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The GLAs budget setting process is now tried and tested. It allocates some £9 billion in funding per year and it has been shown to work. [Official Report, Greater London Authority Public Bill Committee, 9 January 2007; c. 77.]
Londoners would dispute that statement. Given that there has been a 100 per cent. increase in the Mayors precept over four years, many Londoners would say that the Mayors budget process does not work at all.
The Mayors precept is a relatively small percentage of the overall council tax bill. People see the headline bill that they receive and then berate their local council, irrespective of its political complexionwhether it is Labour, Conservative or Lib Demfor the increase in council tax. However, the Mayors precept is hidden in the council tax, and it has often increased by significantly more than the council tax.
Mr. Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, with which I entirely agree. However, he should not base his judgments solely on the standards of the London boroughs of Sutton, Kingston and Richmond. The precept is not an especially small percentage of the council tax in City of Westminster or Wandsworth. Indeed, the mayoral precept now amounts to more than 40 per cent. of the total council tax bill in such areas of central London. I hope that the Minister will take full account of what the hon. Gentleman says, because the precept has nearly tripled over the seven and a half years for which we have had the mayoralty in London. The mayoralty is taking a hell of lot more money, and we have the prospect of an ever-larger precept due to the Olympic games and the appalling economics of the madhouse transport policies that the Mayor is inflicting on us for many years to come.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that the Mayors precept makes up a significant proportion of the council tax in some boroughs, although, for most boroughs, I think that it is fair to say that it can be hidden away in the detail. That is why there is an argument about whether there should be a change to the billing arrangements for the Mayors precept, to introduce a little more clarity and transparency into the system and to allow people to recognise that although their council tax bill might be
going up at the rate of inflation or above, the rate of increase in the Mayors precept is significantly higher than the rate of inflation.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I speak as a former Wandsworth councillor. How does the hon. Gentleman propose to make the Mayors precept more transparent so that London council tax payers will know the taxes that the Mayor is levying?
Tom Brake: The most straightforward way might be for the local authoritywhich is responsible for producing the council tax bill, which includes the Mayors preceptto print two separate bills. People would therefore get their local council tax bill and Ken Livingstones bill in the same envelope. That would provide extra clarity.
Mr. Mark Field: I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) is not here. She might also propose a single waste authority, to ensure that that second bill was recycled.
The two-thirds majority requirement on assembly amendments to the Mayors final budget in particular remains appropriate.
That was a bold statement, but as far as I can recall, arguments to substantiate it, especially given the scale of precept increases seen by Londoners, were noticeably absent. The Minister went on to say:
Otherwise, allowing the assembly to amend the final budgetlike the draft budgetby a simple majority would alter the balance of power at the GLA radically. It would weaken the position of the Mayor, and it could be a recipe for confusion.
Again, that was a bold statement, but it was not backed up with any argument. Of course, the balance of power at the GLA is being radically altered by the Government. The Mayor is getting extra powers, some of which are from central Government, which is to be welcomed, while some, as we will hear when we debate the new clauses on planning, are being taken away from local authorities. The balance of power is already being altered, in the Mayors favour, so additional powers of oversight and scrutiny for assembly members are therefore required. Finally, the Minister said about the arrangements:
That something is tried and tested does not mean that it cannot be improved. [ Official Report, Greater London Authority Public Bill Committee, 9 January 2007; c. 77-79.]
Londoners would agree on the need for an improved budget process that would stop the annual hike in the Mayors precept or at least make it much more visible, so that people can make a clear and conscious decision about whether to support what the Mayor is doing. The Government have not deployed convincing arguments in favour of granting the Mayor special privileges in relation to his budget. Therefore, even at this late stage, the Minister could repent and recognise that increased mayoral powers must be offset by greater
powers of scrutiny and financial control for the assembly. If he does not, I will press the matter to a Division on behalf of my party, and I understand that we will receive the support of Conservative Members in such a vote.
Mr. Pelling: I am sure that it was. I am surprised to hear that any part was less good than any other. I always enjoy listening to the hon. Gentlemans wise words, and he is a close neighbour. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends are shouting that I should stop being so nice to the Liberal Democrats. I will stop now [Interruption.] I know; I already have a bad reputation.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington quoted a number of people in support of his commentary. I would also like to quote somebody in support of his speechMayor Livingstone. When the assembly voted down the Mayors budget this year by 16 votes to nine, the Mayor enjoyed shouting out each time, Carried! Of course it was carried.
Mr. Pelling: But it was sufficiently whelming under the current Act and the Governments new GLA Bill to allow the assembly not to stand in the way of the Mayors budget. That is especially important, given that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the significant increase in the tax demands on residents of London.
