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11.52 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We on the Liberal Democrat Benches very much welcome a debate on the governance of London so early in this Parliament. It is the first time--certainly in the five Parliaments that I remember--that we have come so early to this important debate. I welcome the Minister to his new and very important responsibilities, and wish him well in them.

I am encouraged--this is very important--that the Minister intends to adopt a consultative style. There is much wisdom, not just in this place but beyond, and it would be foolish to make decisions that do not distil and draw on the wisdom of people from all backgrounds and walks of life in this great city and beyond to give us the best possible model for the future.

The Minister and his colleagues should listen to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). It will not surprise the Minister to hear that I and my colleagues share the hon. Gentleman's views on many of the points that he made--again from much experience.

I always put the right hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) at the top of my list of the most erudite and best contributors in the House. I commend him warmly to new Members. If they want a good speech, provided he is on good form--like England were yesterday and he was today--they should come to hear him.

He made a most important point: that, above all, London is a collection of villages. Whatever else we do, we must not forget that it is the communities where individuals live that need most to be supported and strengthened, and nothing that we do strategically or in a macro-economic or macro-political sense must undermine them. There has been far too much breaking down of the communities in London. I could elaborate on that substantially, but it is best left for another debate.

I welcome much of what the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) said, but I challenge him on at least one point. A quick collection of opinion suggests that the hon. Member for Brent, East is right. No European country that does not have a presidential system has elected mayors.

Mr. Hill indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes: We can debate it. Italy has a presidential system. The head of state is a President. The point is valid.

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The logic of having presidential-type elections for cities and not for the executive head of state needs to be worked through if it is to be argued as having separate validity. The hon. Member for Streatham is also on weak ground on the inability to raise money, for the reason that I mentioned earlier about precepts being transferred across.

The general election showed the House--at last, thank God--that London is a three-party city. It has been for a long time; it is just that this place has been a little slow in reflecting it. For some of the past 14 years, I have indeed been a bit lonely, but one of the great joys of this Parliament is that, on the issue of London government, the two parties that advocated it strongly went up in number considerably, and the one party that denied that view went down considerably.

London has rarely, if ever--not in this century--had so few Tory Members of Parliament. It has never before had as many London Labour Members of Parliament. It has certainly never had as many Liberal or Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament. The fact that Labour increased its strength and that we in the Liberal Democrats doubled our number from our highest previous number deserves to be recorded. It is not just quantity. I can assure the House, from personal experience, that there is no more highly qualified group of Members of Parliament than my new colleagues sitting around me, who come with great experience--I say that in all seriousness--and will contribute greatly to the deliberations of the House. They are hugely valued and welcome.

Mr. Alan Clark: Without in any way disputing the validity of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, let me point out that, in fact, the doubling of strength to which he refers arose purely out of exploiting the first-past-the-post system. I do not mean that as a criticism. Had the election been based on proportional representation--we heard that floated earlier--the number would have diminished, not increased.

Mr. Hughes: As it happens, the right hon. Gentleman may be partly right about the first point, but he is absolutely wrong about the second because, if we had a proportional system of election in London, the Labour party would have nearly half the seats--I remind Labour Members that it did not get 50 per cent. of the vote even in London--the Tory party would have a third of the seats, we would have a sixth of the seats and a sixth of 74 is considerably more than six. We would be better represented and I look forward to his support for PR, which will come--

Mr. Ottaway: The Liberal Democrat vote went down.

Mr. Hughes: Yes, our votes went down nationally by a very small amount but, under PR, the number of Members of Parliament would be proportional to the number of votes. Fifteen per cent. of London Members of Parliament would be Liberal Democrats, as Londoners voted for.

Let us move on to the range of areas for this debate. First, there is no right answer to this question. The governance of London does not have one single right answer and we would be arrogant to think that we knew one. Whatever we do as a result of this process of consultation and then legislation, it will be a best attempt,

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but it will not be perfect, so let us always seek to improve without being arrogant enough to think that we have a perfect solution.

Secondly, there are no immutable facts. The boundaries of London are arbitrary, just as borough, parish and national boundaries are arbitrary. None of them is writ for all time. Therefore, let us not assume that debate about boundaries is not valid. As it happens, for this debate, I think that it is better to start with the present Greater London boundaries, but I have no theological view that areas currently in London that want to be outside it should not leave, or that areas currently outside that want to join should not join. We need to realise that those things can change and that there should be a mechanism for that sort of change.

