Martin spoke in the Westminster Hall Debate on ‘Bishops in the House of Lords’. Here is an extract of his speech transcribed via Hansard:
Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): It is good to see you, Mr Davies, and solidarity to the Bishop of Salisbury. I might not think he should be sitting in the House of Lords, but the Christian message of love and charity should be heard loud and clear from pulpits across the length and breadth of these islands. I am a doubting Thomas, as I said in the main Chamber the other week.
In some ways I agree with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) when it comes to certain Members of the House of Lords. Some of us tried to raise the matter at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, but I am afraid the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland failed to answer the question of whether he agrees with MI5 or with the former Prime Minister about that appointment.
I am going to speak as a Scottish constituency MP. There are 59 Members from Scotland. I have been looking at evidence in the House of Commons Library about the way in which bishops of the established Church of England have participated since 2013 in legislation that has not only affected England and Wales. I am mindful that the Anglican Church is disestablished in Wales and that the Kirk is the national/established Church in Scotland; there is the Episcopal Church, but it is not the national Church.
The bishops of the Church of England participated in 615 Divisions between July 2013 and July 2023, on 187 pieces of business. Parliamentary research has identified 22 pieces of business on Scotland, based on the subject index—basically, those that cover all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. During those 22 pieces of business, 49 Divisions took place. Twenty-three bishops participated in 31 of those Divisions, casting 91 votes on 11 different pieces of business.
One of those Divisions was on the Scotland Act 2016, which was the then Government’s response to the referendum on Scottish independence, on which the bishops of the Church of England had more of a say than the 59 Members representing Scottish constituencies, no matter what party they belonged to. This is a matter of the constitution. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), will perhaps correct me if I am wrong, but in 1919 the convocations of Canterbury and York agreed addresses to the King that sought greater opportunities for the Church of England to discuss its own affairs and to review the legislative role of Parliament. Up until 1919, it was Parliament that dictated the governance of the Church of England, which seems absolutely ridiculous.
The point I am making is that if it is acceptable for the Church of England to review its own processes and mostly remove itself from the parliamentary process, why is it participating in the governance of the other nations of the United Kingdom? Why is it participating on issues that relate to Scotland and Northern Ireland? I have heard the excuse that Churches in those areas have asked it to participate, but there is no Episcopal national Church in Scotland; it is the Kirk.
I come back to the point about the role of religion in politics. I think it is central, because if it were not for the Church and nation committee of the Kirk, the Parliament of Scotland would most likely not exist. It was the voice of the Scottish nation itself prior to devolution, and I am extremely grateful to the Kirk for doing that work. We also need to go back to issues relating to Ireland, because the Anglican Church there covers the entire island of Ireland. If I were a Unionist in the north of Ireland, I would be asking myself, “What has the Church of Ireland got to do with the governance of Presbyterian issues specific to Northern Ireland?” I say that as a doubting Thomas Catholic.
There is also the question of replacing the bishops in the Church of England or adding to the religious ethos of the upper Chamber. I need to be very clear that I do not believe in an unelected, unaccountable upper Chamber; during our time in the Union there needs to be total, sweeping reform and a new premise on which people are elected or appointed to that upper Chamber.
The idea is also sometimes raised—it has been raised here before—that we should ask other religious leaders, such as the Chief Rabbi or imams, to go into the upper House. I have even heard cardinal archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church suggested. That will not happen, because Roman Catholic clerics are prohibited by canon law from taking up elected office: if they do, they are removed from holy orders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on reminding us that the constitution and the way in which governance happens is important. It comes down to all the other issues that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark was talking about. I commend my hon. Friend and say to him that people like me will stand with him and continue to argue, with no personal animosity against the bishops of the Church of England, for the end of the House of Lords itself and for an elected upper Chamber to replace it.
Watch the debate in full here.