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Lord Avebury: My Lords, I quite like the idea which the noble and learned Lord expounded of widening people's question time in the sense of having a phone-in instead of people having to be physically present. That would obviously enable people who are disabled or housebound to take part in the process.
I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord would agree, if he is going to put forward the proposal at Third Reading, to take it one stage further and consider having an electronic method of question time whereby the people would submit questions to the mayor which would then be placed on a website, so that they would be available not only to those who happened to be listening at the time but to anyone else who managed to access that particular website.
If that was done, it would form a permanent record which would be available for subsequent inspection. It would be available to a much wider circle within London than just anyone who happened to be tuned in at a particular moment or those who were present in the Albert Hall. If we want to widen participation, we must use modern technology and the web is the ideal way of doing that.
I do not believe that the Minister brought forward this amendment to promote that sort of practice. I had understood that the purpose of the people's question time was to enable the mayor to be cross-examined by the public, in public, about the way in which he is undertaking his statutory duties. If that was not the case, I am under a misapprehension and so are we all. If that is the case, I suggest that a little more thought about this amendment is required.
The amendment goes on to say that the form and procedure for the people's question time shall be such as the mayor may determine after consultation with the assembly. That would permit the mayor to take up the idea of a telephonic question time, or, indeed, a public question time in a hall, both with the public present and with live and telephone questions coming in at the same time, and, indeed, the use of the wonderful website which we have not been allowed to have--at least not on the face of the Bill.
There are still quite a few matters to be answered. One question which arises out of them is that while a completely ad-lib form of questioning may be what is intended, the question time would probably work rather better if the questions are required to be submitted--even if they are telephonic questions--say, half an hour in advance, so that someone has some opportunity to reflect on what the actual situation is. For the mayor to be questioned about his performance and the way in which he is handling his statutory duties with no notice of what the question might be would seem to me to be extremely difficult. In considering the form and procedure of the people's question time, the mayor would be almost bound to put some sort of restriction on the way in which questions are put, and a completely ad-lib proceeding seems to me to be unlikely to be permitted.
However, that of course raises another point; that is, if questions are submitted in advance, presumably the question time will need to be time limited. One cannot have an ad lib number of questions with the poor mayor, his staff and, indeed, the audience sitting in a hall while the questions keep flowing. I well remember that many years ago I was immensely grateful to a school caretaker. We had a huge public meeting on the matter of a school reorganisation. It was held in the school's sports hall. Those matters are always highly controversial and the audience were minded to participate and did so with great effect. That meeting would have gone on for half the night. The school caretaker was a wise old bird. After the meeting had been going for an hour, he switched off the heating. It
We do not want that kind of thing to happen, but the point remains about what will happen to the questions that have not been answered by the time the session ends. I believe that that needs some thought. Again, that leads us to the business of written answers, particularly if the questions are written ones. I may be accused of trying to extend the duties and obligations of the mayor's secretarial staff in an unreasonable way, but I do not believe that that is the case.
I believe that what has been said is sufficient to suggest that the amendment is a good one, and one which we would welcome in principle. However, it requires a little more thought and I hope that in his response the Minister will indicate that he might give the matter perhaps just that little more thought.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am continually impressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in trying to outflank the Government both as regards populism and modernisation. I am not sure that they have entirely succeeded today. Nevertheless, I understand where they are coming from.
The event, whatever one calls it--and for the moment we still call it People's Question Time"--is intended to be an innovation in participation. The intention is that it should open up the mayor and the assembly to the people of London. Clearly, it could be run in a partially electronic way. People could phone in, particularly the kind of people to whom the noble Lord was referring. The event will probably be broadcast, either in part or possibly totally. It is intended to open up the whole process.
However, we do not wish immediately to close it down again by prescribing here precisely how the event will be dealt with. Clearly, there have to be some procedures. The amendment provides that the mayor, after consulting the assembly, shall draw up some procedures. After the first occasion that the question time is held, it is possible that it will be found that something is wrong with the procedures and that they will need to be altered. Let us be a little open-ended about this, but not so open-ended as the noble Lord implied in terms of meetings which never close. Incidentally, this meeting occasionally becomes rather open-ended and wide-ranging. I was told that during the debate on this amendment the annunciator was switched off. It may well be that the heating will go fairly soon.
We have to be somewhat relaxed about this matter. The principle is here, and I believe that everyone has now agreed that something in this area is a useful extension of democratic participation. The first set of procedures which are followed may not work; indeed, the second set may not work; but we shall learn from it. However, if we lay down Standing Orders here, we
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am grateful to him for what he has said. He seems to me to have been positive and constructive and I understand why he does not want, in the course of this Bill, to lay down in every detail what is to be the format of the meeting. Interestingly, if I heard correctly, the noble Lord said that he did see that this provision would allow for a telephonic and/or a broadcasting element. If I have that assurance from the noble Lord, I believe that we shall have made considerable progress.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, on both points I said could", and it is up to the mayor and the assembly to decide how to use that event. If I were a candidate for mayor, I would make that promise. However, from my knowledge of the existing candidates for mayor, they are never very shy of an audience and the bigger the audience the better. I suspect that that will be the view of the mayor. But I do not believe it is for your Lordships--and it is certainly not for me--to be precise as to the procedures which should be used. Therefore, I believe that in this case we can be reasonably open-ended.
Page 23, line 23, at end insert--
(( ) The purpose of a People's Question Time is to afford an opportunity to members of the public to put questions to the Mayor and Assembly members and to enable the Mayor and Assembly members to respond.
( ) The form of, and procedure for, a People's Question Time shall be such as the Mayor may determine after consultation with the Assembly.
( ) The power to determine the form of, and procedure for, a People's Question Time includes power to appoint a person to preside.
( ) Any person may be appointed to preside at a People's Question Time, whether or not he has any connection with the Authority.
( ) A member of the public who attends or speaks at a People's Question Time shall do so subject to and in accordance with the procedure for the People's Question Time.").