England is such a broad-minded institution—perhaps, in some people’s view, so broad minded that it is sometimes difficult to see where the bounds begin and end, although that is not really any of my business. It seeks to represent all people. I am a warm supporter of the Church of England, of women bishops and of the Church of England being the established Church.

A tremendous amount of work has been going on between the Catholic and Anglican Churches over the past 40 years to try to achieve union. I was speaking recently to Archbishop David Moxon—a superb representative of the Church of England in the Vatican, where he tries to take the process forward. He said to me that excellent progress is being, and has been made, in achieving that union so that we can take joint communion. It is a matter of great pain to many of us Christians that we cannot take communion together.

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Huge progress—quite surprising progress—has been made on issues that for centuries have proved very difficult indeed, such as transubstantiation of the nature of the real presence in the Eucharist. I think the two Churches can come to some sort of unity of view that it is some sort of spiritual change in the person, so tremendous progress is being made on that.

Tremendous progress is also being made on the nature of the supremacy of the see of Peter: all Christian denominations can, while maintaining their own supremacy in their own dioceses—as does the Orthodox Church—view the primacy of the see of Peter.

Sadly, however, there is one block. I am sorry to mention it, but what appears to be an insuperable block for many years is the fact that we now have women priests in the Anglican Church. This is a difficulty for the Orthodox denominations in the east and the Catholic denomination in the west. I am not going to make any comment on whether having women priests in the Anglican Church is right or wrong; I am just stating a fact that, sadly, we seem to have reached an impasse, but we are where we are. I say that because, very sadly, that will be a situation where we will remain divided for many years.

I want to emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) and which I have already made in a couple of interventions. I hope that Members on both Front Benches will keep a very open mind when it comes to reform of the other place. Other denominations—other faiths—need to take their place in the House of Lords. I was delighted with the response of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), when I intervened on him. I was a tiny bit disappointed that when I put the same question to the Minister, he did not choose to answer it. I would have thought that it would be perfectly possible for the Government to announce that they are open minded about any reform.

The reason I say that is that, while I fully support the fact that there are 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords—they are all Anglican and I have no difficulty with that—I do not want people to say that, because there are already 26 religious people there, there is no room for representatives of any other denominations or faiths. We have heard that there is already a Methodist priest in the other place, and we have heard the reasons for there being no Catholic bishops. [Hon. Members: “And the Chief Rabbi.”] There is also the Chief Rabbi.

I sat on a senior committee that discussed what our attitude in the Catholic Church should be towards one of our bishops being invited to join the House of Lords. I believe that the late Cardinal Hume was invited to join the House of Lords. Indeed, the Queen referred to him once as, “My cardinal,” which was quite touching. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has made clear, there are difficulties in canon law relating to bishops of the Catholic Church taking their place in the legislature. Be that as it may, I am sure a way forward can be found to have representatives of the Catholic Church and more representatives of the Methodists and of other faiths.

As we discuss those things, I very much hope that we will keep an open mind on the issue. Meanwhile, we wish the Anglican bishops in the other place well and look forward to a woman taking her rightful place there for the first time in history.

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4.58 pm

Tom Brake: We have heard overwhelming support for the principles of fairness and equality behind the Bill, and I would like to pick up on a number of comments that have been made. I will start by thanking the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for his party’s support. Perhaps it was remiss of me not to mention that at an earlier stage, but I welcome it. He said that female clergy are less tribal than their male counterparts—I do not know whether that applies to this Chamber as well, but perhaps we shall see during the course of the rest of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the Church remains a vital institution in our society. He then moved away from the purpose of this very simple Bill and touched on the issue of wider constitutional reform. If I am allowed a moment or two of deviation, Mr Deputy Speaker, I certainly support what the hon. Gentleman said about the idea of a citizen-led constitutional convention. Like him, however, my only concern is the extent to which that might scoop up such a range of issues that it would never be able to pronounce: it would take such an extended period that it could not come up with anything usable. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his speech.

