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Lord Dixon-Smith: We are of course in the business of considering improbabilities. I accept that perhaps we should not take too much notice of the experience in America where there have been one or two extraordinary mayors. I am also aware that there was an extraordinary mayor in a part of France which I still visit with great regularity because it is an area that I love. He finally had to make a hasty retreat--I believe it was to Mexico, but it might have been Argentina. When finally he returned, he received a considerable gaol sentence.
I accept that in the case of corrupt practice the law should normally take its course. One believes and hopes that the principle of a man being considered innocent until he is proved guilty is appropriate. But let us suppose, because we are considering improbabilities, that the case was flagrant. The course of justice grinds exceedingly fine and smoothly, but it grinds exceedingly slowly. With clever lawyers, it could take a considerable time to bring a case to court, and even longer to obtain a conviction in a case where matters were well known.
It may be said that it is unlikely that all these probabilities would come together. But the truth is that, unlikely though they may be, they may happen and we need to consider them in the course of the passage of this Bill. I believe that my noble friend's amendment has validity and merits serious consideration by the Government.
Lord Tope: Can the Minister tell the Committee of any other political leader in any sphere of government anywhere in the United Kingdom who cannot be removed from office by one means or another? That is what we are talking about in the case of this mayor. I cannot think of any other example. I hope that this is an unlikely situation, but if it arises it is probable that Parliament will have to legislate again with all the difficulties that that entails. We all hope that that course of action will never arise or that it will be embarked upon only in the most extreme circumstances, but that is the kind of eventuality to which we must give consideration.
I very much share the point of principle enunciated by the Minister. The mayor is elected by the electors of London and ideally should, if necessary, be removed by them. There are clear and obvious practical difficulties in achieving that with an electorate of 5 million. What would be a significant number on a petition? How would it be organised, and so on? The practical difficulties would, frankly, make that an impossible event. We need to devise a system that gets as near as possible to that principle, which is the purpose of the amendment. We do not simply say that the mayor should be voted out of office by two-thirds or four-fifths of the assembly, or whatever figure we choose, but that the assembly in taking that very serious decision must also put itself to the test of the London electorate.
If the assembly does not believe that it has a very good case to argue it will in effect be voting itself out of office. We believe that in practical terms that is the nearest we can get to putting the removal of the mayor to the test of the London electorate. It is highly probable that the ensuing election for the mayor and assembly would be fought on those very issues. That would satisfy the principle, which I accept, enunciated by the Minister. The matter would then be put to the test of the people who elected the mayor in the first place. They would either confirm the decision of the assembly, and presumably elect a different mayor, or do the reverse. If there is a better way of doing it we are happy to hear it and discuss it.
Our amendment seeks to meet the important principle that the Minister enunciated but also recognises that, improbable though it may be, this situation can arise, and if and when it does it will be an extremely difficult one for London and the Government. This is the stage at which we should address it. We should determine now how to deal with it while the matter is still theoretical and before it becomes a really difficult practical problem. We shall probably not get very much further with this matter tonight, but I strongly urge the Government to consider how it should be dealt with and to give serious consideration to the amendment moved by my noble friend.
Baroness Hamwee: Before the Minister responds, perhaps I may add one word. He suggested the possibility of an independent mayor who was disliked by the members of the assembly who combined to oust him or her. I believe that that was the thrust of his comment. Our amendment is designed to make assembly members think extremely hard about doing anything so frivolous or silly. That notional independent mayor no doubt would have been elected on the basis of a manifesto. Clearly, nothing like the Salisbury convention would apply within the Greater London Authority, but the effect of having to put the respective manifestos to the electorate again more or less meets the point. The Minister said that that would be the nuclear option. It is absolutely intended to be the nuclear option.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: I am concerned about what occurs when the unexpected happens. Someone will have to take a decision as to how to handle the difficulty. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, if a mayor has committed a heinous offence such matters take a long time to go through the courts. The finger would be pointed at the Secretary of State to do something about it. At that point the Secretary of State becomes embroiled in an extremely uncomfortable political decision. I should have thought that one of the lessons we have learned in the recent past is how uncomfortable the position of a Secretary of State can be when he or she is faced with combining a judicial and political role.
I am even more alarmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggested. In effect he says that the assembly should have the power to pre-judge the courts. I was concerned about the blurring of the division of powers between the assembly and the mayor. The noble Lord takes us into far more dangerous territory where the elected assembly in London takes over the powers of the judiciary. Noble Lords must hesitate over that. I believe that the American experience, not only in recent cases but more generally over the past 150 years of American history, demonstrates that the power will be used for political rather than objective purposes.
In the circumstances of the noble Lord's experience in France, it would be absolutely clear that the mayor had failed to attend six consecutive monthly meetings in his time in Mexico and would be disqualified by an entirely different provision.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The Minister said how dreadful it would be if the assembly became caught up in criticising or trying to dismiss the judiciary. I remind the noble Lord that in the Scotland Bill the Government have precisely that provision. The Scottish Parliament could dismiss Scottish judges. As a result of arguments in this House, the Government placed the tribunal as a buffer between the Scottish Parliament and the Government. On behalf of the Government, the Minister is arguing from the other direction than that which he argued on the Scotland Bill, as he will see if he reads Hansard on that issue.
I understand the point he makes. I am concerned about both amendments. I can envisage extremely tricky circumstances. Perhaps the Minister will consider in what circumstances Clause 14 allows the appropriate officer of the authority to declare the office to be vacant, and discuss with his officials and lawyers whether the list under Clause 14(a) and (b) needs expanding to include some other circumstance so that the matter can be dealt with in that way. The circumstances envisaged by both Front Benches could easily arise and must be dealt with somehow. That is just a suggestion--I know that Members on the other side of the Committee are not meant to make suggestions which help the Government--but I am tempted to believe that there may be another way. The Minister should consider what the Government did about the Scotland Bill.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: I thank my noble friend for mentioning that the Government are arguing differently from a similar provision in the Scotland Bill. I take issue with my noble friend in her statement that the Opposition are not supposed to be helpful to the Government. I believe that all of our amendments would
The Minister will have gleaned that the Opposition believe that there must be a way of dealing with a mayor who is totally out of order. I notice that he was concerned because my noble friend said that perhaps the assembly should deal with the situation before the courts do. I accept that the concept is difficult to take on board, but when the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke to her amendment the response was, "We have all the regulations in place and if he is disqualified this will happen, and if that happens this can happen, and so on, and we can deal with it. There really is not such a problem". There is a problem and the issue is how to find a solution.
The two Opposition Front Benches have suggested that the assembly should be able to get rid of the mayor, but they differ in the percentage. I take the Minister's point, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that if the mayor is voted into office by the citizens of London there should be no other way of removing him from office. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that in the other place we introduced a recall petition. We suggested that 1 million signatures should be presented to the Secretary of State stating that those people were no longer happy with the position for the following reasons. Before we put forward the present suggestion, we had the idea that the mayor could be removed for gross misbehaviour or whatever by the decision of the two Houses of Parliament. We have put forward many ideas, but clearly we have not yet come up with the answer.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tope; the Minister said that we need to think about the matter and we are doing so because we want to find a mechanism. However, I believe that the Minister should accept the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, because it is down to the Government to think about the matter, too, because they have produced the idea. As there is a flaw in it, it is down to the officials and the Minister together to put forward a solution. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.