Greater London Authority Bill

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Schedule 1

Confirmation hearings etc: Schedule 4A to the GLA Act 1999
Michael Gove: I beg to move amendment No. 50, in schedule 1, page 52, line 4, leave out sub-paragraph (2) and insert—
‘(2) The Mayor requires the consent of the Assembly to the proposed appointment by a simple majority.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 51, in schedule 1, page 52, leave out lines 9 to 12.
Michael Gove: I confess that we would have been prepared to withdraw the amendment had the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and my hon. Friends been successful in the previous debate. We sought only to improve the scrutiny power of the GLA, and the option in front of us was to ensure that confirmation hearings extend across the piece. As I have outlined, the view of every party in the GLA is that that should happen. Sadly, there is a split in the Labour ranks between the parliamentary party, perhaps jealous of its privileges or anxious to shield its old friend the Mayor from scrutiny, and those in the GLA actively engaged in scrutiny work, who have been deprived of a valuable scrutinising power.
What can Conservative Members do to help the GLA enhance its powers of scrutiny? We have outlined how another weapon can be placed in its hands by ensuring that its existing scrutiny power on appointments has teeth. We originally wanted to ensure that the confirmation process involves probing the views of those appointed to functional bodies, assessing their suitability and ensuring that their fitness for office and the views that they carry forward to the discharge of their duties are examined appropriately and transparently. We have been denied that opportunity, but we can ensure that the Mayor thinks twice before making appointments to the crucial roles of chairman or deputy chairman, because the assembly can block them by a majority.
One of the points about requiring a simple majority in the assembly, as I am sure the Committee will grasp, is that because it is elected under the proportional representation additional member system, it is extremely unlikely that any political party could ever get a simple majority. The only way in which a Mayor’s unsuitable nominations could be blocked would be if there were an effective coalition. The electoral system governing the composition of the GLA means that the tool we wish to provide the assembly with could not be fashioned into a partisan billhook. It would give the assembly, or responsible parties within it, the opportunity to block a future Mayor who wished to exercise his powers irresponsibly.
As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has pointed out, chairmen or deputy chairmen of the various functional bodies have at their disposal millions of pounds of public money. Through the amendment, we suggest that before the Mayor appoints individuals to those posts he should know that if he recommends people who are either politically convenient or to whom he owes a debt for some reason, and who are not up to the task, the GLA’s capacity to recommend that they not be appointed will force him to appoint individuals of real calibre.
I mentioned in the previous debate that in the United States the Senate has the power to recommend refusal in confirmation hearings. In the past, it has ensured that certain individuals who were inappropriate, either because of their ideology—such as the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork—or because of other executive failings, could not be appointed. The Senate exercises that power with a degree of deliberation and an absence of partisanship in most circumstances, which bolsters its standing. For a simple majority in the GLA to prevent the Mayor from making an appointment is the most effective safeguard that we can think of against the frivolous, capricious, partisan or ideological or the brazen preferment of individuals who are unsuitable for the serious offices in question.
Given the failure of the Government to accept the amendment, I hope that they will look favourably on ensuring that the reserve scrutiny power can be exercised by the GLA.
11.30 am
Stephen Pound: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of a saying of Ernie Bevin, one of my great heroes, though a trifle left-wing, I have to say, for modern Labour tastes:
“If we had a little less democracy and a little more trust, we could get a lot more done in this country.”
I would not subscribe to Ernie Bevin’s dictum, but nor would I subscribe to the Boss Prendergast machine that we seem to be hearing about from the hon. Gentleman. We seem to be hearing a description of a city Administration that is more akin to James Michael Curley in Boston in the 1930s—a gloriously, magnificently corrupt Administration, it has to be said—than what we are actually faced with. There are checks and balances within this. Our duty as a Committee—it is an extraordinary privilege to sit for the first time on a Committee that contains four Fulham season ticket holders, particularly as that represents about 50 per cent. of the attendance—is to allow the disinfectant of sunlight to enter in while still allowing the smooth running of the operation of the GLA.