The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) gave us a historical tour, a theological tour and then a topical tour of bishops’ roles and responsibilities. He helpfully underlined the wide-ranging support in the Church for the Bill.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) outlined her support for not only the Bill, but a wider change to how the House of Lords operates. She sensibly identified the fact that we have not yet been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion on that matter, but I am sure future Governments will want to return to it. I wish them greater success than we have had in effecting real change in the House of Lords, as well as in achieving 100% election to the second Chamber; that is my preference, although I would be happy to settle for a compromise of 80% election and 20% appointment.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is in his place, underlined the importance of ensuring that the widest possible range of Church of England traditions are represented among the Lords Spiritual. Clearly, it is not my place to speak on behalf of the Church of England and it would be inappropriate for me to do so, but I must say that it would be very surprising if it did not seek to represent the full range of traditions within its appointments.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) comprehensively set out why the Bill is needed. She said that it is for the Church to grasp this matter through its appointments in the next few years. Again, it would be surprising if the Church, having encouraged the Government to bring forward a measure as quickly as we have, did not respond by ensuring that its appointment process enabled some dioceses to have women bishops. That is not a matter for me, however, and we await the outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) had a picture in his mind of lords a-leaping; we all have our own picture in our minds. He underlined

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his very valuable role in breaking the mould in appointing the Rev. Christine Shillaker to support him when he was mayor. He made a very naked and very parochial plug—the only way is Essex—for the next diocese to be created, and I would expect nothing less.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Tom Brake: I am happy to give way, perhaps for another naked plug.

Bob Stewart: I was confirmed by the Bishop of Chelmsford, so I think he is a great guy. I support the bid for Colchester made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). We could easily have another bishop down there.

Tom Brake: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester welcomes that support for his cause. He may well rope in the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) to his campaign in the next few years.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is not in her place, rightly sang the praises of women clergy in general, and of those in her constituency in particular. That gives me an opportunity to sing the praises of the women clergy in the London borough of Sutton, who also do a fantastic job in the community.

Finally, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said that the Bill is “unopposable”. From looking around the Chamber and listening to the speeches made so far, I think he is right that it will not be opposed tonight. I heard and understood his request for wider faith representation but, like the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, I think that a dilemma is involved. We might want wider faith representation because that is a sensible thing to do in a second Chamber that has faith representation, but how do we reconcile that with the idea of a fully elected second Chamber? The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby did not have an answer to that, and I am not going to pronounce on it from a Liberal Democrat perspective from the Dispatch Box this evening.

As hon. Members will have noticed, this is a very short Bill. It addresses a particularly problem—namely, the delay in female bishops becoming eligible to sit in the House of Lords as Lords Spiritual if they were required to wait their turn under the present rules. Without the Bill, there would be a long wait before female bishops would be represented among their male counterparts in the House of Lords. That would not be fair. The Bill corrects that unfairness by ensuring that the Lords Spiritual benefit from having female bishops among their number as soon as possible. That is the question the Bill has been designed to address, with the support of the Church of England. It is a response to the historic decision of the Church of England to allow women to become bishops, and it is a proportionate and sensible adaptation of the existing rules to accommodate that decision. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

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Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Clause 1

Vacancies among the Lords Spiritual

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tom Brake: This is a very short Bill, with just one substantive clause. As we have already heard, the Bill has a single purpose, which is to enable vacancies among the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords to be filled as they arise by the most senior female bishop at the time, if there are any appointed at that point, in preference to the most senior male bishop. Male bishops would continue to become Members of the Lords if there were no qualifying female bishops at the time a vacancy arose. The seniority of a bishop is determined under clause 1(3) by reference to the date at which her election as a bishop of a diocese in England was confirmed. This reflects the way in which seniority is determined for the purposes of the Bishoprics Act 1878, which currently provides for bishops to become Members of the House of Lords.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should like briefly to clarify one point. In the Church of England, there are two types of bishop: diocesan bishops and suffragan—essentially assistant—bishops. Future diocesan bishops are often, but not always, given a suffragan appointment first. The Bill relates only to diocesan bishops in England as the Lords Spiritual are drawn only from among their ranks. As the Lords Spiritual are drawn from the diocesan bishops, the Bill will not immediately affect the first female suffragan bishops until and unless they are appointed to a diocese.

While the 1878 Act provides for 21 of the 26 Lords Spiritual to become Members of the House of Lords on the basis of seniority, a further five are automatically Members of the House of Lords on the basis of the see they occupy. These are the holders of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York and the bishoprics of London, Durham and Winchester. Because the holders of those sees are automatically Members of the House of Lords, clause 1(5) effectively provides for vacancies among those senior ex officio sees to be excluded from these transitional arrangements. When a vacancy arises for one of those five sees, it could be filled by a woman or a man.

