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Question agreed to.

11 Oct 2007 : Column 481

Orders of the Day

Greater London Authority Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Before Clause 3

Lords amendment: No. 1.

1.24 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

I welcome the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) to the Front Bench and to the Dispatch Box again after last night. During consideration of the Bill, he has moved from the Back Benches to the Front Bench and has seen it through every stage, as has the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). They have lived with the Bill for longer than I have and I look forward to their contributions.

Lords Amendment No. 1 would amend section 21 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, to disqualify a person from being the Mayor or an assembly member if they had been Mayor twice before. This would have the effect of restricting the Mayor to two terms of office. The purpose is clear: they cannot beat Ken Livingstone at the ballot box, so they are trying to bar him from standing at all. It should be for Londoners to decide whether they want Ken Livingstone to continue to serve as their London Mayor, not MPs from all parts of the UK and certainly not members of the unelected House in another place. We do not agree with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats on this and we will not accept the amendment.

The amendment goes right to the heart of the GLA’s constitution and its key principle of a strong executive Mayor whose democratic mandate and political legitimacy is derived from direct elections. The amendment and the change, as put together by an alliance of Tories and Liberals in the other place, challenges one of the underlying constitutional principles of British political life, namely, that there should be no term limits on any elected representatives to any political office. That applies to MPs, councillors and members of the devolved Administrations, all of whom can serve for as long as the electorate lets them.

I am not alone in arguing this. In Committee, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) argued forcefully that

The issue has been well debated in another place and here, and I am aware of the arguments of those who favour term limits for the mayor. They have argued that term limits would provide an important check on an office-holder who yields considerable executive power when in office. They have argued also that it would help the office to be refreshed and reinvigorated regularly, but these arguments do not stand up when subject to scrutiny.

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There is a tendency to think that, because the US president and the elected mayors of some US cities have term limits, the Mayor of London should do too. But the electoral arrangements for the office of Mayor of London need to reflect both London’s particular circumstances and the wider political and democratic culture in this country. I strongly believe that the regular elections for Mayor every four years under the GLA Act already provide a strong check on an incumbent Mayor. Furthermore, unlike some American cities, London is not a one-party city where a favoured candidate can be shoed into office and remain Mayor for life.

First, the electoral arrangements in place for the Mayor under the GLA Act require that a successful candidate have the support of the majority of voters. Secondly, politics in London is and always has been highly competitive. Finally, given the high national profile of the Mayor of London, all major political parties would naturally and normally want to ensure that they have at least a credible candidate standing on their behalf. These factors together ensure that each mayoral election campaign is hard fought and each campaign gives a fresh mandate to the post of mayor, whether or not it goes to the incumbent.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Where towns or cities are in effect one-party states—there are perhaps more of them involving his party than mine—should there be term limits? I very much agree with almost everything that he said until that point, at which he almost partly recognised that the reason why he did not want to see term limits in London was that it was much more competitive. Surely that should have no effect on the matter.

1.30 pm

John Healey: No, I am simply trying to do justice to some of the arguments that were made in debates during previous stages of the Bill. Central to my argument is the principle that the electorate, which in this case is Londoners across London, have the right to throw out an incumbent Mayor; they have the right to pass judgment on the performance of the Mayor at regular elections.

I hope that the sense displayed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will prevail with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and his colleagues, and that they will back us in the Lobby this afternoon. Unless they do so, people will rightly conclude that they have no confidence in their candidate for Mayor and that they are running scared that Ken Livingstone will win a third term in office.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I thank the Minister for his kind words. The matters under discussion have been an entertaining “London special” for many of us who have been involved in them. The Bill has had an interesting progress, and I hope that we will not delay the House too long in dealing with the remaining issues.

The purpose of the House of Lords is to raise issues and to ask Members of this House to consider and reflect on matters, but this House should, of course, be the ultimate determiner. It is neither unreasonable nor surprising that this issue was debated in the Lords. What comes across from reading the Hansard records
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of the debates in the other place is that their Lordships were not only concerned about the term limits issue itself—about which there is legitimate widespread debate, particularly in academic circles—but many of them were driven by a sense of frustration at the lack of internal checks and balances in the operation of the Greater London authority. I have sympathy with their Lordships on the symptoms that they identified but, for reasons that I will come on to, I do not think that the cure proposed is appropriate.

Mr. Mark Field: Unlike my hon. Friend, I have not had the opportunity of reading the Hansard reports of the Lords debates. Does he know from his close study of them whether their Lordships debated term limits for themselves?

Robert Neill: I do not recall that their Lordships wanted to go into that degree of detail—although the debate ranged widely and was well informed.

The Minister makes the legitimate point that it is not a United Kingdom tradition to have term limits—although they do occur in other jurisdictions—but that does not mean that it is wrong to debate the issue. I should add that it is ironic that the Government were unable to muster enough of their own supporters to carry the day, and I hope that the Government will address—they have not done so thus far—the underlying sense of frustration that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Mayor.

Term limits were one solution that found favour in the House of Lords. I would have preferred it if the Government had listened to the alternative that we put forward in earlier stages of the Bill’s progress in this House. We wanted to readdress the checks and balances within the structures of the GLA, to give the assembly more hold over the Mayor, the ability to amend the budget and strategies and greater power to call in mayoral directions. That alternative would, perhaps, have sat more easily with our traditions.

That we will not seek to pursue the Lords Amendment by pressing it to a Division does not mean that we are not frustrated and uneasy that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the Mayor of London—whoever holds the post—and the particular frustration that the current Mayor has aggravated the situation by the way in which he has used his significant powers.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): It is uncomfortable for me to witness the hon. Gentleman wriggling. We would like to hear why, in combination with the Liberal Democrats, he attempted a coup in the other place, as the only way he thought it would be possible to defeat the current incumbent, from which he is now having to backtrack at an alarming rate.

