Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.24 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) for being a little late for the start of this debate. No discourtesy was intended. I shall speak very briefly because other hon. Members want an opportunity to speak.

I support the Bill because it will give the business community in the City a voice in its local government and enable voters to represent more accurately the various interests in the City. May I make a couple of narrow points? First, I believe that the present distribution of the electorate around the wards in the City is grossly unsatisfactory.

Perhaps I should declare an interest: my brother, Julian Malins, who is a barrister and Queen's Counsel, is the senior counsellor for the Temple and Fleet street, and for the whole of the Smithfield market area. His electorate numbers more than 8,000 and there is a contested election almost every year. Another ward has about 2,000 electors, but the remaining 23 wards have extremely small electorates, some of which are too embarrassing to mention because the number is so low. Three wards have fewer than 100 electors. Although each ward will have larger numbers after the proposed reforms, the smaller wards will still be far too small and there will still be one ward that is hugely bigger than all the rest.

Although the City of London corporation has the power to alter the ward boundaries, that power cannot deal with the gross imbalance in the numbers. Whatever way the boundaries are altered, there is no way that 6,000 voters in the Temple and Fleet street can be spread around the other wards. The court of common council recognised that. It debated the Bill in autumn 1997 and--on an amendment tabled by my brother--voted to seek from the House the power for the council to reduce the number of wards from 25, which was too many, to a more sensible number--perhaps 12.

Such a motion was passed by the elected councillors, by 44 votes to 34, but voted down by the aldermen, by 18 votes to two. The aldermen do not want the council to have exclusive power to amalgamate wards--although only the court of common council should have such a power and the aldermen should be excluded from it--because, then, the number of aldermen might, and probably would, be reduced. Although I support the Bill, I hope that the House will look carefully at the distribution of the electorate in the City and provide a power to ameliorate that by the amalgamation of wards.

If necessary--although I trust that it will not come to this--the council's power could include the power to have two aldermen, or more, for the amalgamated wards. I hope

24 Feb 1999 : Column 486

that such a compromise will not be needed, because, as a further beneficial result of simple ward amalgamations, the present balance in numbers between the aldermen and the councillors, which would move adversely to the councillors if the Bill were passed unchanged, will remain. I will support the Bill's Second Reading.

9.27 pm

The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): It may be helpful at this point to give the House the Government's view on the Bill. As hon. Members have already pointed out, the City corporation is a unique institution for a unique place--the premier financial centre of Europe. The City is almost entirely a business district, with a resident population of barely 5,000--about a thirtieth of the population of the smallest London borough--and, because of that, the City corporation has a different role from that of other local authorities.

The City corporation has also shown, particularly in recent years, that it has a valuable contribution to make to the success of London as a world-class city. For example, it promotes inward investment, helps to finance schemes and studies for the benefit of London as a whole and manages open spaces such as Epping forest and Hampstead heath.

The Lord Mayor, Lord Levene, who has had a distinguished career in business and public service, has made clear his and the City corporation's commitment to build on that positive contribution, particularly in the context of the new structure of London governance being put into place by the Greater London Authority Bill. His commitment has been matched by that of Judith Mayhew, the chair of the City's policy and resources committee, who is listening to the debate. She has been a powerful advocate for modernisation of the City corporation's structure and role.

Mr. McDonnell: I echo what my hon. Friend has said about the work that Michael Cassidy and Judith Mayhew have done over the years to encourage the backwoodsmen on the common council to accept some reform, and I look forward to welcoming them in the Labour party. However, can he say, in all honesty and without shame, that the Bill, not other proposals that may be made subsequently, is a step forward for democracy--the democracy to which our party has committed itself since its foundation? Can he, hand on heart, say that the Bill is a step forward, when it increases the business vote and reduces the percentage of the residents' vote?

