Previous SectionIndexHome Page


House of Lords

Mrs. Margaret Beckett, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Cook, Mr. Secretary Straw, Dr. Jack Cunningham, Mr. Secretary Dewar, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Secretary Marjorie Mowlam, Mr. Secretary Michael and Mr. Geoffrey Hoon presented a Bill to end membership of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage; to make related provision about disqualifications for voting at elections to, and for membership of, the House of Commons; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 34].

19 Jan 1999 : Column 715

Orders of the Day

Greater London Authority Bill

[1st allotted day]

(Clauses 1 to 4 and Schedules 1 and 2)

Considered in Committee, pursuant to the Order [15 December].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 1

The Authority

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

3.53 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I would like to take a brief opportunity to set out the reasons for my opposition to the clause, which stem from my reservations about how the Bill itself--and, therefore, the clause--came about. The Bill is the result of the use of the technique of referendum. I believe that the referendum is a dubious means of arriving at complex political decisions.

The decision--which, on the face of it, looked seductively simple, as does the clause--must be one of the more complex that we have encountered not just in this Parliament, but for a long time. The relevant question, however, was put to the people of London in a referendum. That in itself was bad enough, because, as I have always contended, it is always difficult to reduce a complex political question legitimately to a simple proposition that requires a simple yes or no answer. In this case, the crime was compounded because the Government failed to put to the people of London a question that would distinguish their desire for, on the one hand, a mayor as a component of the Greater London Authority and, on the other, an assembly. The clause is based on a false premise, because an invalid question was put to the people of London, so the answer that they gave was also invalid.

I am glad to say that one of my hon. Friends has introduced a private Member's Bill that will give us an opportunity to consider the matter, but a serious question that we should already have considered about referendums as a mechanism for political decision making concerns the turnout. As we all know, pathetically few people were sufficiently engaged by the question to take the trouble to vote in the referendum in London.

I have heard Ministers claiming that there is "overwhelming" support for the proposition adumbrated in the clause, but we know that only about one in three Londoners were sufficiently overwhelmed to bother to vote. If we are to have such abuse of the technique of referendum, we should quickly have a long-overdue look at the way in which the referendum is used as a mechanism for political decision making. I hope that we will not be further subjected to the claim that the people of London came flocking to endorse the proposition, because that is nonsense and will be seen as such.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does my right hon. Friend recollect that the referendum was held

19 Jan 1999 : Column 716

on the same day as the London borough elections and that the turnout on that day was lower than in previous London borough elections?

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point, which allows me to say, strictly in passing, that I am proud of the fact that my borough had the lowest yes vote of any borough in Greater London.

The clause encapsulates the basis of the whole Bill, which is extremely undesirable because it imposes a whole new layer of bureaucracy on the people of London. It has been said, and it will no doubt be said again as we continue our discussions, that the mayor and assembly will somehow be a benefit to the people of London. I have been in the political business long enough to be dubious about the proposition that the more layers of bureaucrats we have, the greater is the benefit to the people; but that is what is being argued.

We will have to spend a long time considering in detail the proposition that more bureaucrats and politicians will bring greater benefits to the people of London. Londoners already have elected borough councillors, Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament, all beavering away to give effect to their wishes and desires. Now they will have an elected mayor and assembly members.

I will not go into detail about the cost of the bureaucracy, buildings, salaries, expenses, special assistants and all the other nonsense, to say nothing of the travelling this and living that--I suspect that we may return to all that at greater length later--because the real point is not only the undesirability in principle of more politicians and bureaucrats, but the conflicts that will inevitably arise among all the different elected representatives of the people of London.

Conflicts are bound to develop as the powers of the mayor and the assembly develop, inevitably at the expense of the boroughs. I hope that that problem will come out as we consider the Bill, although I do not know how we are to resolve it, because if we agree to the clause, all the nonsenses in the other 250-odd clauses will follow as night follows day.

Ministers must give the Committee some idea of how the Bill will work to the benefit of the people of London, those for whom we are supposed to be legislating, when it contains a prescription for continuing and growing conflict at every level in the making and implementation of policy between the people elected, supposedly, to represent the people of London.

