Draft Greater London Authority (Disqualification) Order 2000

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Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): May I raise a matter concerning the Audit Commission? The legislation designates the GLA as a local government body, irrespective of what happened in last night's debate. Local councillors can serve on the Audit Commission. Does part I disqualify GLA members from being members of the Audit Commission? I understand the superficial argument that there is a conflict of interest between the audit and the individual body that is being audited, but the representation of local councillors on the Audit Commission was hard fought. The argument was that the Audit Commission should contain experienced local councillors so that it would found its work on the reality of local government experience. The conflict of interest was overcome by using separate auditors to audit individual local authorities. The GLA is the first local government body--that is how it is designated in legislation--whose members will not be able to serve on the Audit Commission. That is a step change. I do not want it to pass without notice because local government would not want to lose the right of its councillors to serve on the Audit Commission.

Mr. Jenkin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the GLA is not a branch of local government but a body of "unique significance", in the Government's words? It is more akin to a Parliamentary or regional assembly than a local government body.

Mr. McDonnell: Whatever our opinions in the Room, legislation has designated the GLA as a local government body and, as such, it will be the first to have its members barred from serving on the Audit Commission. That is a retrograde step. I understand the logic, but it is not followed elsewhere. The safeguards for the rest of local government should be applied to the GLA to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between audit and representation on the Audit Commission. I am afraid that the order might be the first step in removing serving local government members from the Audit Commission. If that is the case, we will again have the problem that the Audit Commission's work is not founded in the reality of local government. Its studies will not be undertaken with the experience and advice of serving councillors, and it will be distanced from having a practical relationship with local government.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to pass on the message that, although the GLA may be a special case, because of the wider relationship of the audit process with the Audit Commission, it should not be the first step in undermining local government's hard-fought gain to be represented on the Audit Commission.

4.49 pm

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I have a few simple questions for the Minister, which I hope that he will be able to answer.

What process, if any, is involved in notifying a body or office about its disqualification? Less seriously, would the Minister consider using a free mailshot to inform them?

I note that the director of passenger rail franchising is disqualified. Should staff of the strategic rail authority also be disqualified, or are they covered under other headings that I have not noticed?

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Edward Davey) asked about the National Audit Office. Will even the odd jobs man or woman there be unable to stand to become a GLA member or the mayor?

What is the situation for companies involved in the public-private partnership? Perhaps that is covered separately, but it seems that--

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but there is a Division in the House. We should suspend the Committee until 5.06 pm.

4.51 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.6 pm

On resuming--

Mr. Brake: My questioning was reaching a climax when I was interrupted by the Division bell. My final question was about the PPP companies. Will their staff be disqualified from standing for office? It seems that they, of all people, may have the greatest interest in what is going on in the Greater London Authority or the mayoral office.

Mr. Hill: A large number of detailed questions have been asked. I shall do my level best to answer them all. I shall deal with them in reverse order. However, the first question that I must answer was among the first to be asked.

The hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and for North Essex asked about PPP contractors. The answer is that they will be dealing with Transport for London. Schedule 10 to the Greater London Authority Act 1999 requires disclosure of interest and precludes members from taking part once that interest is declared. The GLA will be bound by the ethical guidance that we shall publish shortly. The staff of PPP companies will not be disqualified but they will certainly be subject to the ethical guidance.

Mr. Edward Davey: Will the Minister tell us more about that ethical guidance? It is published yet? If not, when will it be published?

Mr. Hill: The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton seems to express surprise. He served on the Standing Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill. I did not have that pleasure. However, the general framework for a Greater London assembly has always been a central part of the Government's intentions, and I would be very surprised if the ethical guidance had not been mentioned then. We made it clear in the White Paper, and it has been well publicised. I said this afternoon and earlier on the Floor of the House that we intend to publish it shortly. I hasten to reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing sinister about our proposals. The ethical guidance has been subject to consultation. I reaffirm that we intend to publish is shortly.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked about the SRA. My answer may be simple, but it is not intended to be mischievous or misleading. The SRA does not yet exist. To that extent, we obviously cannot put it in the order. The hon. Gentleman also asked how would-be candidates would be notified of their disqualification. As I have already said, candidates will have to declare that they are not disqualified when they submit their nomination papers. If that is found not to be true, they will be informed by the returning officer that they are so disqualified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington asked primarily about the Audit Commission. He made a powerful argument about the long history of attempts to secure the right of councillors to serve on the Audit Commission. I can reassure him that we have no plans to alter serving councillors' right to serve on the commission.

I confirm for the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that the Lord Mayor of London can indeed become mayor or an assembly member under the dual mandate system. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the differences between offices in the order and those relating to local government. Those set out in the order are in addition to those excluded from local councils. That reflects the fact that the GLA's responsibilities are different from, though not necessarily wider than, those of local government. He also asked about the National Audit Office, which is excluded because it scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament. That would, of course, include grants to the GLA for transport and regeneration. Its independence and impartiality must be preserved.

Mr. McDonnell: As to the Audit Commission, will the Minister take back with him the message that there is a distinct problem about excluding the GLA? This is not just a matter of local government--district and other councils. Will members of regional authorities also be excluded from service on the Audit Commission? I do not ask for an answer this afternoon. The point needs to be raised now, because much expertise will be lost to the Audit Commission--some of it from the longest-serving people in local government, because regional government will be attractive to councillors who have served their apprenticeship in district or borough councils. We have set a precedent today that could have ramifications across the structure of government. It could undermine the validity of the Audit Commission's work as rooted firmly in local government structures.

Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend has a long history of involvement in and a deep knowledge of local government, and makes a serious point about future arrangements. I shall ensure that his comments are relayed to those who will consider the matter.

The hon. Member for North Essex, who has apologised for his absence from the Committee, asked--I am sure entirely seriously and sincerely--whether moves were afoot to disqualify my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East. I am not aware that he is disqualified and I am sure that there are no moves to do so. I assure the Committee that, if selected, he will have the wholehearted support of the Labour party.

Mr. Edward Davey: The Minister did not answer my questions about why the Environment Agency and the planning inspectorate were not included in part II.

Mr. Hill: I apologise for failing to answer that. I could of course await inspiration on those detailed matters, which the hon. Gentleman is entirely right to raise. I can give a precise response about the planning inspectorate, which is, as the civil service, excluded under the order. I offer to write to him with a full, frank and fair explanation of the reasons for excluding members of the Environment Agency under the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Greater London Authority (Disqualification) Order 2000.

Committee rose at fourteen minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hancock, Mr. Mike (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Brake, Mr.
Coleman, Mr.
Corbyn, Mr.
Darvill, Mr.
Davey, Mr.
Gerrard, Mr.
Hill, Mr.
Jenkin, Mr.
Lloyd, Sir Peter
McDonnell, Mr.
Ruddock, Joan
Woolas, Mr.

 
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Prepared 16 February 2000