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.
What flows from this is that reform should be pursued, not in order to elect the second chamber, but in order to enable it to do what it does well even better and to enhance trust and engagement with the people. There are already important links. The chamber is an arena in which those drawn from civic society are able to converse. However, we can and should build on that which exists. Reform can be achieved at two levels.
The first is that which requires legislation. An Ipsos MORI poll in 2007 found that people ranked trust in the appointments process as more important to the legitimacy of the second chamber than the addition of elected members. Putting the Lords appointments commission on a statutory basis would not only protect the independence of the process but also enshrine the need to appoint only people who meet the highest threshold of merit – including those nominated by the parties, thus preventing any cronyism in the system – as well as reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom. The House is already far more diverse than is popularly realised, not least in terms of ethnicity and disability. There is scope to add to that diversity.
The House is now a large body. Having a high number of members enables one to draw on those who are experts and can combine their work with contributing the House. However, it is now becoming too large and a statutory cap on numbers is necessary, coupled with provision to remove those who rarely if ever attend and enable those who wish to do so to retire. Closing off the by-election provision for hereditary peers would not only get rid of an anomaly but also lead to a reduction in numbers. A Bill presently going through the House provides for the expulsion of those who commit serious criminal offences.
The second is that which is already within the gift of the House. Various proposals are already under consideration. The House could provide that all Government Bills introduced in the Lords are subject to examination by evidence-taking committees as well as establish a committee for post-legislative scrutiny, checking that Acts have actually achieved their intended purpose. There is scope for greater use of online consultations when Bills are being examined. The House is considering whether to extend its use of investigative select committees to complement the existing range of cross-cutting committees (as on the constitution and economic affairs) that do excellent work.
These are practical reforms that have the twin merits of enhancing the work of the House and being achievable. They add to the existing process and, in effect, free the elected House to devote its time to debating and determining the policy of the nation. The relationship is clear and positive. It deserves to be enhanced, not destroyed.