The House of Commons is the body through which the people determine how they are to be governed. Through elections to the Commons, the people choose the government and through those elections also hold the government to account. Accountability for public policy is clear and direct. There is one entity – the party (or parties) in government – responsible for public policy. Electors know that and at a general election choose either to keep the government in office or to turn it out.
The House of Lords recognises this: it therefore does not seek to challenge but rather to complement the work of the elected House. The Lords carries out tasks that the Commons often does not have the time or the political will to fulfil. Limited time in the Commons means there is often insufficient opportunity to examine thoroughly the detail of Bills. The Lords devotes most of the time to detailed scrutiny. It accepts that the Commons is entitled to determine the principle – the ends – of legislation. The Lords concentrates on the means, ensuring that Bills are crafted in such a way as to meet their intended goals. In so doing, the Lords adds value to the political process without challenging the primacy of the people’s elected representatives.
I advance two propositions. First, that the functions of the Lords are well fulfilled. Second, electing the House would undermine, indeed largely destroy, the capacity of the House to fulfil those functions. The Government accepts the first but, in its reform proposals, has failed to grasp the second. Electing the second chamber is not self-evidently the democratic option – by dividing accountability it can undermine the capacity of the people to hold government to account (since policies may emerge for which it is not directly responsible) and can sweep away the very benefits that the present system delivers.