Were we to enter the strange, dystopic world described from the perspective of Surrey Heath, of political pals and people to whom favours are owed and to whom nods and winks are exchanged in the fetid walkways of the Thames side, people who somehow have some sort of political debt that can be repaid only by a position on the Museum of London—
Robert Neill: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s point closely, as ever, but would he not concede that it is sometimes desirable to have a process such as that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath as a safeguard to nominees who might wrongly be the subject of such a suspicion as the hon. Gentleman raises? Does he not concede that it could be thought, for example, that a Mayor might appoint an old friend and former colleague from other days as the deputy chairman of a significant functional body, because he had signed his nomination paper and been expelled from his political party for his pains in supporting the Mayor at an earlier stage? Would it not be better for a nominee—an admirable person—in such a situation to be able to say that he has the confidence and support of the assembly in its confirmation of office? I think that the hon. Gentleman gets my drift.
Stephen Pound: One would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to have got that drift this morning; it is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. I take the hon. Gentleman’s comment. We tend to make mistakes if we see policy in terms of personality, and if we tend to think of legislation in terms of individuals. What we are talking about here is a system for all eventualities: a GLA for all seasons, rather than a man for all seasons. The hon. Gentleman, who has at least two jobs and earns twice as much as I do, is quite right not to apply for yet another one. That would be erring on the side of greed, which is an emotion to which he is a complete stranger.
The whole process and procedure of the GLA could come to a grinding halt if there were political malice and if people chose to oppose the appointments. At present, the Mayor must have heed to the voice of the assembly. Let us not forget that the Mayor must then notify the assembly, as page 52, line 12 of the Bill confirms, of his decision whether to accept or reject the recommendation. There is a strong element of public scrutiny. I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath—that is not an expression that I will ever repeat—in his wish to give the matter teeth, and his own sharp incisors have already been in evidence in the few hours for which the Committee has so far deliberated. However, do we need those additional teeth? I think that were we to put in this additional filter, it would inevitably slow down the process unnecessarily. There is nothing wrong with slowing down a process if it is a means to an end. In this case we have that procedure in the Bill. We have that check and balance. We have that balance whereby the GLA can operate and appointments can be made subject to scrutiny and subject to verification and statement by the Mayor, who must explain it. For us to go further would be a recipe for disaster.
Whereas I know that no men or women in the Committee today are malicious or would in any way wish to bring the whole process to a halt, there might at some stage be such people. I am talking not about particular individuals, but about people of that type. Let us stick with what we have got. If a relevant situation occurs in the future, by all means let us look at it, but at the moment the GLA is not Kansas city in the 1930s or Boston in the 1940s. The world would be rather more exciting if it were. Both those Administrations had extremely good music, but they were fairly corrupt. We are talking about a system that is accountable and transparent. We know what is going on and we have more than enough in the provisions to provide the essential balance between the legislative checks, the scrutiny procedure and the smooth running of the assembly.
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North eloquently put the case on which I am about to elaborate. He was supported by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington; I hope that it will not be the only time that he will join the Government during the Bill’s passage.
As I have already indicated, I believe that confirmation hearings provide the assembly with an important new power. They will enable the assembly to carry out a rigorous public scrutiny of candidates whom the Mayor wishes to appoint to the offices specified in clause 4 and to recommend to the Mayor whether the candidate should be appointed to the office. That is the crucial point.
The role of the assembly is to scrutinise the calibre of candidates and their suitability for appointment to the office in question, but it is right that the Mayor, as the executive of the GLA, should retain the final say over the statutory appointments he is required to make. Accepting the amendment would give the assembly the final say over which candidate should be appointed. It would risk blurring the currently clear lines of accountability for these appointments. We believe that it would compromise the assembly’s scrutiny role and it could lead to deadlock between the Mayor and the assembly over whom should be appointed. I hope that hon. Members can agree on the importance of retaining the distinct roles of the Mayor and the assembly in the confirmation hearings process, and that they will not seek to press the amendment.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate because I feel that all of them, in their own way, have only reinforced the case for the amendment.
Let me first touch on one of the points that the Minister made. He talked about the doctrine of accountability and the way in which the amendment would blur accountability. Let us consider that thought for a moment. In the Bill as it stands there is provision for confirmation hearings: the assembly could express itself not content with an individual who has been put forward for office, and the Mayor could say, “Do you know what? That is a very good point, and I am afraid that this individual, now that you have cross-examined them and we know a little more about their record, is unsuitable. I withdraw the nomination.” He is perfectly at liberty to do that as part of the confirmation process. Indeed, it is explicitly made clear in the Bill that the Mayor will give his reasons for either going ahead in the event of GLA disquiet, or withdrawing.