Thirdly, we must be clear what we are talking about here. In relation to the main issue in the debate, we are talking about regional government, not traditional local government. However, there is a need for a big debate about traditional local government. The governance of London is not only about having a strategic authority, but about how this place looks after London affairs and what else happens elsewhere.

Until there is a strategic elected authority for London, there should be a special London Grand Committee. All the London Members of Parliament--74 of them--should sit on it and deal with London business, as the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish do on their Committees. London's population is bigger than that in those other three parts of the United Kingdom. Huge issues otherwise impact on the business of the rest of our colleagues, who are not terribly interested in London, and take up time in the House. I seriously suggest that, rather than an all-party London group, it would be perfectly practical to have a London Select Committee or Grand Committee for the next two or three years, which would of course disappear when the strategic body for London is, as I hope that it soon will be, in place.

Below strategic level, I hope that, before this Parliament is over, we shall have started and completed the revision of the ward boundaries throughout London, which has been much delayed. I hope that we shall have set up the parish and community councils, which the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggested we would argue for--as we certainly shall. London is the only part of the UK where, by law, we cannot have parish or community government. That is nonsense. The people of London clearly want such government.

There is a later debate about whether the size of the boroughs is right. Personally, I am against big boroughs; I am much happier with smaller boroughs, as they used to be. Once we have a strategic authority, we might consider whether smaller would be better.

There is a strong argument for having annual elections for London councils, as there are elsewhere. When we have a strategic authority, we should do what we do in the rest of the country, where one year in four there are no local elections and we elect the rest of the local councils by thirds. Issues should perhaps go to referendum more often in London government. There is a whole agenda. I want to flag up just that it is not only about a strategic authority, although that is the core debate today.

Let us come to other questions; they could be debated at length, but I will not do that. The Liberal Democrats have long been persuaded that strategic regional issues need strategic regional government. We shall debate later what they should be, but in general terms it is fairly

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obvious what many of them should be. They obviously include economic regeneration, the selling of London, the economy of London and the transport system.

I had an interesting week in Hong Kong--I had never been before--during last week's recess. Hong Kong public transport works wonderfully, and that is one of the reasons why Hong Kong has been so successful. London could be hugely more successful with an effective, functioning and integrated public transport system. That is clearly a Londonwide issue.

Sports policy and the promotion of sports, the arts and culture are clearly Londonwide issues; those subjects, like so many things, fall naturally under strategic responsibilities. I think that the Government are starting at about the right place, as we have, by listing what they should be. Environmental policy clearly is also better dealt with strategically than borough by borough. Let us not argue, therefore, that many things could not be dealt with strategically. Of course, there is no perfection about it, but there are obvious starting points.

That means that we must end some of the ridiculous and bizarre anomalies. Let me take just one. The government of policing in London is like "The Mikado", where the Home Secretary speaks to himself when he speaks to the police authority for London and when the police authority speaks to the Home Secretary. That is bizarre. Not even a constitutional fiction can pretend that he can separate himself in those two functions. Clearly, the government of policing in London, plus the fire and civil defence authorities and so on, should be included. The London police, including the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, want that, and so do the general public.

In answer to the question, "Should there be Londonwide government?" we say strongly and without qualification, "Yes, there should." On the second question, "What should be its powers?", we have a general idea, but we do not pretend that it is perfect. We want to debate the matter, and we welcome the Green and White Paper process.

The third question is, "Should there be a directly elected mayor?" The Minister knows my view, and that of my party, in advance. We are not persuaded. Many of the reasons against the idea that were advanced by the hon. Member for Brent, East are strong and good. Some of my hon. Friends favour the prospect more than others, but we have debated it internally, and, on balance, collectively, we are not persuaded.

It is true that the post might produce a highly paid non-political, or apolitical, individual, very susceptible to influence. Some of the arguments citing parallels elsewhere are not valid. For example, I remind hon. Members that the mayor of Paris is not directly elected. He is no more than the leader of the majority group in the arrondissement that represents the centre of the Greater Paris area.

