Both Christian and secular organisations have expressed concern about the level of allowances claimed by a number of bishops for attending the House of Lords.
Information published today (21 June) reveals that the Bishop of Chester, Peter Forster, last year claimed £27,600 in attendance allowances as well as £7,309 in travel expenses. This is in addition to his stipend from the Church of England. He attended the Lords on 97 days during the year.
The sums claimed vary widely from bishop to bishop. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York claimed no money at all from the Lords. The Bishop of Birmingham attended on 22 days but also claimed nothing.
Other high claimants include the Bishops of Liverpool, Wakefield, Leicester and Exeter. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, claimed £3,750 for attending on 24 occasions.
The figures were published today following an investigation by the Independent newspaper and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
News that Peter Forster is the highest claimant is likely to add to the criticism that he attracts as one of the Church of England’s most controversial bishops. He has encouraged gay and bisexual people to seek psychiatric treatment and promotes the view that climate change is not due to human activity.
A spokesperson for the Church of England said, “The amounts claimed as reimbursement by Lords Spiritual will inevitably vary from bishop to bishop as a reflection of a number of factors including time spent in the House, geographical distance from Westminster, policy portfolios held, committee membership and all-party group activity”.
Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester - seen by some as a likely candidate to replace Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury – said that he had used the money for travel, accommodation and research. He insisted, “None of this money goes to individual bishops to subsidise their stipends”.
Symon Hill, associate director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, said he was alarmed by the figures published today.
He explained, “While it is of course legitimate for people to claim travel expenses and the like, the sums in question seem extraordinarily high. The public have a right to expect bishops to produce a breakdown of how this money has been used. We need to be clear that no bishop has used this money simply as additional income. When it comes to the costs of travel, accommodation, food and so forth, many Christians – and other voters – would naturally expect church leaders to live relatively simply.”
Hill added, “People of many faiths and of none will understandably be asking themselves why bishops and other members of the Lords should be able to claim public money and vote on legislation without being accountable to the public”.
Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association said, “Church of England bishops acquire their right to sit in our Parliament and claim public money for their expenses solely by virtue of their religion and position in the hierarchy of one denomination of one church."
Copson called for reform of the House of Lords to "end this medieval hangover of automatic reserved places for bishops.”