Clause 1(1)(a) will ensure that the provisions are time-limited and that they cease to have effect 10 years after the Bill comes into force. The special arrangements must last long enough to provide sufficient opportunities to appoint women as bishops and for female bishops to become Members of the House of Lords as vacancies among the Lords Spiritual arise. Nonetheless, this is rightly a short-term transitional measure that will last until such time as it has become routine for women, like men, to have been in office for several years. The point was made earlier that if representation has not reached the expected level, action could be taken to address that. If the Church is unhappy with the change at the

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end of the 10-year period, it could ask the Government to take action. I think the Government of the day would respond positively.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to the Minister for taking up that point. Would it be sensible to build a review into the Bill, or at least assure the House that it is on the Government’s agenda, so that the legislation can be examined in good time to ensure that it can be extended or new mechanisms can be put in place?

Tom Brake: That is a matter for the Church and I am sure it will want to keep that under review. It will be able to see, through its own appointments process and the legislation, the impact on the number of women bishops and Lords Spiritual. If the Church feels in future that there is a need for the Government to take action, I am sure the Government would want to address that. As the years move by, I am sure that the pressure for equal representation will grow even more significantly, and that the Church and this place will have to respond to it effectively.

The Church believes that 10 years will be enough to ensure that the Bishops’ Bench in the Lords better reflects the gender diversity of bishops in the country, and to address the inherent inequality presented by the current system in the shorter term. After the end of the 10-year period—effectively at the start of the 2025 Parliament—the existing arrangements will resume.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer than is necessary, because I very much support the Bill, as does everybody who is left in Parliament this afternoon. However, I want to probe the Minister a little further on the time limiting measures—on which we have just had a very useful exchange, through interventions, on Second Reading—and to make a helpful suggestion.

When Parliament was considering what more it could do to address the lack of gender equality in this place back in 2002, the Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Bill was amended to enable political parties to take positive action to reduce inequality. The measure today seeks to do something similar. At that time, a sunset clause, which expired in 2015, was introduced. It was extended in the Equality Act 2010, so that political parties, should they so choose, could have the ability to take actions that in other ways would be considered to be positive discrimination. When the Minister draws the Committee stage to a conclusion, will he indicate whether, should it be necessary at the end of the 10-year sunset period and should the Church feel it desirable, Parliament could again consider the Bill and add an extension, just as the Equality Act 2010 extended the previous sunset clause to 2030?

Stephen Twigg: I intervene briefly to support what the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have just said. The Church, as the Minister reminded us, has requested the 10-year period. All of us on both sides of the House hope we will see sufficient progress during the 10-year period for the sunset clause to come into effect. However, it would be useful to hear from the Minister a commitment, which could be shared on both sides of the House, that

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if significant progress is not made the Government of the day will talk to the Church about extending the legislation in exactly the same way as the legislation relating to political party selections was extended by the Equality Act 2010.

5.15 pm

Tom Brake: Clearly, as I stated earlier, this is a matter for senior clergy, including senior female clergy, to keep under review and to raise with Governments if they feel it has not been addressed within the 10 years. There could be many factors at play that could make it impossible to meet any target if they or we were to set one at this point. As I said, therefore, this is a matter for the clergy to respond to. While I personally could make a commitment regarding what will happen in 2025, it would rather prejudge certain factors, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) knows, no Government can commit a future Government to any particular action. However, it is certainly something that future Governments would, I hope, want to consider positively if a further request were made and if, at the end of the 10 years, the representation of women bishops or Lords Spiritual had not been addressed in a way that the clergy and House of Commons thought appropriate.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Commencement, extent and short title

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tom Brake: I warn Members that my comments on clause 2 will be even shorter than those on clause 1.

The clause covers commencement and territorial extent, and gives the short title of the Bill. It is a technical clause that provides that the Bill will come into force on

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the day Parliament first meets after the forthcoming general election. It extends to all parts of the United Kingdom as it relates to membership of the House of Lords and may be cited as “Lords Spiritual (Women) Act 2015”.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

5.17 pm

Mr Gyimah: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I will be very brief. The Bill responds to the welcome decision of the Church to allow women to become bishops. It will ensure that female bishops will not have to wait to join their male counterparts in the House of Lords, thereby addressing a temporary unfairness in the current system until the appointment of both male and female bishops becomes routine. As we conclude our debate, I would like to thank hon. Members across the House for their support in making quick progress with this short, but important Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.18 pm

Stephen Twigg: When he spoke earlier, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) described the Bill as “unopposable”. I agree with him. The speeches at each stage of our proceedings over the last two hours demonstrate the strength of support for the Bill on both sides of the House. It is an intelligent measure, it is an equality measure and it is something the Church has asked us to do. I am delighted to support its Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Millhouse Green Post Office

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(John Penrose.)