The legislation therefore already allows for the fact that, following assembly representations, the Mayor would withdraw a nomination, so the principle of sole mayoral appointment, unfettered by any level of scrutiny, has already been conceded. In that respect, the Mayor remains accountable. It is always his decision as to whom he puts forward. The assembly has no right of nomination; it simply has a right to say, after scrutinising an individual appointment, that it thinks it unsuitable. Our amendment would ensure that the Mayor could not ride roughshod over the assembly’s view.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, North that we should not build legislation around existing personalities. One of the points about this Mayor is that he is an inevitably controversial figure. I am sure that we can all agree that he has done some good and some bad things in office, and that it would be wrong to paint every one of his actions in deepest black. Nevertheless, so far he is the only person to have occupied the role of Mayor of London, so we must use some of his actions as a precedent when scrutinising new powers or new limits on the power of the Mayor. One of the interesting things about the way in which the Mayor has handled his power—I suspect that we will return to it later—is his handling of the congestion charge. I am sure that we will hear some interesting comments on that.
Mr. Andrew Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush) (Lab): I have been ruminating on the comment that has just been made—[Interruption.] I have it with me. The hon. Gentleman raises a point of general interest. He says that the current Mayor has been the only Mayor, so we should take heed of what he has done. However, as he is the only Mayor to have held the post—there will be others in future—would it not be sensible, rather than rushing to judgment and to legislation, to leave in abeyance the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, which he might advance many times during the Committee’s proceedings, and wait until we have three or four Mayors under our belts before we start tinkering around with possibly unnecessary legislation?
Michael Gove: I am grateful, as ever, for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is interesting, because its premise is that we should wait until we have had three or four incumbents of the office before changing the powers of the incumbent. That is an argument against the whole Bill; it is an argument against bringing forward legislation. If I remember the Division lists correctly, the hon. Gentleman voted in favour of the Bill. In fact, I remember his speech in favour of it. He now seems to be disavowing that principle. I should be grateful if he clarified his position. Does he believe that it is appropriate, now that we have had a Mayor for several years, to consider the extent of his powers and influence, and amend it appropriately? I assume that he thinks that that is appropriate and, given his earlier vote in favour of limiting confirmation hearings simply to chairs and deputy chairs, that he accepts that there should be a new constraint on the Mayor’s capacity to appoint officers. If he wishes to disavow those votes, I am sure that the Committee will be very interested in his arguments.
Mr. Slaughter: I made the mistake, which I shall never make again, of not being back in the Chamberfor the hon. Gentleman’s winding-up speech, for which I apologised to him at the time. Had I been present, I should have been able to correct him when he said that I spoke in an unqualified way in favour of the powers that the Mayor had been exercising thus far. He is right that I voted in favour of Second Reading, but he is generalising from a particular point that I made. Clearly, it is important after six years to consider how the job is being done and how the post is going. However, some of the amendments appear to indicate—as the intervention of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst suggested—if not vindictiveness, at least personal interest in what the current Mayor is doing. I am simply advising the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, if I may be so bold, to steer clear of that.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.
I, too, am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not present to hear my summing up, not because it was a triumph of oratory—far from it—but because in the course of my remarks, I committed a terrible solecism—at least one. When I referred to comments made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush in the debate, I called him the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham. I would hate anyone to think that it is possible to confuse my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush. The reason why I made that mistake is partly that the hon. Gentleman was in a previous life leader, I believe, of Hammersmith and Fulham council, when it was led by the Labour party, before the Conservatives took over and reduced the council tax by a whopping 3 per cent.