Robert Neill: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s interventions do not become any more considered with the passage of time. What we said in this House was clear, and I restate our position. The wriggling has to be done by those who advocate the current somewhat unbalanced constitutional arrangement within London’s devolved structures. The Back-Bench Members who were present throughout the passage of the Bill will know that the Opposition consistently argued that there
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should be a two-tier strategy to address that, by devolving more strategic powers from central Government to London governance—by getting rid of the Government office for London, for example—and by redressing the balance between the Mayor and the assembly to create a more constructive partnership.

Mr. Slaughter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Robert Neill: I shall do so once more, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s intervention will be better this time.

Mr. Slaughter: I simply wish to ask a question: will this set a precedent for the Conservatives? Will there be separate and opposite policies in both Houses as a matter of rule? Labour Members would like to know, because if we are to borrow policies, we will have a choice in that case.

Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman’s intervention was not any better, and I shall not repeat my mistake.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Robert Neill: I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend is making a sound and sensible speech. Londoners want there to be checks and balances and for power to be devolved from central Government to the GLA and Mayor, and then down to the boroughs. Surely that is what we should all be supporting.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is right. It is important to remember that the boroughs are a third key part of the equation. London governance now rightly consists of a tripartite arrangement between the Mayor, the assembly and the boroughs, and we should be seeking structures that allow those three key elements of London to work constructively together. Their Lordships felt strongly about this issue, and the Mayor brought that change on himself by his own behaviour—the capricious way in which he has used some of his powers.

This issue was raised in the Lords, and it has come back before us in this House. It is not desirable to look at the situation of the GLA in isolation from the rest of our constitutional arrangements. However, although we will not seek to oppose the Government on this issue, it is sad that they have failed to address the underlying cause by not taking on board sensible amendments to balance the powers properly and to prevent the current discontent—which it is no good pretending does not exist—about how the GLA operates.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I am pleased to return to this matter, which I raised in Committee. We had much fun with it, and I regret that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is not present to continue that. I suspect that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has been put up by his party because, in the light of events in the other place, it is easier for him to wriggle than the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who would have had to try to face both ways on this subject.

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In the other place, my noble Friend Lord Tope expressed very well why it would be appropriate for there to be a two-term limit for the Mayor:

He continued that, in relation to the Mayor of London:

When the matter was discussed in Committee, a number of hon. Members expressed concern that it was a partisan issue that had been raised to try to unseat the current Mayor. I reassured them that that was not the case, and the concerns expressed were picked up by my colleagues in the other place, who tabled an amendment to make it clear that the provision would not apply to the current incumbent.

Another issue that was raised, I think by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), was whether this rule on fixed terms for executive mayors should apply more widely than to the Mayor of London. We cannot debate that in general terms, but as a general principle I think that when a mayor has executive powers, there is a strong argument for their having fixed terms, whether we are talking about the Mayor of London or someone else.

Labour Members have rightly drawn the House’s attention to the fact that there is a split within the official Opposition on this issue. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath was forceful in dismissing this proposal, and it is worth citing some of the more florid phrases used. This is not one of them, but he said that this was

As Labour Members, including the Minister, have pointed out, while we may have evolved a constitution that is allergic to term limits, it would seem as if the other place is not as allergic to them as we are in this Chamber.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but it was not just the official Opposition who voted for this in the House of Lords—the Liberal Democrats did so, too. Therefore, he has the same problem of wriggling as the Conservative spokesman and is digging just as big a hole—it is big enough for two bendy buses.

Tom Brake: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present during Committee, but we supported the idea of two terms then, as indeed we did in the House of Lords. There is no split within the Liberal Democrats on this issue; we are united on the subject. As for whether we shall choose to press the matter to a Division, it is clear that the numbers are unfortunately against us, and I am all in favour of doing business effectively. It might be that on the next amendment, the Opposition parties will be united, because,
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as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, the budget is an issue on which the Government could have taken action to address hon. Members’ concerns about the Mayor’s powers, but they omitted to do so.

Mr. Slaughter: In Committee, I had the privilege of listening to the hon. Gentleman describe, in a moment of rare self-awareness, one of his speeches as “not my finest hour.” I can assure him that it was, in comparison with the position he is taking today. I am still not clear whether the Liberal Democrats are supporting a two-term limit, including for the current Mayor.

Tom Brake: I thought that I had made it extremely clear that we are in favour of a two-term limit, but that Baroness Hamwee tabled an amendment in the other place, the purpose of which was to ensure that the proposal was not retrospective and thus would kick in after the next mayoral elections. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Slaughter: As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) says, the hon. Gentleman is therefore guilty of exactly the same crime as the official Opposition. In Committee, his line was to have a two-term limit that would apply to the incumbent—he is shaking his head, but he should read what he said—whereas in the other place, as he says, the position had moved slightly. I assume that the reason for that was that his party had given up any hope of this election and was looking towards the next one, but I hope that he will clarify that.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I merely restate the fact that this was not intended to be a partisan amendment seeking simply to unseat the present incumbent. I am confident that on 10 November, when we will announce our mayoral candidate, he or she will be more than a match for the present Mayor and will, along with the Conservative candidate, have great fun in the next six months.

The proposal would be of huge benefit, because we have moved to a much more presidential system and thus we need to ensure that someone with all the powers and control vested in him or her is not able to continue in post ad nauseam. I hope that I have made it clear that the proposal is not about the present incumbent, with whom I am quite happy, and that the measure would not be introduced retrospectively. However, it should be introduced for future elections and indeed may well need to apply to other executive mayors too.

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