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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, at the Committee stage, we on the Conservative Benches tabled amendments which were identical to two of the amendments in the group--Amendments Nos. 2 and 5--proposed by noble Lords on the Liberal Front Bench today. I recall that after we had made our presentation, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, agreed with our amendments in principle but felt that there might be occasions when more than three absences would be allowable. I replied then that we would consider the matter and I am pleased to tell your Lordships that we now support all four amendments.
It would be improper for me to speak any more; I said what I had to say about the amendments in Committee. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, indicates his agreement. I wish to say only that if the Government are not minded to accept Amendments Nos. 2 and 5 today--I strongly believe that they should because this is not a matter of principle but of sensible good governance--I hope that at the least they will accept Amendments Nos. 1 and 4. It would be unusual and unacceptable for either assembly members or the mayor to be absent for so many meetings without a legitimate reason. As I pointed out in Committee, it would mean that the mayor need attend only eight meetings of the assembly during his term of office. I certainly support the amendments.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, accused me of fantasising. It is a little early in the day for that. The circumstance covered in the amendments is extremely unlikely, but nevertheless it is one we should deal with. We have covered this ground at least twice. The situation is not precisely that which occurs in local government, but it uses the same timetable. We are talking about automatic disqualification.
As regards assembly members, we propose using the same timescale as that laid down in Section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972. In that respect, we see no reason why the GLA should be different from the rest of local government. The position of the mayor is different from the situation in local government. We would not expect the mayor consciously to seek to avoid attending statutory meetings of the assembly. However, we need to ensure that if he or she does so, there is a point at which automatic disqualification cuts in.
As regards the amendment relating to the mayor, it would provide for the assembly to be able to override a three-month absence. However, we are providing for automatic disqualification after six months. I do not believe that reducing the number from six to three consecutive meetings is sensible or workable. In earlier debates, we suggested that due to ill health or a serious accident it may be necessary for the mayor to miss three or more consecutive meetings. In those circumstances, the mayor should not be automatically disqualified.
However, it is our view that should the mayor fail to attend six meetings disqualification should be automatic. The meetings are an essential part of holding the mayor to account. It would be wrong, even with the consent of the assembly, for the mayor to be able to avoid cross-examination for a period exceeding six months. That would be the implication of the noble Lord's amendment if it were applied at the three-month period.
It is conceivable, although unlikely, that in a GLA where the mayor and a majority of the assembly had similar political sympathies they might conspire to frustrate the need for accountability. That is a complete fantasy and I hope it never occurs. I am sure that all political parties will try to ensure that it does not. However, it is a possibility and we believe that automatic disqualification ought to be triggered at some point. We believe that it should be six months for both the mayor and assembly members. Six months is the period which applies in local government. We are not convinced of the reasons for changing that and therefore I hope that the noble Lord will not press the amendment.
Lord Tope : My Lords, I am sorry that we have made no progress. I deliberately spent some time explaining why the assembly and its members are unlike any other local authority in the land. The assembly is smaller; it has a higher profile; its members are expected to be full-time; and they are paid to be full-time. That is different from any local authority councillors in the land.
I moved the amendment on the grounds of practical common sense and long experience in local government. We are committed to making the authority work. I am sad that the Government will not recognise this practical common sense, but I feel that the time has come to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.