5.19 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate on a topic of great importance to my constituency. I would like to highlight to the Minister a matter of grave concern to my constituents that could lead to the loss of a vital service that many rely on in an isolated rural area.

For the benefit of those not acquainted with my constituency, it is formed from the north of Sheffield and the west of Barnsley and is made up of a series of small towns and villages. Located in the north-western fringe of my constituency is the market town of Penistone and the small villages of Thurlstone and Millhouse Green. Administratively, Millhouse Green forms part of the metropolitan borough of Barnsley and the Penistone parish. The village lies on the A628, which runs to Manchester and is better known, as it runs across the national park, as the Woodhead pass.

Millhouse Green is home to the expected amenities of a village of its size nowadays. Besides the small post office, which is the subject of this debate, there is another small shop nearby. There is also the Millhouse Institute, a village hall that plays host to small events and boasts a crown green bowling lawn at the rear. There is also a pub called the Blacksmiths and, further out from the centre of the village, we have Windmill Nurseries and a farm shop, both of which host cafés. The village manages to maintain a small, mixed primary school, with around 100 pupils on the roll. A new development of around 200 homes was recently completed on the site of the old garage, adding a significant number of new households to the village. The nearest village to Millhouse Green is Thurlstone, again a small community with little in the way of facilities. The nearest large area of habitation is the market town of Penistone, some three miles away, where a large supermarket, a post office and the other facilities one would expect of small market town can be found.

Around this time last year, Wendy Marsh, the owner and sub-postmistress of the Millhouse Green post office, attended one of my surgeries to ask for help with an issue she had with Post Office Counters Ltd. In late 2013, Post Office Counters wrote to her to inform her that in future, as part of its network transformation programme, the post office she had been running for some years would no longer be classed as a community post office but as a local post office. The explanation Post Office Counters gave for the decision was that there is another suitable retail outlet for hosting post office services within half a mile: a small store that could take over the service if she did not wish to carry on.

The key change to the status of Mrs Marsh’s post office relates not just to the name, however, but to the payment she receives for delivering Post Office services on behalf of the village, as re-categorisation of the branch to “local” involves the loss of the core tier payment, as the Minister will be aware. However, the payment covers the lease of the property housing

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the post office and makes the business just about viable. The business struggles to run at a profit, having to sell many other items, and opens long hours to make ends meet. Removing the salary could push the business over the edge, forcing it to close. This would effectively mean the village losing not only Post Office services, but the sale of daily papers, as Mrs Marsh trades as the only newsagent in the village. Indeed, she has stated repeatedly to me that if the post office is re-designated, she will be forced to close the business and with it the post office service available to the village.

Having raised that prospect with Post Office Counters, I was frankly astonished to find that the company does not appear to be overly concerned, because post office services could, in its view, be transferred to an alternative retail outlet in the village. However, that would seem an unlikely prospect, as it is my understanding that the small shop nearby is not a suitable location for Post Office services and does not open the hours needed to offer Post Office services. It is also clear that the owner of the alternative business is not interested in taking on responsibility for the delivery of postal services to the village. Thus, we are in a difficult situation in Millhouse Green, which by Post Office Counters Ltd’s own admission offers no suitable location for the delivery of its services, other than the one alternative it has earmarked—but which, as I have established, is not available for the delivery of those services.

In summary, a redesignation is threatening the viability of Millhouse Green post office, on the grounds that there is an alternative provider within half a mile of the existing provision, but the alternative provider is not interested. Despite that, the Post Office continues to insist that it will press ahead with redesignation because there is another suitable retail business nearby. If ever we had a bureaucracy with a jobsworth attitude, this is it; you really could not make it up. A premises that wants to offer post office services will close if the core tier payment and its community status is removed; and an alternative location does not want to offer those services if the present post office ceases to operate. The consequence of all of that could be that Millhouse Green loses the service altogether.

