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1.45 pm

Mr. Mark Field: I regret that my party was associated with this matter in the House of Lords, because it is wholly wrong that there should be term limits at all. In fairness, I suspect that the idea was to generate a debate, perhaps a slightly academic one. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made it clear from the Front Bench what our concerns were: that there are potentially too many powers in the hands of the Mayor.

Certain aspects of power that should be in the Mayor’s hands are not, but the continued existence of
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the Government office for London under the Minister’s tutelage is unacceptable, given the devolution that we have had in the capital city during the past seven years. I, for one, have always said that we should abolish the Government office for London and give some powers back to the boroughs and others to the Mayor. That would be the sensible solution for this capital city.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said. This was rightly intended in a non-partisan way and would not apply to the current incumbent, but such a term limit should not apply at all. I agreed with what the Minister said: this country has no tradition of term limits, nor should we start having them now.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the official Opposition in the other place had simply raised the matter for debate. Baroness Hanham, speaking in favour of two-term limits, said:

Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is simply about engaging in a debate?

Mr. Field: To a large extent, it was. I served under Baroness Hanham as a councillor in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where, coincidentally, I served for two terms, as I believed she did as leader. Perhaps she was putting her money where her mouth was in that particular regard.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I have been listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s thesis. Are the Liberal Democrats not taking an illogical position? Why restrict two-term limits simply to the Mayor of London? Why not, for example, apply them to Members of Parliament, particularly given that the proposal comes from a third-term Member of Parliament?

Mr. Field: I shall leave it to the opponents of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington to make that case. On term limits for the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the clock is running quickly for the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), but we shall say no more about those matters.

The arrangement for the United States presidency is a special situation. The founding fathers had particular safeguards in mind when they decided to have two-term limits for the presidency.

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

Mr. Field: I shall give way to a great friend of mine whose knowledge of American politics knows no limits.

Mr. Burns: I do not wish to upset my hon. Friend, but I should mention that the founding fathers had no view on the subject. This was a rather nasty proposal made by the Republicans in the 1950s because Franklin Roosevelt had broken the tradition of serving just two terms and had been elected to his fourth term, and they wanted to ensure that no Democrat ever did so again.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Extending the debate to the outer limits of Chelmsford is one thing, but extending it across the Atlantic is something else.

Mr. Field: I know that the loquaciousness of north Essex Members knows no bounds, but I think that we will leave it at that. This country has no tradition of term limits and such a proposal would be highly regrettable. Even in the United States, a number of members of the Senate and Congress have famously served for many decades and many terms of office. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst had to say, and I hope that we will not support the Lords amendment. If it is pressed to a Division, I shall vote with the Government. We shall see what the Liberal Democrat spokesman has to say about the disreputable suggestion for term limits in this regard.

John Healey: The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) set out some general concerns and arguments that he and others have rehearsed during the course of the Bill about the proper balance of power between the Mayor and the assembly within the Greater London authority. There are measures in the Bill to reinforce the hand of the assembly in carrying out its proper scrutiny role in relation to the Mayor. There is the introduction of confirmation hearings and the requirement for the Mayor to have regard to the responses that the assembly may make to consultations and strategies that the Mayor proposes. There is the capacity to amend the budget, which we shall discuss before too long. The Bill is also about building on what has been a successful policy of a strong executive Mayor for our capital city. I make no apologies for that.

The Liberal Democrats and the Tories, having voted in the other place to try to keep Ken Livingstone out of office, now seem rather embarrassed by the actions of their colleagues in the other place. There has been a good deal of squirming and swivelling on the Front Benches this afternoon. I look forward to seeing how they decide to vote. It is clear from the Conservative Front Bench that the hon. Gentleman has comprehensively disowned the arguments and stance of his colleagues in the upper House. In some ways that gives a new meaning to the process of ping pong between the two Houses. We have a ping pong of Tory policy on this Bill.

In January the official Front-Bench position of the Conservatives was set out by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). He said,

By June the official Conservative Front-Bench position was set out by Baroness Hanham. She said:

Clearly, they had come to the conclusion that they could not beat Ken, so they must ban him. I am sorry that we shall not have the benefit of the views of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on this matter, as he is not in the Chamber at present.