It cannot be good for democracy to elect a body with a voting role on a budget and then to turn round and say that a two-thirds majority is required for the will of that assembly or Parliament to be decisive. The reputation of the House would not be well supported if the Governments annual budget could be voted through by 218 Members of the House. The House would have no credibility were that the case. It is a fundamental blow to the credibility of the assembly to set such a two-thirds requirement.
In Committee, the response was that we should consider the London assembly to be a scrutiny bodyperhaps an effective one. If we are spending £11 million a year on the London assembly, however, that is a very expensive scrutiny committee for London. When the Committee considered budgetary issues, I also proposed that we might at least consider following the model in place in New York city, of a separate budget and performance office. The London assembly could have that in place in a statutory fashion, with the statutory involvement of stakeholders, the Mayor and the GLA family functional bodies, and that would ensure at least some value for money from the £11 million a year spent on the scrutiny process. As a member of the assembly, I accept a certain amount of mea culpa; perhaps it is a great failing of assembly members that we have not been able to impose that.
Mr. Pelling: I am grateful to the Minister for his kind comments from a sedentary position. As he implies, it is partly to do with the system, which the Bill will leave in place. Unfortunately, particularly under the proportional representation system of the assembly, it is a quixotic target to bring together parties from the far right, right, centre and left to vote down a mayoral budget. That is the target that we have been setto bring together Greens, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and a far-right group that goes under varying names over the years, depending on which party those people happen to alight on.
One can understand why Londoners turn round to their assembly members and MPs and ask, Why cant you stop the Mayor making these increases? Surely, in any democracy, which electors understand elected assemblies to be, One vote is enough. I explain to them, Im terribly sorry, but we have to secure a two-thirds majority. Members of the public cannot understand why they are even asked to go to the polls to vote for those representatives when their powers are so significantly neutered and no appropriate approach has taken place.
The Government had an opportunity to bring credibility to the assembly by allowing for a simple majority vote of Londons representatives, who are elected at the same time as the Mayor. If the Mayor is not capable of carrying Londons representatives by a simple majority, something must be wrong in the governance of London, and something must be wrong with the Mayor himself.
Robert Neill: I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) has said. I should also point out againI said this in Committee, but it is worth repeating for those who were not therethat he has chaired the assemblys budget committee for a number of years. There is probably no one who knows more about the intricacies of the budget system than he does.
We are discussing a particularly disappointing passage in the Bill. The Minister has missed an opportunity to restate the rebalancing that we all hope to achieve through the Bill. London government has moved on. We acceptor rather, almost all of us acceptthat there is a devolved system of government for London. If that system is to work, it is right to look again at a sensible settlement between the two elements: the Mayor and the assembly. It has been suggested during the passage of the Bill by some Government Back Benchers that really, there is no equality of mandate. I dispute that. The members of the assembly are elected on the same day as the Mayor and by the same electors. Those voters expect the members to have an equal share in the governance of London. What has been missing throughout the Bill is the sense of entrenching partnership, and the provisions for the budget highlight that.
I referred to the issue earlier in relation to transport, in that transport has to be delivered through a partnership between the Mayors organisation, Transport for London and the boroughs. The same ought to apply to the governance of the GLA, which should be a partnership between the Mayor and the assembly.
Tom Brake: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the sense of partnership should be enhanced as the Mayor takes on additional responsibilitiesfor climate change and health inequalities, for instancerather than sticking with the status quo?
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely rightI, too, am in danger of agreeing with the Liberal Democrats too much. That view is common sense, and is recognised on a cross-party basis by London councils and all the principled parties of the London assembly. If we are going to make London governance credible to the people of London, as many of us genuinely want it to be, there must be a sense that there are proper checks and balances in the system. It is the lack of checks and balances that undermines the credibility of the current devolved system in London.
I had no problem with the Mayor receiving some extra powers, on climate change and other issues. I know that we are going to disagree over planning, for the reasons that we have outlined, because we see the proposals as centralising. As I have said before, I would have liked the Minister to go further and get rid of the Government office for London. I would also like more to be devolved to the city governance level. However, the more devolution we have, the more we need a sensible and mature set of checks and balances. That is what is missing. That is also where the Government have fallen for the Mayors siren song, in suggesting that a strong-Mayor modelthat was the mantra that was trotted outprecludes a meaningful say for the assembly.
With respect, that view is flawed, and the New York example is a demonstration of that. The city council in New York has a significantly stronger hold over the budget than the assembly does over the Mayor in London. The Minister might be surprised at that, but under the charter of New York city, the council can change the mayors budget in much more detail than the assembly is permitted to in London. The New York city council can change individual budget heads, and can do so by a simple majority. That the New York city council does not achieve that in practice is down much more to the political culture than to the one-party domination of the Democratic party or anything else. Legally, the strong-Mayor model in New York gives the legislaturethe city council, the assembly equivalentmuch more power than the assembly.