At the end of this sorry process, the people who will really suffer are my constituents—not just Mrs Marsh, but all my constituents in Millhouse Green. They will have lost a vital service that many of them need and rely on. On top of that, my constituents will no longer be able to buy even a paper in the village, meaning a bus ride to the nearest shop that sells newspapers.

The cynic might think that behind all this is a ploy not only to remove the core tier payment from the sub-postmistress, but to close the post office altogether and to force customers to use the alternative facilities in the town of Penistone. Indeed, I have heard murmurings—I put it no stronger than that—that this problem is emerging elsewhere across my region as a result of the network transformation programme.

The last Labour Government laid down specific conditions to make sure that local people, especially in rural areas, did not lose services that were vital to rural communities. In this case, it looks like Post Office Counters Ltd is dancing around these conditions to rationalise its operations, to my constituents’ cost. Worse still, it seems there is very little my constituents can do

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to influence or change the minds of the management of Post Office Counters Ltd. That is extremely frustrating both to me and my constituents.

I ask the Minister, whom I know is a reasonable person, to respond to the situation I have outlined, which indicates stubbornly bureaucratic attitudes on the part of Post Office Counters, and to give my constituents in Millhouse Green the assurance that she will knock heads together and make it clear to the company that its network transformation programme must be rolled out sensibly and pragmatically. In other words, there is no point in redesignating a post office in a small village on the grounds that another retail business is close by, if that alternative provider is just not interested. Millhouse Green, a lovely village right on the edge of the Peak District national park, will want to hear from the Minister a robust response to this idiotic situation. I look forward to hearing what she has to say.

5.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this debate on the future of Millhouse Green post office and the proposals for the changes we are seeing within our post office network. The hon. Lady asked whether I am familiar with her constituency. It was certainly helpful to have the geography set out. I am not sure that I have an exact picture of the roads in my mind, but when I lived in east Yorkshire I greatly enjoyed walking in the Peak district, and I know some of the country roads between Sheffield and Manchester. I recall being most familiar with what was called “the snake pass”, which I think was a slightly different place. I can picture the beauty of the area about which the hon. Lady talks. She has set out her concerns clearly, and I hope to be able to provide her with some reassurance about continuity of service for her constituents who rely on the post office network.

Let me spend a short time setting out some of the changes we are making in the Post Office and indeed the reasons and the thinking behind what we are doing. We are investing nearly £2 billion in the post office network, particularly to modernise that network of at least 11,500 branches. That maintains a scenario whereby 99% of the UK population live within three miles of a post office outlet. We are incredibly committed to the post office network and we are looking even to see whether it can be expanded. In October 2014, for example, we saw a pilot of the Post Office’s home shopping returns service in approximately 150 new postal access points across the UK, which means that the network is growing for the first time in more than 50 years.

We all know how important post offices are to our constituencies. We need to ensure that they can be modernised and put on a sound, sustainable financial footing. Of course, post offices are changing. The way in which people interact with mail services poses challenges, but it also presents opportunities. The parcels business, for example, has expanded as a result of the increase in online shopping. It is vital for post offices to be transformed for the 21st century, which is the reason for our network transformation programme.

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Since 2010 more than 4,650 sub-postmasters have signed contracts to modernise their branches, and more than 3,500 have reopened following Government investment. The demand is clear. The revamped branches are more welcoming and accessible, and they are also open for longer, which is important. Since 2010 there have been more than 100,000 additional opening hours per week, which is equivalent to more than 2,000 additional post offices offering traditional hours. That is particularly helpful. Moreover, the modernised branches consistently receive customer satisfaction ratings of more than 95%. I understand that three branches that have received Government investment have opened in the hon. Lady’s constituency. No doubt her constituents are benefiting from those—and, of course, sub-postmasters can also benefit.

Let me explain our programme of change. There is a “main” model, and there is a “local” model. The main model will often be stand-alone, while the local model will be attached to an existing retailer, which will commonly be a convenience store or newsagent, although about 100 branches will be attached to pubs. That arrangement will enable the cost base to be shared. The “fortress” position that exists in a traditional post office will no longer be necessary. There will be a post office point alongside a typical retail space, with the same member of staff providing both services, which will make things easier and will also help to create the longer opening hours.