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The argument and the position of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) are not strengthened by a special get-out clause for Ken, allowing him to stand this time, but to impose the principle of fixed term limits for the Mayor of London in future. An incumbent Mayor should be able to seek re-election on the basis of his track record and it should be the electorate—in this case Londoners across the capital city—who have the right to reject or elect him to serve a further term.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): It is a curious position of principle to suggest that because someone does not like the outcome of a democratic election, they will tinker with the process. As the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has left the Chamber during the debate, can my hon. Friend ask whether the Opposition spokesman will intervene and tell us whether he intends to vote with the Conservative Whip or not? The people of London would have been interested in the views of a mayoral candidate on this particular issue.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right. Shortly we shall see the decisions that all hon. Members, particularly those on the Opposition Front Bench, make in voting.

My essential argument is that it remains rightly for the electorate to make this decision. It remains for the incumbent Mayor to stand on the basis of his track record. It remains for Londoners, not Members of this House or the other place, to make this decision. That is the principle that sits at the heart of elected office at all levels in this country.

I welcome the brief intervention and contribution from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I have long experience of debating a number of matters with him and he is always the voice of reason of the Conservative party. He is right that we have no tradition of fixed terms in this country. I welcome his promise of support for us in the Lobbies on this matter, and I hope that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) will do so too.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Before Clause 12

Lords amendment: No. 2

John Healey: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) touched on the question of the budget and the budget-making process and powers. I can understand the superficial appeal of this amendment. It is reasonable to say that to a detached observer it may seem only fair that an assembly should be able to exercise its power to amend the Mayor’s final draft consolidated budget by simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority currently required. However, the principle of the two thirds majority goes to the heart of the governance of the GLA—a governance and a model that has served London well since its introduction. I shall explain to the House why that principle is so important.

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The amendment cuts directly across the principle of a strong executive Mayor and an assembly holding him to account for his actions through effective scrutiny. The budget plays a central role in this model. It allows the Mayor to propose a funding package to implement his policies, priorities and proposals. It allows the assembly to amend only if a broad consensus—in other words, two thirds of assembly members—are minded to do so. It is an important check and balance on the Mayor. It ensures that he cannot take the assembly for granted in proposing his annual budget, but it is also a clear signal to the assembly that it must work together to amend the Mayor’s budget proposals formally.

I was glad to see that that approach was endorsed by Lord Heseltine in his recent taskforce reports published in June. He recommended that city Mayors

The GLA budget-making process is based exactly on that principle and approach. The Mayor first presents the assembly with a draft budget, which it may amend by a simple majority, and then a final draft budget, which it can amend by a two-thirds majority. That allows the assembly to exert real influence over the Mayor in terms of his budget priorities—influence which the GLA itself acknowledges has saved more than £125 million by reining in, in their terms, the Mayor’s budget proposals.

In contrast, to allow the assembly to amend the final budget by a simply majority would in effect mean the assembly, not the Mayor, would routinely set the GLA budget. It would fundamentally weaken the Mayor’s position, which may indeed be the hidden purpose of the amendment, and it risks a complete disconnect, therefore, between the budget and the Mayor’s priorities. If hon. Members pause and consider such a position, it is clear that that risks deadlock between the assembly and the Mayor. It risks conflict and an impasse which would be bad for the GLA, for London and for Londoners.

The debate in the other place has been helpful. It has shed important light on how the budget process has been handled in city hall to date, and on two commonly held misconceptions about the role of the assembly in the budget-making process. The first misconception is that assembly members cannot vote in favour of specific amendments because in doing so they would be voting to accept other parts of the Mayor’s final draft budget with which they might disagree. That argument fails to take sufficient account of the provisions of the original Greater London Authority Act 1999. Schedule 6 of the Act makes it clear that the assembly must approve the Mayor’s final draft budget, with or without amendment, with a two-thirds majority needed to make any amendment. The Act could not be clearer about the assembly’s statutory duties in setting the annual budget. Assembly members have no option to “reject” the Mayor’s final draft.

2 pm

The second misconception seems to be that the assembly can amend only the final draft of the GLA consolidated budget, not the component budgets of which it is comprised. Let me reiterate the explanation and the assurance that we tried to give in the other place. The assembly may, if it chooses, amend any one
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or more of the final draft component budgets—the budgets of the Mayor, the assembly and the four functional bodies. In so doing, it can amend the final draft GLA consolidated budget, too.

