Bishops, the Burns Report, and the Prime Minister

On 20 February, the Prime Minister wrote to the Lord Speaker on the subject of proposals in the Burns Committee Report on reducing the size of the House of Lords.  Commenting, Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker, said:

‘I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s recognition of the careful and considered work done by Lord Burns and his Committee, and her recognition of the overwhelming support within the House for the report’s recommendations. Her statement means that the plan to reduce numbers in the House of Lords is on course. The case for a reduction has now been accepted by all party leaders.

The crucial paragraph in her letter to me says:

‘I would like to use this letter to make a statement of intent on further appointments over the remainder of this Parliament. I intend to continue with the restraint which I have exercised to date and, when making appointments, to allocate them fairly, bearing in mind the results of the last general election and the leadership shown by each party in terms of retirements. I will also operate on the basis that there is no automatic entitlement to a peerage for any holder of high office in public life.’

This is the first time such a statement of this kind has been made by any Prime Minister. With this statement of intent, she has challenged the House and its members to deliver their part in reducing numbers. The ability to reduce the size of the House is now within our own control. I intend to work with the political leaders in the House to agree how best to take this forward.

I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has responded so positively to the report’s recommendations and I look forward to making further progress on reducing the size of the House on the basis of the commitments made by the other political parties during the House’s debate on the report.’


With regard to the Lords Spiritual, the Burns Report comments:

“Archbishops and Bishops

[23]. Similarly, [i.e. as in paragraph 22 on the Royal office-holders, the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who “are subject to different provisions from the other hereditary peers and are not intended to be covered by any of the proposals in this report”] the number of Lords Spiritual (26 Archbishops and Bishops, who must retire from their posts at the age of 70) could only be reduced through primary legislation. Accordingly we make no proposals in respect of the Lords Spiritual, while noting that like hereditary peers they will make up a larger proportion of a smaller House.”

The Prime Minister’s letter notes that the report’s recommendation divide into two separate areas: the steps necessary to achieve a reduction in the size of the House of Lords; and mechanisms by which the House would thereafter be maintained at a steady and smaller state. Were these criteria to be applied to the Lords Spiritual, although their number have been maintained at 26 under the Bishopric of Manchester Act 1847, it is likely that in a smaller House of Lords there would be moves to reduce this number.

Following the publication of the Burns Report on 31 October 2017, our post Lords Reform and the Bishops considered what position the Church of England might take on a reformed House of Lords. In view of Prime Minister’s letter, questions on future numbers of Lords Spiritual would seem inevitable.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Bishops, the Burns Report, and the Prime Minister" in Law & Religion UK, 20 February 2018,

4 thoughts on “Bishops, the Burns Report, and the Prime Minister

  1. The call for a review of the number of bishops (on the grounds that they would form a greater percentage of the membership when the number was reduced to 600 over the present) rather overlooks the fact that since 1847 the total number of peers steadily increased to a peak of about 1200 before the last Lords reform without any corresponding increase in the number of bishops..

    When the number of lords spiritual was fixed at 26 in 1847, there were some 350 members of the House of Lords… about 7.5%. Reduction of the Upper House to 600 would see that percentage fall to about 3.5%.

    Of course, before the expulsion of the mitred abbots under Henry VIII the Lords Spiritual made up over 50% of the Lords Chamber.

    Perhaps the steady fall in the percentage merely reflects the role of Christianity in the nation?
    Caveat: I found it difficult to obtain precise numbers of 19th cent. peers and maths was never my strong point
    John Henley

    • Much depends upon the presentation of the information: reduction in the size of the House from 800 to 600 (excluding bishops, as in the Burns Report considerations) would mean that the potential voting capacity of the 26 bishops, in comparison to the total number of other Members, would increase from 3.25% to 4.33%. Not really a significant increase in the bishops’ potential influence. [If the Lords Spiritual were reduced by the same ratio, their numbers would be decreased by 6 or 7].

      However, in practice not all those eligible to sit in the Lords regularly do so. An HL Library Note found that “As at 27 January 2016, the total membership of the House of Lords was 859. However, excluding those currently ineligible to sit (such as Members on leave of absence or those holding particular posts) the ‘actual’ membership was 820. The average attendance of the House of Lords in the 2014–15 session was 483…”.

  2. Special pleading – the number of Lords Spiritual should be reduced by 7 although if we are a democracy 26 would be the correct reduction. I believe that only in the UK and Iran do clerics have a place in government of this nature.

    • My personal view is that in a democracy we shouldn’t have that kind of second chamber at all. The problem has always been presented as “How can we have a democratic second chamber that won’t then challenge the authority of the Commons?” and, clearly, there’s no easy answer to that.

      For my part, I’ve always thought that there was a lot to be said for the Irish model – but I suspect I’m in a very small minority on that.

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