11.45 am
In those benighted days, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush developed something of a reputation. It was because of that reputation that the mistaken title was indelibly branded on my mind, so apologies to him for that. I also apologise if I have misunderstood the burden of his remarks on Second Reading. My understanding was that he spoke in favour of all the provisions in the Bill. While other Labour Members who had concerns about key aspects of the Bill are not, amazingly, on the Committee, the hon. Gentleman, as someone who spoke in favour of every aspect of the Bill, finds himself here. I do not know how the process works because, as I explained earlier, Mr. O’Hara, I am new to these things.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush has made an important point. It is true that we should not attempt to legislate for the Mayor’s office on the basis of the current Mayor’s personality. However, we cannot ignore how the Mayor has used his powers, because it suggests how a future Mayor, who may be less responsible or conscientious, might exploit the loopholes. I note that the Minister for Housing and Planning is shaking her head at the thought that any future Mayor could be less responsible or less conscientious than the incumbent, but I will pass over those internal Labour matters.
I was due to mention the congestion charge, to which I know that we shall return on its own merits. I have mentioned it now because when the Mayor was consulting on the westward extension of the congestion charge, he gave the impression that the process would be transparent and accountable, that there would be scrutiny of the new power that he wished to exercise and that there would be an informed debate. At the end of the consultation process, the Mayor basically said, “Look, I’m in charge, I’m the Executive, I’ve got responsibility. We’re extending it. Fiat, let it be.” And so it was. My concern is that when it comes to appointments to functional bodies, a future Mayor will be able to say to the assembly, “Look, you made a very good case as to why I should not appoint this person but, frankly, I’m in charge. I’ll do what I like”, which is what the current Mayor did with the westward extension of the congestion charge. That would unfortunately discredit the GLA and the whole process of confirmation that the Government are seeking to include in the Bill.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has omitted to mention the fact that after the Mayor stated that he was in favour of a westward extension of the congestion charge, he was re-elected by the people of London.
Michael Gove: I take the point that the Mayor was re-elected but, as we know, it was with a reduced majority. More importantly, if one disaggregates voting in London, one can see that in those areas affected by the westward extension of the congestion charge, particularly the area represented by the leader of the Conservatives on the GLA, Angie Bray, the Conservative vote went up while the Labour vote went down. In the subsequent borough elections in Kensington and Chelsea and in Hammersmith and Fulham, which are the areas affected by the westward extension of the congestion charge, the Labour vote was further depressed and the Conservative vote was significantly increased, which led to the transfer of control in Hammersmith and Fulham from Labour to Conservative.
Martin Linton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. We seek your indulgence, Mr. O’Hara, to pursue the point, if it is relevant to the debate.
The Chairman: Order. I am giving very close consideration as to whether the topic is becoming an end in itself.
Martin Linton: I seek to make two points. First, the westward extension of the congestion charge affects many more people than the residents of Kensington and Chelsea who are within the zone. It affects the whole of London and the traffic going through it.
Secondly, in my constituency there were many strong, articulate opponents of the western extension of the congestion charge, with whom I have every sympathy because it adversely affected them. The Mayor nevertheless won a majority in the mayoral elections, even in Battersea.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point, but given the point that you made, Mr. O’Hara, I suspect that if I were to pursue this transport question further I would be going down a cul-de-sac and would be given a penalty notice. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who I suspect will make a point about the broader principle that we are discussing.
Robert Neill: The hon. Members who have intervened on my hon. Friend have overlooked the broader principle, of which the congestion charge is but an example, that the imposition of the congestion charge required a resolution of the board of Transport for London. As the executive body, Transport for London imposed the charge to reflect the will of the Mayor, which we accept. Is that not a strong argument for the boards of all the functional bodies that carry out significant executive functions being subject to the scrutiny function? That is why this strengthened measure is the appropriate means by which to compel the Mayor to refrain from appointing people who may demonstrably not be up to the discharge of those executive functions.
The Chairman: Getting back to the point—
Michael Gove: Thank you, Mr. O’Hara. My journey back to the central point was helped by the intervention from my hon. Friend, who has made the key point about Transport for London. We can debate which is the most important functional body, but Transport for London is certainly one of the most important. The question who fills those posts matters to Londoners, because the individuals who do so have key executive responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North, quoted Ernie Bevin—I think it was him rather than Aneurin Bevan—saying that what we needed was
“a little less democracy and a little more trust”.
It is unsurprising that someone who had been in charge of the Transport and General Workers Union should have asked for less democracy and more trust. It is also unsurprising that Ernie Bevin, a classic old Labour figure who became addicted to the power of the Executive and increasingly distrustful of scrutiny, should have taken that position, but I am sorry to hear those words repeated in tones of reverence by the hon. Gentleman. I would have thought that one of the key legacies of Tony Blair’s years in power, which Labour party members should want to celebrate, is the principle of devolution and the idea that new gusts of accountability are going through previously closed corridors of power.
