Financial Times: Tories consider major overhaul of House of Lords

17 December 2019

By Sebastian Payne and George Parker

Boris Johnson’s government is considering radical plans to reform the House of Lords as part of a constitutional overhaul aimed at strengthening the UK and countering the rise of Scottish nationalism. Aides to the prime minister are considering the membership and role of the upper chamber, which is home to almost 800 appointed peers and focuses on scrutinising legislation.

Discussions among government insiders include whether the Lords should have directly or indirectly elected members, so as to give the UK’s constituent nations a greater stake at Westminster. Any Lords reform could be part of a broader constitutional overhaul trailed in the Conservatives’ general election manifesto, and the idea of sweeping reform is being driven by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser.

Government insiders said the prime minister was focused on ideas about how to combat the threat of the Scottish National party.

The risk of a break-up of the UK is set to be a major issue for Mr Johnson, because the anti-Brexit SNP is pushing for another independence referendum after winning 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster during the general election.

The SNP is likely to increase pressure for a plebiscite if the party wins the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections.

Mr Johnson is due to set up a “commission on the constitution” to look at issues including the role of the upper house, and it is expected to report within a year. One person briefed about the discussions on Lords reform among Mr Johnson’s inner circle said: “One of the questions is how do you cement the union and make it more relevant for everyone.”

Lord Strathclyde, a former Conservative leader in the Lords, said: “We need a stronger, more responsible second chamber, more directly accountable to people. There are many ideas as to how that could happen.”

The government is examining work by the Constitution Reform Group, a cross-party organisation dedicated to preserving the UK through a new Act of Union.

Last year the group drew up legislation that set out several options for updating the constitution, including the idea of a reformed Lords comprised of members from the devolved legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

Lord Lisvane, a member of the group who presented legislation outlining a new Act of Union to the upper chamber last year, said he had detected some serious interest among ministers during the last parliament. “We feel, too, that in the broader body politic, increasing concerns about the maintenance of the union have led to a recognition that a plan B will be required.”

But some of Mr Johnson’s senior colleagues have warned him not to get bogged down in Lords reform, as past governments have done.

David Cameron’s coalition government attempted to reform the upper house, backed by the Liberal Democrats, but the initiative went nowhere. One minister said: “We don’t want to go down that route. Once bitten, twice shy.” One minister said a less ambitious initial reform would be to reduce the size of the Lords by setting a retirement age for peers. “That’s a more likely first step in this parliament,” added the minister.

Senior Tories said the composition of the Lords, where the Conservatives are heavily outnumbered, needed to be examined. One of Mr Johnson’s allies said the government may appoint new peers to in an effort to curb the anti-Tory majority in the upper chamber.

You can access the full article in the Financial Times here.

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