Hitherto, the annual GLA budget-setting process has not worked in that way. The assembly has voted instead on broad packages of amendments to the consolidated budget as a whole, proposed by each of the main parties; in effect, the assembly votes to accept or reject an alternative budget rather than seeking to amend the Mayor’s final draft. That approach is perfectly valid, although I think the House appreciates that it is not one that readily lends itself to cross-party agreement. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that the assembly has not, to date, secured a two-thirds majority for change. However, it is open to the assembly to approach its role in that way—differently from how it has approached it in the past—and to make the most of its existing powers by forging coalitions of common interest to amend the budget. Surely that is the right way forward—not making fundamental changes to the successful Greater London authority model, not blurring the currently clear division between executive and scrutiny functions and not, in effect, allowing the assembly to set the budget, thus risking deadlock between the Mayor and the assembly.

I hope that the debate this afternoon will help to illuminate further some of the misconceptions and that Members will appreciate that the budget-making process, as set out, is a central part of the model in the 1999 Act. I hope that the amendment will not be pressed to a vote, but if it is I ask the House to disagree.

Robert Neill: In our judgment, the other place has clearly and significantly improved the Bill in this case and I hope that we maintain the amendment, because, with every respect to the Minister, he places undue faith in the working of the current model. He suggests that it is a model and a system of governance that has served Londoners well. I am not sure that Londoners whose council tax has increased by more than 100 per cent. during the Livingstone years will regard it as a model that has served them well at all.

For a model to be effective it is important that it is comprehensible to the electors it serves. Part of the argument advanced for the creation of the Greater London authority was that it would be a more transparent form of governance for the city. However, the budgetary arrangements and the two-thirds majority requirement are manifestly opaque; they bear no relation to anything that happens in local government either in the UK or almost anywhere else.

It is suggested that the proposal is incompatible with a strong-mayor model. That is not the case. The most obvious example of a strong-mayor model, which is frequently prayed in aid in these circumstances, is the situation in the city of New York, where the city council has the power to amend the mayor’s budget by a simple majority. The council has always had that power and several members of the London assembly—I should declare an interest as a member—had the opportunity to visit New York last year, to talk to members of the budget committee and the mayor’s office to see how the budget-setting process worked. At the end of the day, strong mayors have always been able
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to get the budgets they need to pursue their policies in New York. The idea that the process ends up in deadlock is not borne out by the facts; it is pure scaremongering invented by those who support giving the Mayor altogether too much power, concentrated in one pair of sometimes rather unsteady hands.

In New York, there have been two successive strong mayors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, both of whom have been able to get the supply they required through a city council that was between 80 and 90 per cent. Democrat—the opposite party to theirs. If they can do it, under a system that requires a simple majority, I am darned sure that any Mayor of London, of any party, can do the same. I am equally sure that the next Mayor of London will have no difficulty in doing so.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Slaughter rose—

Robert Neill: I shall make a little progress before I indulge the hon. Gentleman.

It is important that the system is transparent to electors. The average elector thinks the current system is manifestly absurd. The last two of the Mayor’s budgets were passed having lost 16 to nine in the assembly. If we asked any citizen of the UK where someone could lose 16 to nine and still win, the answer would be that the only place that could happen would be city hall and the only person who could do it would be the Mayor of London, who had much enjoyment sitting in the gallery shouting “Passed” every time the assembly defeated one of his propositions. That is the type of jiggery-pokery that brings politics into contempt and disrepute. People see their elected representatives in the assembly, who have as good a mandate as the Mayor, in effect, emasculated. That is not healthy or sensible governance.

Mr. Slaughter rose—

Robert Neill: I give way to the hon. Gentleman who is itching to speak.

Mr. Slaughter: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has returned to the Chamber. I thought he might have gone off in a huff, having come to see his opponent disqualified and not received satisfaction from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

The hon. Gentleman is doing better on this amendment than on the last, although that is merely to damn him with faint praise. The problem with his argument is that it is quite clear why the strong mayoralty was set up with a qualified veto. So far, he has said nothing that detracts from that point.

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