Should we have reserved House of Lords seats?

By Simon Rocker, July 14, 2011

Reform of the House of Lords is back on the political agenda, and not before time. The government has created so many peers to balance the Labour Lords of the previous administration that the chamber is bloated and old-timers have been grumbling that they cannot find a seat for debates.

According to a draft bill promoted by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the current total of nearly 800 peers should be cut to 300. Most significantly, he wants 80 per cent of them to be elected and the remainder appointed, with their period of office restricted to 15 years.

An additional 12 places would be allocated to the "Lords Spiritual", Church of England bishops, reduced from their current 26. And this has inevitably raised the question: should other faiths have reserved seats for their leaders as well?

Although there is no proposal for automatic representation from other faiths, the Church of England supports the idea of wider religious participation.

Since Nathan Rothschild became the first practising Jew to enter the Lords in 1885, many Jews have followed in his footsteps. But, uniquely, two rabbis now sit in the Lords: Lord Sacks and Baroness Neuberger. Rabbi Neuberger, who began as a Lib Dem peer, will move to the cross-benches in autumn as a result of her return to the pulpit at West London Synagogue.

By coincidence, one rabbi is Orthodox, the other Progressive. But both were appointed in their personal capacity rather than because of clerical office.

In a recent radio debate, Rabbi Neuberger argued that since the bishops brought a distinctive contribution to the work of the Lords, there was a case for having other faiths formally represented as well. But she foresaw a practical problem: Jews, and probably other faith groups, were "extraordinarily bad at deciding who our leaders are," she said, "and we fight like cats."

There is a near impossibility of agreement on a leader

Still, it might be valuable, she thought, for communities to have to decide "who they want representing them in the Lords. If they can't get it right, they don't get representation."

When Lords reform was examined 11 years ago by a commission under Lord Wakeham, the Board of Deputies argued that trying to allot places to faith leaders could prove divisive and end up doing "more harm than good".

The Board would have been mindful of Orthodox/non-Orthodox tensions in the Jewish community at the time and the near-impossibility of agreeing on a single Jewish community representative.

In a submission to that commission, the Chief Rabbi - who was not yet then a peer - thought that having members of religious minorities in the Lords was "essential if those groups are to feel that they belong and have a valued presence in the public square". But he rejected automatic representation, saying that religious peers should be chosen "ad personam and not ex officio" - on individual merit rather than because of their office.

Today, the veteran politician Lord Janner, who has spoken on Jewish causes in Parliament for more than 40 years, believes that a formal representative for British Jewry in the Lords would be "an excellent idea".

But, he adds that it would be "feasible only if they spread it to other religions, which I very much doubt. They won't find it easy to decide who to have, and how many to have, from other religions. I'd be very surprised if they did it."

Lord Haskel, Deputy Speaker of the Lords and president of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, is even more sceptical. He makes the point that that if you have an elected body, you cannot predetermine its composition, while he doubts whether an appointments commission could choose faith representatives "because have you so much fragmentation in different faiths".

In any case, he believes the government has got its reform "the wrong way round": first, politicians ought to decide what role the Lords should fulfil in future before worrying who should go there.

If ever we should get to the stage where a reserved Jewish seat in the house becomes a possibility, then one idea might be for the Jewish community to elect its representative.

Registering the members of different synagogue movements for an electronic poll is not so far-fetched - although the problem would come in getting Charedi constituents to sign up for internet voting or work out a way for unaffiliated Jews to affiliate.

The catfights are unlikely to break out very soon, however.

Jerry Lewis, a vice-president of the Board of Deputies, who is a lobby correspondent, observes that the Clegg proposals "have been so badly mauled in both the Lords and Commmons" that he cannot see the bill going very far in its present form.

Last updated: 10:51am, July 14 2011