Stephen Pound: In quoting the great Ernie Bevin, who thought that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a breakaway branch of the T and G, I was not endorsing the view. I was simply giving an example, and I specifically stated for the record that I was not endorsing those comments, sympathetic though I may be.
I know that the fact that the Liberal Democrats have deserted us on this occasion may appear to weaken the force of our argument.
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am interested that the hon. Gentleman has said that the absence of Liberal Democrat support weakens the force of his argument. Did he not start this debate by saying that had we not defeated the last amendment, he would not be proposing these amendments? The hon. Gentleman did not have a very strong argument to start with.
Michael Gove: No; I was making a point. At first glance, to the superficial observer of our deliberations, it might seem as though the desertion of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington weakens the force of our argument. In fact, his conscientious objection strengthens it, because for any majority to exist within the GLA, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, for the sake of argument, need to work together. Those people who think that we are joined at the hip and that we are one unified, raucous, populist caucus intent on subverting the power of the executive will have been disabused by the hon. Gentleman’s decision not to vote with us. That Tories and Liberal Democrats disagree emphasises the point that when it comes to the appointment of individuals, one cannot expect all the Opposition parties to unite against the Mayor.
By declining to support the amendment, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has underlined the fact that the parties operate independently in the GLA and that our requirement for a simple majority for confirmations is an effective new scrutiny weapon which, in the absence of the previous amendment, can only enhance trust in the Mayor’s appointments. I therefore hope that the Government will accept it.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 11.
[Division No. 3 ]
Fabricant, Michael
Gove, Michael
Hands, Mr. Greg
Neill, Robert
Brake, Tom
Buck, Ms Karen
Butler, Ms Dawn
Cooper, Yvette
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Linton, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain
Pound, Stephen
Shaw, Jonathan
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Question accordingly negatived.
Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Schedule 1 inserts a new schedule 4A to the GLA Act 1999, setting out the procedure for holding confirmation hearings for the assembly to make a recommendation to the Mayor on whether a candidate should be appointed to one of the offices listed in clause 4.
Paragraph 1 exempts the Mayor from the confirmation hearing process should he decide to appoint himself to any of the offices listed in clause 4. That is because the assembly already has opportunities to question the Mayor at, for example, the monthly meetings.
Paragraph 2 prohibits the Mayor from making an appointment until the end of the confirmation process, which is either when the Mayor has notified the assembly of his acceptance or rejection of its recommendation or if the assembly has not made a recommendation to the Mayor within three weeks of being notified by him of the candidate whom he proposes to appoint.
Paragraph 3 specifies what the notification should include and requires the Mayor to give reasons why he wishes to appoint the candidate to the office. Paragraphs 4 and 5 set out the key outcomes of the procedure. Paragraph 4 requires the assembly to recommend to the Mayor whether he should appoint the candidate to the office within three weeks of receiving notification from him. Paragraph 5 allows the Mayor to accept or reject the assembly’s recommendation. The Mayor must notify the assembly of his decision.
Paragraphs 6 to 9 set out the detailed procedure for holding confirmation hearings. Paragraph 6 allows the assembly to decide whether to hold a confirmation hearing before making a recommendation to the Mayor, and it defines a confirmation hearing as a meeting at which the candidate is requested to appear to answer assembly members’ questions relating to the proposed appointment. The candidate may either attend the meeting in person or communicate with the assembly remotely. The assembly may ask candidates to produce documents in their possession or under their control that relate to the proposed appointment.
Paragraph 7 sets out the procedure for requesting the candidate’s appearance at a confirmation hearing. Paragraph 8 allows the Secretary of State by order to make provision for any order in force under section 63 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to have effect in relation to a candidate. Such an order may prescribe categories of information that a person summoned to give evidence to the assembly may refuse to give and categories of document which they may refuse to produce.
Finally, paragraph 9 provides for the assembly’s functions under the schedule to be undertaken only by the assembly as a whole or by an ordinary committee of the assembly. I beg to move that this schedule be part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
12 noon
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