sentamu peerage
Church of England

Black Bishops Matter: Sentamu’s peerage has been paused for a reason

There’s been a lot of noise about John Sentamu’s peerage – he hasn’t got one, and the Telegraph, Sunday Times and Guardian aren’t happy about it. It is customary for all outgoing archbishops to be elevated on retirement, but the former Archbishop of York remains out of Parliament for reasons which are causing some dismay in the media. Why has he been ‘snubbed’? Don’t black bishops matter? Is it institutional racism? Is Boris Johnson racist? Is he less worthy than the Prime Minister’s brother Jo Johnson? Is it simply No.10 incompetence?

Simon Woolley, founder of Operation Black Vote, told the Sunday Times: “John Sentamu is a hero and a role model not just to black Britain but to Great Britain. The fact that he has not been afforded a peerage is nothing short of scandalous. Given the deluge of peerages to friends and family, of which not one was black, I sincerely hope this is an oversight that will be rapidly corrected.” And the chorus of condemnation continued:

Theresa May’s husband isn’t actually in the House of Lords, but accuracy and truth are invariably casualties when David Lammy tweets. And accuracy and truth are casualties in all the coverage of the strange case of John Sentamu’s missing peerage, as Home Office Minister Stephen Greenhalgh reveals:

HOLAC is the House of Lords Appointments Commission, whose function is “to vet for propriety” nominations to the House of Lords. And John Sentamu’s governance and oversight of cases of historic sexual abuse are still currently being investigated. IICSA has reported, and there was some criticism of his (in)action, though nothing which many would say justifies the withholding of a peerage (opinions on this will vary, but quite a few nominated peers have something nasty in the woodshed). And then there’s the case of the Bishopthorpe flood and the missing hard drive. The fact is that questions remain: here, here, here and here.

The fuller truth is that politicians have been at the forefront of pushing for John Sentamu’s peerage for months (since June, according to the Sunday Times, who were manifestly given some background but wrote their shock story anyway). There is no political resistance to ‘Lord Sentamu’: in the era of Black Lives Matter, why would there be?

The complete truth is that officials have been blocking the nomination with a combination of bureaucratic over-caution and excessive due process, but also an understandable caution in the light of Greville Janner, meaning that they are hyper-cautious about any hint that somebody being nominated might have done something wrong even in governance terms. Imagine if John Sentamu had been elevated to the Peerage and then IICSA had concluded that he had been personally and wholly responsible for a failure of safeguarding in child sex abuse.

Also, seemingly nobody, not even the new Archbishop of York, realises that it’s not as if the Government just determines that someone will get a peerage and then, hey presto, it happens immediately. John Bercow’s lack of a peerage was largely seen as No.10 spite or revenge, and there may have been an element of that, but he stood accused of chronic bullying, investigations were ongoing, and doubts about his character persist. All nominations have to go through due process, which includes HOLAC, and it helps if all ‘investigations’ have concluded and reported beforehand, otherwise it is difficult to take a view.

IICSA has now reported, but the Whitsey Review is still to do so.

Those who rush to judgement about the Government’s intent or the Prime Minister’s motives with allegations of racism or incompetence need to pause for a moment and consider what the reaction would be if No.10 had expedited a peerage for some Tory who had been accused of historic child abuse governance concerns, and was subsequently found guilty. Wouldn’t there be questions about the Government’s competence? Would there be an outpouring of scorn for the vetting process? Wouldn’t there be demands for him to be ejected from Parliament?

Perhaps, in light of the damning IICSA report, it might be a little unseemly to rush to ennoble any member of the clergy, let alone an archbishop.