Mr. Raynsford: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the current chair and her predecessor on the City's policy and resources committee. If he will bear with me, I shall make clear the Government's view of the context of the Bill, and the way in which it can, we think, make a useful contribution to a programme of reform in the City--a programme introduced in response to a challenge issued by the Government before our election in 1997. I shall elaborate on that shortly.

The Government welcome the commitment to reform in the City. Although the current structures and electoral arrangements for the City corporation are in many respects wholly anachronistic, we have made clear our view that we do not think it right to abolish the

24 Feb 1999 : Column 487

corporation. We reached that view in the full knowledge of the corporation's assurance that it would continue its work promoting inward investment and the interests of London as a whole. Our decision was also made on the basis of the corporation's assurance that it had accepted the requirement for it to respond to the need for it to reform its electoral arrangements. The Bill is one part--only one part--of the response that the corporation promised. It is part of the corporation's agenda, designed to modernise its structure and electoral arrangements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) asked how the Government's commitment to the establishment of citywide democratic government in London married with the Bill. I have partly answered my hon. Friend's question already, but I owe it to him to clarify what I said earlier. Before the last general election, the Government, then in opposition, made clear their commitment to restore democratic citywide government to London, thus putting right a serious wrong that was done 13 years ago when a Conservative Government abolished the Greater London council. At the same time, we made it clear that we did not intend to abolish the City corporation, but expected it to produce proposals for reform.

Mr. Benn: Just before the election, the Labour party was asked to adopt a new constitution stating that it committed itself to the many, not the few. The Bill allows the few to buy more votes from the many, and I cannot believe that the Government could ask the House to accept it in any circumstances.

Mr. Raynsford: My right hon. Friend argued earlier that the problem was that the Bill increased the number of people with the business vote, which seems to me to represent the many rather than, as it were, the less many; but I shall pass over that. The key issue is whether the corporation should, because it has a special and unique role, have a constitutional arrangement for the election of members of the common council that is different from the arrangement applying to every other part of the United Kingdom. Had we intended to abolish the corporation, it would unquestionably have come to an end; but, before the general election, we made clear our commitment not to abolish the corporation, but to seek reform of it.

Mr. McDonnell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I have given way already, and I want to make more progress.

Mr. McDonnell rose--

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has intervened many times throughout the debate, and I want to make a little more progress.

The City presented its proposals for reform following extensive consultation and debate between September 1997 and February last year. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke)--who spoke with characteristic wit and erudition, and who has taken a close interest in the process--referred to that consultation, which covered key City interests, businesses, residents and various bodies, and involved the three main national political parties.

24 Feb 1999 : Column 488

The resulting package of reforms was agreed by the City last September. It included not only the extension of the franchise in the Bill, but a number of other reforms to the City's procedures and decision-making structures.

The City have introduced a period of office for aldermen, so that they will no longer hold their positions for life and will have to seek re-election at least once every six years. The infamous aldermanic veto whereby the Court of Aldermen could prevent a properly elected alderman from taking office has been abolished and replaced by a more open vetting procedure based solely on qualification for the magistracy.

The City has also set in train some important structural changes, including reducing the size of the court of common council. Until recently, that comprised 155 members--130 common council men and 25 aldermen. It does seem curious that one of the smallest local authorities in the country in terms of area and population should have the largest number of members of any local authority--larger even than the largest local authority in Britain, Birmingham, which manages with 117 councillors.

Even more stark is the contrast with the composition of the new Greater London authority, which, for a population of upwards of 7 million, will have to make do with a single mayor and just 25 assembly members. Therefore, I am pleased that the City corporation has recognised the need to reduce the size of the common council. It is already cutting it to 125 members and aldermen and has agreed to reduce the number further--to 100--following the passage of the Bill.

The Bill, along with the other reforms to which I have alluded, are a step in the right direction. Further improvements will also be possible. Those could include the review of the ancient ward boundaries and the allocation of members between the wards to overcome a number of anomalies, as identified by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins).

Next Section

IndexHome Page