30 years of service: The Lord Harries of Pentregarth interview
Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Lord Harries of Pentregarth is only the second diocesan bishop to return to the House post-retirement. Now, in his 30th year in the House of Lords, he speaks to Sophie Church about Lords reform, his achievements, and the moralising rhetoric he currently sees in Parliament
Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who has sat in the House of Lords for 30 years, is reflecting on its future. Having first been appointed in 1993 as the Lord Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries retired in 2006, only to be recycled – as he terms it – as a life peer, sitting as a crossbencher, making him the second diocesan bishop to ever return to the House.
In 1999, he was part of a royal commission calling for reform of the House of Lords, specifically, suggesting for the House to be reduced to 550 peers.
But today, he says the House is still in desperate need of reform, with the lack of agreement between parties creating an impasse: “Nobody has been willing to compromise, and also there is a fair amount of hypocrisy goes on, because although the Conservative Party at that time and the Labour Party at that time said they wanted a totally elected House, I’m not sure that they really did.”
I myself am opposed to a lot of hectoring and moralising...it’s not really what we are about
While the recommendations in the commission’s Wakeham Report have yet to be followed, he says that he has succeeded in drawing attention to certain issues whilst in the Lords.
“One of the issues I’ve cared a lot about over the years is the Dalits – the former untouchables [the lowest form of caste in the Indian subcontinent],” he says, “and I have been very involved in getting legislation through Parliament to make discrimination on the grounds of caste illegal.” He also chaired a select committee on stem cell research, recommending a 14 day limit in which research should be conducted on an embryo.
Lord Harries has written over 20 books about his views on faith and politics, with his new book Majesty – an anthology of quotations from her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – recently published. He has also regularly contributed to the Radio 4 programme Thought For The Day; over his 50 years on the segment, he has commented on the death of Princess Diana, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster and the Brexit outcome.
Has he ever struggled for things to say? “Funnily enough, no,” he says, “because the last thing people want on occasions like that is anything gimmicky. The real art is to try to gauge the mood of the nation…It’s a question of emotional sensitivity.”
Lord Harries is, however, condemnatory about the language currently bouncing around Parliament – with the Illegal Migration Act passing between the two Houses at the time of speaking.
“I think that both in the Commons and the Lords, there’s a lot of unnecessary rhetoric if you like. When the Lords is at its best…it is very calm, very rational,” he explains. “I myself am opposed to a lot of hectoring and moralising. I just don’t think it’s a proper place for it, and it’s not really what we are about.
I would be hesitant about simply condemning the present government policies as lacking in compassion like that,” he adds. “I don’t think that’s the best way of going about it. I don’t actually think it will work.”
While Lord Harries thinks that the future of the Church of England in Parliament is uncertain, he says that its establishment allows people to anchor themselves to common moral standards.
“My own view at the moment is that the establishment of the Church of England is a health for the life of the country as a whole,” he says, “and it provides a stable institution, a stable set of values, which even if people have moved away from the religious space, they can recognise.”
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