Exclusive: Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, urged to scrap most bishops' seats in House of Lords

Former Labour minister, Frank Field, claims poor voting turnout shows seats are being 'wasted'
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A senior MP has called for most of the 25 bishops who sit in the House of Lords to lose their seats because they play "gesture politics" but rarely turn up to vote.

Frank Field, a former Labour minister and ex-member of the Church of England General Synod, has launched a stinging attack on bishops who criticise government policies and yet do not bother to vote against them when they have the chance.

Writing in The Independent, Mr Field called on the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, to revive Lords reform by handing most of the 25 seats to people from employers, trade unions, universities, the arts, armed forces, the law, the media and women's and children's groups.

The former Welfare Reform minister said that 43 bishops issued a statement criticising the Government's welfare cuts in March. But only six of the 16 who sit in the Lords turned up when the House debated them and only one took part in all four votes.

"This turnout of bishops is the worst kind of gesture politics," he said. The voting record of bishops suggests their places in the second chamber are being "wasted", he added.

Mr Field said: "It may be that the Church of England now appoints bishops who feel they have nothing to say to the nation on the great ethical issues of the day. Some could quite legitimately believe that their time would be better spent in their dioceses. But it surely cannot be impossible for bishops, who sign protest letters, to so organise their diaries that they can turn up and put their votes where their mouths are."

The MP for Birkenhead said his proposal would enable the Lords to represent the "moral aspirations" of the nation, kickstart Lords reform after it was killed off by the Conservatives last year and strengthen the groups that make up David Cameron's Big Society.

A Church of England spokesman said: "This article is an interesting contribution to debate but it does not look as if there is a favourable political context for returning to the subject of constitutional reform just at the moment." Lambeth Palace did not comment.

Some Church figures believe that Mr Field has misunderstood the way the bishops in the Lords work, saying they do not "vote as a bloc". They said six bishops voted a total of 14 times on welfare on 19 March.

Nick Clegg, the architect of the Coalition's plans to bring in a mainly elected second chamber, is unlikely to take up the Field plan. Mr Clegg proposed cutting the number of seats for bishops to 12 but his blueprint was dropped by Mr Cameron in the face of a revolt by Tory backbenchers.

A Liberal Democrat source said last night: "We have been campaigning for Lords reform for more than 100 years to make it more democratic, legitimate and representative of British society. We brought forward proposals but they were blocked by a combination of Conservatives and a supposedly progressive Labour Party."

At present, the 25 Lords Spiritual are the Archbishops of Canterbury and York; the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester and the other places filled on the basis of seniority.

The Independent reported last summer that the bishops are claiming up to £27,000 a year each in allowances for attending the Lords on top of their stipends from the Church.

Attendance records

Attendance at sessions in the House of Lords between May 2010 and September 2011 (with at least 100 days available):

The worst...

Former Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Michael Scott-Joynt 5%

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Revd Dr Rowan Williams 5%

Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Dr John Sentamu 6%

... and the best

Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones 33%

Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Dr Alastair Redfern 39%

Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster 44%