4 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I shall intervene on the right hon. Gentleman only once. How does he explain the logic of his position, unless he is arguing that it is better to keep the status quo under which Parliament and the Government of the whole country--irrespective of their majority in London--make decisions for London rather than those decisions being made by people chosen by Londoners, who may be argued to have a more local interest?

Is not the logic of what the right hon. Gentleman says that there should be only one Government in Britain at all levels of decision making? Yet, everywhere else in Britain there are tiers of government. He used to represent a

19 Jan 1999 : Column 717

constituency in Worcestershire where there are parish, district and county councils. In Scotland, there are other tiers of government. Is he arguing that we should have only one tier of elected representatives for all the United Kingdom?

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but the direct answer is no, although I would disagree vehemently with holding up the administration of our counties as some sort of model. The hon. Gentleman's question is perfectly valid, but I challenge his assumption that London is a political entity that merits the sort of representation that the Bill will impose on it. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman because I am comfortable with the status quo, as I believe that the boroughs legitimately represent the peoples of London in all their diversity. I am glad to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who shares the borough of Bromley with me.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): And me.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) shares it too--the borough of Bromley is fully represented in the Chamber. One reason why the good folk of Bromley were the least enthusiastic about the Bill is that they feel absolutely no commonality of interest with people not just in central London, but with the people in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I say nothing detrimental about those constituencies or their boroughs, but my hon. Friends may agree that the common interests that the people of those area share with Bromley are, to say the least, minimal.

The core of the difficulty with the Bill is that it seeks to treat the length, breadth, might and greatness of London as if the capital were one simple-minded political entity that can be legitimately represented by an assembly. I challenge that assumption; it was wrong from the start. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) posed a legitimate question, but I am content with the status quo, and I believe that added bureaucracy will be unnecessary and costly, and will give rise to conflicts that could damage the interests of Londoners in all their diversity. Let me put it beyond all doubt that I am totally against clause 1, which is misconceived and wrongly based, and which will damage the people of London.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Committee stage begins a long process that will pass from the full light of the Chamber to the slightly less full light of the Committee Rooms upstairs, where the hours will be longer and the labours no less hard. The Liberal Democrats support clause 1, but I wish to raise one matter arising from what the Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions said on Second Reading when we explored the nature of the beast to come.

As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has clearly grasped, clause 1 sets up sets up the authority, with the words:

On 14 December, I sought to get out of the Secretary of State whether that authority was equivalent to regional government. It had started off being described as such,

19 Jan 1999 : Column 718

but then it became city government and local government. I thought that the issue was worth pursuing and the right hon. Gentleman's answer is worth repeating. He said:

    "It is in between, in a way".--[Official Report, 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 624.]

That comment lends itself to further exploration.

One could argue validly, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has done, that Greater London is not an entity and should not have countywide or citywide government. However, some of us have accepted that the development of metropolitan London with a green belt around it, makes Greater London a natural, large metropolitan community. One sees that that is the case when one flies into London.

Obviously, there is a greater south-east region. However, if the Government are committed to regional government, as the Secretary of State and Ministers say that they are, what is the region for which they envisage that we will get such government as it affects London? If it is to be Greater London--some people may not like that--and we are to have a London development agency, which is meant to be the embryo for regional government, as are such agencies in the rest of the country, why are we not to have regional government? It could be developed later and its powers could be varied, but why can we not say honestly and openly now, "This is regional government"?

Of course, London is different from other regions, such as the west midlands, which is not one place--Birmingham is represented by one authority, Coventry is next door and so forth. London is one place, but it is a city state-type region. Many capital cities have their own governments, for example, Washington and Canberra. They are a sort of variation on a theme--another tier of government above local government.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that London is to be the region that the Government will recognise for regional government purposes and that we are committed to having such government. It is a serious matter and his colleagues on the Labour Benches will be interested to hear the answer. We Liberal Democrats would support that idea. If that is to be the case, why not say so now? Why not say that the assembly is the embryo--the starting point of the Greater London regional authority, which will provide London with regional government--and get on with the job?

Finally, if that is the case, I accept that how one combines citywide and regional government is an issue. I will not argue that London should be parallel with and similar to the other English regions. I do not think that it should be for reasons that are self-evident. My hon. Friends and I are clear that Greater London requires government to be delivered by an authority above borough level. We disagree with the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and we associate ourselves with those expressed by the great majority of Londoners.

Next Section

IndexHome Page