It is particularly strange that there should be an insistence on the two-thirds majority, when we happen to have a proportional representation system. I do not much like the proportional representation systemit is not what I would have preferredbut it seems needless to have the double complication of PR plus a two-thirds majority. If the desire is that a Mayor should be obliged to seek a reasonably broad coalition to get his budgets through, he would have to do so under a PR system, come what may. There is no need for the extra hurdle of a two-thirds majority. That creates an artificial situation, which undermines the credibility of the whole structure.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central said, if any of us talk to our constituents about the assembly, they ask, What did you do about the
Mayors precept? I say, I voted against it, but we didnt have the numbers. However, if they then ask how many of us there were, and I say that 15 or 16 of us voted against it but only nine voted for it, they think, You must be mad if that means it went through. Nothing that I can think of could be more deliberately designed to make people cynical about the democratic process than an entrenched system that says that, by Act of Parliament, the loser wins. However, that is exactly what we have. That is crazy, and it makes London governance less credible. On a separate point, it is a great shame, too, that the Government have not considered the assemblys sensible suggestion.
Mr. Pelling: To return to the Mayors remarks last time the vote took place, did not his mocking tone towards the assembly and its sheer powerlessness illustrate how democracy is ridiculed by the two-thirds rule?
Robert Neill: That is absolutely right. It is indicative that the Mayor should be sitting in the public gallery during the budget meeting, adopting that mocking tone. That is interesting too, given that he was opposed to having a Mayor of London when the legislation was going throughbut we all know him well enough of old to know that if he sees even half a rein of power, he will grab it and vault over it. His change of spots has come as no surprise to those of us who have known him for many years. The Mayors tone is perhaps also indicative of a man who lets power go to his head a little. There is a risk that an unfettered London executive with the better part of a £11 billion annual budget will be all too readily seduced into thinking, Im accountable to no one, beyond that mystical process of election that happens once every four years.
Justine Greening: I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend, but does he agree that that is not the only democratic deficit, because we have one here as well? Devolution in Wales and Scotland has led to Welsh and Scottish questions, but as local London Members of Parliament we do not have the ability to hold anybody to account in the House at that level, as our colleagues in other parts of the country with devolved government do.
Robert Neill: I have sympathy with my hon. Friends point, which was also made earlier in relation to the behaviour of Transport for London. It is a piece of pure fortune that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central and I happen, temporarily, to wear two hats. That gives us a measure of privileged access that our other hon. Friends representing London seats do not have.
That point is a further example of the underlying problem to which the budget is fundamental. The Government said in Committee that they were accepting the assemblys concerns about the budget by protecting their own element of the budget, through the separate budget component. With respect, that is a small recognition and a small concession. As on a previous occasion, I do not say that it is nothing, but it does not go anywhere near far enough, for the following reason. There is a ceiling, but there is no floor to protect the assemblys budget from the Mayors depredationsand his attitude towards the assembly
was amply demonstrated by his interjection from the public gallery during the budget debate.
However, even that would be a small thing when set against the real cry that most Londoners would want to make, which is, I elect my assembly member to have a hold over the Mayornot a stranglehold, to prevent him from doing what his mandate says, but in the same sense that Parliament has a hold over the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he comes to seek supply. It is not unreasonable to say that if we have created a deliberative and, in a small way, legislative bodythe assemblys only quasi-legislative power is in relation to the budgetit should operate through the ordinary majoritarian process that works everywhere else in the United Kingdom. What is so peculiar about this one budget, of all the budgets of any publicly elected body in the UK, that it has to be dealt with by a two-thirds majority? That makes no sense, and the strong-Mayor model is no justification for it.
I am sorry to have to remind the Minister that on Second Reading, I told him that he had a chance to be the Alan Curbishley figure of this Bill by salvaging something from the wreckage. I am sorry to have to say that on current form, neither the Bill nor our mutual football team are looking in much better shape than when we set off. I am beginning to think that I should have had more hopes of the Minister than I had of West Ham United redeeming themselves. I say these things with a very heavy heart, as Members know. I hope that the Minister will cheer us up by saying that the Government will reflect on this issue and give the assembly the basic power that every ordinary Londoner standing on the terraces of Upton Park would say, were they asked, it ought to have, as a matter of common sense.
Mrs. Lait: Much as I love my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), I was rather hoping that we would get through this evening without endless references to footballif only because I do not understand them. However, that does give me the opportunity to thank both
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