Therefore, we can have a strong figurehead who arrives by that route, as leaders of the Greater London council have done in the past. The history of London provides us with powerful arguments showing that, when the city has had a strategic authority, it has not needed a strong separately elected person. The Horace Cutlers, the Herbert Morrisons and the Ken Livingstones were strong enough, and it was clear enough that they spoke for London, without their needing to be separately elected.

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With such leaders, there are also strong arguments involving accountability to their party and to the electorate as a whole. Moreover, in many places where mayors are directly elected, the turnout is appallingly low--sometimes as low as 25 per cent. We sometimes think that we already have bad turnouts in some parts of our capital city, so that risk must be borne in mind.

Local authority chief executives are clearly unhappy. Of course, I understand why local authority leaders would be unhappy, because they might be overshadowed by the more glamorous prestigious post above them. There are also questions about the division of responsibilities.

Without wanting to engage in a full debate on the subject now, I point out to the Minister that, even if he wants to follow his manifesto closely, I do not believe that it necessarily traps him into having a referendum with only one question. I shall finish my speech by suggesting what the questions should be.

In summary, we are not persuaded by the argument that there should be a mayor. We are against the idea, and we ask the Government to reconsider. I know that that argument was their starting point for the debate, but clearly it divides both the Labour party and Londoners, and is not yet an idea whose time has come.

Incidentally, if we decide that London should have a directly elected mayor, should there not equally logically be a directly elected mayor for every city and town in the United Kingdom? If not, why not? In fairness to other cities, we need to have that debate before we localise the issue in London.

Should there be power to lower and raise taxes? The hon. Member for Streatham and I may or may not disagree. My answer is clearly yes. A Londonwide authority that could only ever spend what the Government gave it would be a paper tiger. Many good people would not stand for election if they thought that they would have no power to decide what Londoners should pay. Londoners did not object when the GLC had the power to raise money. Indeed, they often voted Labour because they knew that the Labour party would raise more money to spend on London's services--for example, to change the regime for London transport.

The logic of representation is the ability to raise taxation. It would be nonsense if borough councils could not do so, and equally it would be nonsense if a Londonwide body could not do so. Of course, the new body should take over all the funds of the Government office for London and the myriad quangos and other organisations. The host of other bodies makes quite a saga. There are 12 different authorities for transport alone--one for the traffic lights, one for the planning of white lines, and so on. It is nonsense--comedy, even.

I hope that the Government will trust the people of London enough to allow them to decide whether there should be tax-raising powers, and if so, to allow those elected to make the decisions. It would be nonsense if they did not have that power.

Should there be a referendum? Yes. There should be a referendum for Londoners, including all those electors who are resident in the capital city, before the legislation comes into force. Should there be one or more question? There should be more than one. There should be one question about whether we want a strategic authority, one about a directly elected mayor and one about tax-raising and lowering powers. Of course the authority must be able to put taxes down if it can put them up.

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The final question--although perhaps I might prefer it if we did not have to ask such a question--would be: should the body be elected by a proportional system? The Government may be committed to a referendum during this Parliament on a proportional system for national elections, but we need it for London, too. I hope that they will take our advice that we need a proportional system.

My final point concerns the proposed timetable, with which--the Minister will gather--I have a problem. I am not suggesting that he has reached a final view, and I accept that we need a debate on the matter. The Prime Minister got into trouble on Wednesday on a similar issue, and I do not want the Minister to get into the same trouble. We shall have a Green Paper--I welcome that. My colleagues and I will be constructive during discussions before, during and after the Green Paper. We shall then have a debate in light of the public's response to that.

Our view is that the White Paper with the Bill attached--as suggested by Conservative Members--should then be the basis for the vote. I share the Minister's view that voting should take place next May at the same time as the local elections. That is logical, as it will save money and will encourage more people to vote. I assure him that, if we reach agreement on the timetable, my party will co-operate to make sure that the Bill progresses quickly through the House next year. There need be no fear that the Bill will not be on the statute book in time to have a referendum in May simply because the Bill is not passed as early as the Minister envisages.

We welcome this debate and we look forward with excitement to Londonwide government by the millennium. We shall collaborate constructively, although we shall criticise where the Government are wrong, from this day on.

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