Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. This is an extremely long intervention.

Mr. Skinner: I am trying to put the hon. Gentleman on the straight and narrow.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should conclude his intervention.

Mr. Skinner: When there was a change of Government, the Prime Minister decided that she would get the Eastbourne Harbour Bill through for Ian Gow, her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the then hon. Member for Eastbourne. It was brought back, and she packed the House solid all night until 6 o'clock in the morning against the opposition of a few of us. The net result was that it got through, even though it was roughly the same Bill.

Mr. Hughes: I was not in the House in 1976, but I have been here for enough of these debates to know exactly what the hon. Gentleman means. He bears out my point that Governments often deliver private Bills if there is support for them somewhere in the Government. We understand that, but it should not be so, because there is no point in private Bills at all if they are managed in that way.

I shall vote for the carry-over, although some of my hon. Friends will not. We shall see what happens. I have a concern that I shall express, even though some people are worried about my doing so. There will be a variety of private Bills next year, as there are every year, although there are far fewer than there used to be. This private Bill must take its place with all the other private Bills, and no priority should be given to any of them.

I have never understood how it is decided which private Bills are taken and in what order. Interestingly, it would be a democratic reform of our procedures if Parliament, not the Chairman of Ways and Means, decided the order in which it took the private Bills to fill the slots available.

Mr. McDonnell: I do not want to pin the hon. Gentleman down, but perhaps he should reflect on the

2 Nov 1999 : Column 188

logic of his argument. He is arguing that this is a bad Bill, but he is willing to support its carry-over knowing that it may squeeze out good Bills. He says that Parliament should determine the order in which private Bills are taken, although he argued with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) that we do not have the power to do that--and he is still willing to vote for the carry-over. Not only is he using confused logic, but he is supporting the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, which does nothing to improve the democratic processes of the City of London corporation. In fact, it would confirm the corporation in its undemocratic ways for years to come.

Mr. Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. We debated that issue on Second Reading. I had to make a judgment as to whether the Bill would leave the City, its government and, above all, its people and residents with a more democratic or less democratic structure. The clear evidence of the consultation process in the City is that the majority of people who have responded prefer the Bill to the status quo. Some people oppose it: I do not pretend that the consultation was perfect. On that basis and not on any other, I believe that it is better to have the Bill, strange improvement though it be, than the status quo.

I do not defend the Bill. I would not have proposed it, and I am not happy about it. However, I shall vote for a system that is clearly less archaic than the present one. My hon. Friends may do otherwise. We shall proceed to vote on whether the Bill should be carried over. If it is carried over, a final warning should be given to the City. If it is not to have the same battle next year as it has had this year, it would be better if it came up with an improved Bill. It is in the corporation's own hands, and if it does not do that, it knows the difficulty it may have in getting this Bill through the House next year.

8.45 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I shall be brief, as I made a number of observations during our earlier discussions on the Bill. I have a professional connection, and in that respect I declare an interest as a member of chambers in the Temple who--depending on whether the clerk remembers to register it--has, or does not have, a vote in the elections that we are discussing. Those elections take place in what is very much a pocket ward, and that is something of which I thoroughly disapprove.

I do not want to cause a conflict between you,Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your predecessor in the Chair. I do not propose to elaborate on why I consider clause 3(1)(c) so appalling, or to press the Minister in that regard.

Each time I have contributed to the debate, I have tried to explain that when a Bill is bad, it is best to stop that Bill. When a Bill is bad, why carry it over? Will it really be improved? The answer is no. What we will end up with is a Bill that takes up parliamentary time in the following year--a good deal of parliamentary time, because many of us will feel obliged to oppose it line by line, thus slowing the process. If the City really wants to modernise and to enter the 21st century with the rest of us, it has the opportunity to re-word arrangements for the City franchise, so that we can have a democratic City.

I am not against the City of London; quite the contrary. I think that it is a wonderful institution, which has a part to play in our society. But at least let it be democratic: let

2 Nov 1999 : Column 189

not the idea of appointment appear. Appointment is not a good thing in a democracy. There should be elections, and democratic elections at that.

I am watching the Minister carefully. He is young and unproven as yet, not tested by the fire of this place. I warn him that a lot of old hands here know that, time and again, the City has missed the golden opportunity to enter the 21st century with the rest of us. The City needs to recast this Bill. If we lose the vote and the Bill is carried over, I shall expect the City to sit down and ask itself three questions. First, it must ask how it can appear democratic. Secondly, it must ask how it can reflect the interests of its real voters, the residents, which are paramount in business terms. I say that openly, as one who, in a very minor way, has a business interest as a barrister in chambers that contain many persons. Thirdly, the City must ask how it can act in a way that will present an example to other cities in this land that are moving steadily towards the single-mayor approach.

It will be necessary to marry two elements. We will have a London mayor, who will be elected, and an assembly or council, and the two will have to work hand in hand. What a contrast; what a disgrace.

This is a bad Bill which should not be carried over. I await the Minister's speech with interest, and ask him to accept that if I intervene--with his permission--my intentions are honourable, friendly and educative. But I can kick.

8.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): What an introduction to my brief speech!

I am grateful for this opportunity to give the House a short explanation of the Government's support for the carry-over motion, which I know will not be wholeheartedly welcomed by a number of my hon. Friends. Although this is not a Government Bill, it stems from the Government's wish to see reform in the City of London, and, in particular, reform and modernisation of its electoral arrangements, structures and participatory procedures.

I think most of us will accept that some of the City's customs and practices are archaic and obscure. They do not contribute to good, effective and accountable local government in the City. However, the corporation has recognised that, and the Bill is part of its response to the challenge to modernise.

The Government support continued consideration of the Bill under the motion because we welcome the fact that the City is beginning to face up to the need to put its governance on a more modern footing. We believe that the proposals are a step in the right direction.

Mr. McDonnell: If the proposals are the first step, could my hon. Friend describe the second step?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is fully aware that the Bill, as amended, permits a review at the end of five years.

2 Nov 1999 : Column 190

Nothing in the Bill precludes further reform. Indeed, it is arguable that its enactment is more likely to expedite such reform.

Mr. McDonnell: On that point, what is the reform that the Government would like as part of the review? What is the next step in the democratic process? Is it universal suffrage?

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend must not tempt me down the path of detailed comment on a Bill that is, after all, not a Government measure, but I beg him to reflect on the following aspect--

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

Mr. Hill: Allow me to answer one of my hon. Friends before going on to another.

I invite my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) to reflect on the following fact when he considers the future. The current electorate in the City of London stands at 20,000. Under the Bill, the electorate will be 40,000.

Mr. McDonnell: Businesses.

Mr. Hill: Not wholly businesses--if we were to restrict the franchise to the 5,000 residents in the City, that would surely be legislating for the few, not for the many.

The Bill's changes to the electoral system recognise the unique nature of the square mile and the need for an inclusive form of local governance that reflects the needs of all those who have an interest.

Next Section

IndexHome Page