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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friends intervention went straight over my head. My only thought on this subject is that I was in Cardiff on Saturday and Sunday, and I am not sure that that
match was the best example ever of football. However, I did not watch it, so I cannot contribute anything further.
I was about to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst and for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), both of whom are my constituency neighbours, for their enormously useful contributionminus the football remarksto the Bill Committee, for their comments this evening, and in particular for their observations on the assembly budget. Their intimate knowledge of how the budget system worksor does not workis very valuable to us all. I also thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for tabling new clause 8, which we will support if it is pressed to a vote.
I do not want to take up much more time, given that the arguments have been exceedingly well made. I am rather glad, however, that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is back in the Chamber, because he is responsible for the whole mess that the assembly budget is in. It was during his stewardship of the original GLA Bill that the Government failed to take into account the impact of their proportional representation system, which means practically by definition that no one political party will ever get a majorityand deliberately so, as he clearly explained at the time. However, the difficulty was that, in line with the mindset of the first-past-the-post system, of which I am a great supporter, the Government imposed the three-quarters majority rule on the budget vote.
Mrs. Lait: I do not want to spoil the alliance between the Liberal Democrats and ourselves on this issue by getting into an argument about PR. I would prefer us to stick together and do our best to ensure that the new clause is carried.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am not seeking to cause an argument; I am simply wondering whether she supports the electoral system that operates for the leadership of the Conservative party. Of course, if she is in favour of a first-past-the-post
It is the conjunction of the first-past-the-post mindset, whereby three quarters of the assembly must vote against the budget, and the dHondt system that has led us to this crazy situation. The London assembly has even fewer budgetary powers than the European Parliament hasand it did not have many. I therefore thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for tabling the new clause. Year after year, sensible Conservative proposals for the Mayors budget have been overturned with an arrogance that most council tax payers are just beginning to come to terms with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and
Westminster (Mr. Field) said so succinctly, that is easy to see with the Westminster council tax budget. It is less simple for those of us in the outer suburbs and other boroughsexcluding Wandsworth, perhapsto see the enormous hike that the Mayor imposes on us year after year. The Conservative group on the assembly and some of the other parties have from time to time proposed much more sensible budgets that would have obtained more and wider support for the institutions of the Mayor and the assembly, but they have been turned down.
I am beginning to wonder what the impact will be on the precept and the council tax payer of the Mayors proposed aggrandisement of London through the creation of six gateways into London, quite apart from the impact on those poor boroughs that will have to give planning permission for those monstrosities. I would have thought that the Mayors greatest monument is the congestion charge. His producing such a proposal shows that his behaviour is becoming infinitely more erratic. For the first time, we might actually get a majority against one of his proposals, which would enable us to turn down his budget.
Given that we cannot get a change to the election system into the Bill, the Committee tried, and we are now trying, to obtain much more rational control of the Mayors spending. We support the new clause, and I hope that we can ensure that the Government have to think again after we vote on it.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), like me, is a Londoner, although we do not speak with the same classic Cockney accent as some of our fellow citizens. She was being uncharacteristically uncharitable to my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford). She accused him of being responsible for the mess that she says we are in, when we should be congratulating him on his stewardship and the leadership that he showed in pioneering the original Bill through the House in 1999. Our presence here today is testimony to the success of the model that he laid down, and he should be congratulated for what he achieved in steering through the original Bill.
New clause 8, which would allow the assembly to amend the Mayors final draft budget by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority, was debated exhaustively in Committee. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) will not be surprised, therefore, to learn that the Government remain unconvinced of his arguments, just as he is unconvinced of mine. We remain firmly of the view that the two-thirds majority requirement for assembly amendments to the Mayors final draft budget is entirely appropriate for the GLA and the strong-Mayor model that we set up for London. As I emphasised in Committee, the GLA is based on the simple principle of a strong executive Mayor and an assembly that can hold him to account through its important scrutiny role. It is therefore only right for the Mayor to propose the budget for the GLA and its functional bodies, and for the assembly to have the power ultimately to amend the Mayors draft and final draft budgets for the GLA group, in order to act as an important check on him.
However, as the budget is fundamental to the delivery of the Mayors priorities for London, it is also
important that the assembly be unable readily to amend the final draft budget simply to thwart the Mayors wider plans; otherwise, his ability to deliver his democratic mandate for London would be considerably weakened. That is why the Government believe that a two-thirds majority is the right threshold for a valid amendment by the assembly. It ensures that amendments have to be supported by a broad cross-section of assembly members, and requires a clear consensus that the Mayors final draft budget is flawed. It allows individual members or parties on the assembly to influence the development of the Mayors budget, but it does not fundamentally weaken the Mayors responsibility for the budget. Allowing the assembly to amend the final budgetlike the draft budgetby a simple majority would do so. It would considerably alter the balance of power at the GLA in favour of the assembly and those parties that are able to muster among themselves a slim majority of assembly members.
Mr. Pelling: Under a PR system, real influence could be given to very small groups that are in a minority in the assembly. At present, the Greens have the influence, but it is possible to envisage a scenario in which the British National party might hold the important ninth vote. We are storing up trouble for the future by opting for this anti-democratic proposal that a third will be able to block proposals.
Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman repeats the points that he made in debate today and in Committee. We obviously disagree about the model and I will come on to the issue of the mandate and the effectiveness of the procedures that are in place for approving the budget.
As I was saying, those parties would effectively be able to veto the Mayors proposals, undermining his ability to deliver his democratic mandate. That would ultimately be bad both for the post of Mayor and more importantly for London itself, especially as the capital needs a Mayor who can provide strong leadership and make, if necessary, tough budget decisions for the benefit of London.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raises the concern that we have not adequately answered his challenge. We simply have a fundamental difference of opinion about the balance of powers between the Mayor and the assembly. I acknowledge his generous comments about my usual ability to explain, but those skills have deserted me on this occasion. He does not think that Londoners would agree, because of the rise in the rate of precept. All that I can say is that Londoners have the ultimate sanction, which will determine whether the balance of powers is correctly set or not.
It was alleged that we have not increased the powers of the assembly. I remind the House that the extra powers that we have given it include confirmation hearings for key mayoral proposals; stronger policy development, with the Mayor to have regard to assembly comments; powers to summon for three to eight years; the ability to set its own budget; and the
ability to produce an annual report. That scrutiny broadens and reflects the wider responsibilities of the Mayor.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) raised a question about the assemblys own budget being protected. We answered those points in Committee, because we believe that were the assemblys budget to be threatened by any Mayor, there would be enough mutual self-interest to construct a two-thirds majority. I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans proverbial vote of confidence and I will stick it in my back pocket.
The Government cannot therefore support the new clause. I would urge the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington to withdraw it, but I think that he feels too strongly about it. In that case, I ask my hon. Friends to oppose him in the Lobby.
Tom Brake: I have listened carefully to the Minister. I suspect that he and I both have a sense of déjÃ vu about tonights debate and I noticed that the Minister could not identify a Back Bencher who supported the Governments case. I thank Conservative Members for supporting our case and I am beginning to detectespecially in the hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling)certain Liberal Democrat tendencies, which will do them no good in their careers.
The Minister claims that the model has been tried and tested, but that does not mean that it could not be improved. That is what new clause 8 seeks to do by providing more oversight, more scrutiny and more checks and balances. The Minister has not convinced me that we should do anything other than vote for new clause 8 tonight.
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