We recognise that in many communities a post office is the “last shop in the village”, which cannot operate as a “main” or “local” model, and we accept that such branches should not be made to change. I think that the definitions and criteria may be causing difficulty. If there are no alternative retail outlets within half a mile of a post office, it will be possible to designate it as a community branch. The current status is not changing, but, as part of our transformation programme, each branch has been assessed according to such criteria. We have protected 3,400 “last shop in the village” branches by designating them community post offices. They will benefit from new investment in the same way as the “mains” and “locals”. We are providing a £20 million community branch fund, which will secure their future and enable them to invest in renovations.

We also recognise that if we are to put post offices on to a stronger financial footing, enabling a branch to operate as one of the new models such as a “main” or a “local”, either on the existing premises or in premises nearby, will benefit customers, communities and the taxpayer. We are trying to work closely with branches in communities where such an arrangement is possible in order to identify the best long-term future.

The position of Millhouse Green is obviously of great concern to the hon. Lady. The Post Office has been engaging with the sub-postmistress on the issue of network transformation since last September. I understand that she is keen to retire at some stage and wishes to sell the retail and post office business together, but does not wish to receive investment to convert to a local model. I also understand that she has applied to have the branch classified as a community branch, but that has been rejected because—as the hon. Lady explained—there is a suitable alternative retailer 130 metres from the branch.

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Three solutions are being considered. The current process being followed is to sell the branch as a “post office local.” If successful, this will result in the sub-postmistress receiving the sale value of her business plus a payment from Post Office Ltd equal to the last 12 months of remuneration earned. The incoming operator would receive investment from POL to convert the branch.

Angela Smith: I have spoken to the sub-postmistress about selling the business, and I do know that she will look to retire very soon. The point is that there is very little interest. She has already looked at this and talked to a potential buyer. There is very little to no interest in buying the business, particularly if the core tier payment disappears. That is the key point in this debate. The core tier payment disappears on the basis that there is an alternative provider, but the key point again is that the alternative provider is not interested, and the risk is to the community, not particularly to the sub-postmistress in the long term, who will, of course, retire.

Jo Swinson: I recognise that point, and I want to reassure the hon. Lady about the potential scenario if that were to unfold, but my understanding is that at this point the Post Office, with the agreement of the sub-postmistress, is advertising the branch on its website as a commercial transfer opportunity, and that runs for three months. They are looking to find a buyer who would be able to operate it as a local post office. That advertisement runs until February, and it is important to follow that process and to try, on an official basis, to see if someone can be found to take it on, because if that is possible, that is the best potential outcome for the community and the sub-postmistress and the long-term future of the service.

The second option would be for the branch to convert to a “post office local”. If that were to happen, the sub-postmistress would receive financial support during that phase of transition, but I recognise she may not be keen to do that. Alternatively, the branch could move to the nearby retailer that has been mentioned, who would then host a local post office branch. In that scenario, the existing sub-postmistress would receive a leaver’s payment equal to 26 months remuneration and the new sub-postmaster would receive investment to set up their branch.

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I recognise that some of these options might not be the sub-postmistress’s preferred course of action, but the Post Office is committed to working alongside her to ensure that service provision can be maintained.

One possible scenario is that the current search for a buyer is not successful. If so, the Post Office confirms it would review the situation and discuss what alternative options would be available. There is a commitment to continuing the service, of course, which could mean the sub-postmistress continuing on her current contract for at least a period of 12 months, when the situation could be reviewed again. The community would not then be left without a post office because there is that commitment to make sure there is continuity of service.

The business is currently being marketed for sale, so the Post Office has not approached other retail providers in the area or looked at alternative plans, as that would be inappropriate at this time. The Post Office would, of course, engage in that, however, if the sale route did not prove fruitful.

I reiterate that commitment, because although we want to get the Post Office on to a secure and sustainable footing, and therefore, where possible, not having the additional subsidy that we want to reserve for those branches with no other option and that therefore have to continue with the core tier payment, none the less we are determined to make sure communities retain their services. That is a clear commitment from the Post Office as part of the network transformation, which is in stark contrast with what happened under the last Government, when there were two closure programmes and 5,000 branches were lost as a result. We want to learn the lessons from those programmes and make sure community services are able to remain.

I know that Post Office Ltd has offered to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this issue further and I hope she will be happy to take up that offer, and in February we will be able to see what interest there has been in buying the post office. The Post Office will continue to work closely with the sub-postmistress and the hon. Lady to make sure that the future provision of post office services for the community in Millhouse Green is secure and sustainable for the long term.

Question put and agreed to.

5.39 pm

House adjourned.