Greater London Authority Bill

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New Clause 12

Amendment of TCPA
‘(1) TCPA 1990 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 12(3C) leave out “be in general conformity with” and insert “have regard to”.
(3) In section 13(1A) leave out “is in general conformity with” and insert “has regard to”.
(4) In section 13(5A) leave out “is not in general conformity with” and insert “does not have regard to”.
(5) In section 15(2A) leave out “are in general conformity with” and insert “have regard to”.
(6) Leave out section 21A.
(7) In section 26 leave out subsection (2)(bb).
(8) In section 74 leave out subsections (1B) and (1C).
(9) Leave out section 322B.’.—[Michael Gove.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.
Division No. 20 ]
Fabricant, Michael
Gove, Michael
Hands, Mr. Greg
Neill, Robert
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Brake, Tom
Buck, Ms Karen
Butler, Ms Dawn
Cooper, Yvette
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Linton, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain
Shaw, Jonathan
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 14

Vacation of office by Mayor following petition and recall ballot
‘After section 16 of the GLA Act 1999 insert—
“16A Vacation of office following petition and recall ballot
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for, or in connection with, requiring the Mayor on receipt of a petition which complies with the provisions of the regulations and a recall ballot of eligible voters in London to vacate office, in such circumstances as may be prescribed in the regulations.
(2) The provision which may be made by regulations under subsection (1) includes provision—
(a) as to the form and content of petitions (including provisions for petitions in electronic form),
(b) as to the minimum number of electors entitled to vote for the Mayor under this Act who must support any petition presented to the Mayor during any period specified in the regulations,
(c) for or in connection with requiring an office of the GLA to publish the number of electors who must support any petition presented to the authority,
(d) as to the way in which electors are to support a petition (including provision enabling electors to support petitions by telephone or by electronic means),
(e) as to the action which may, may not or must be taken by the Authority in connection with any petition,
(f) as to the manner in which a petition is to be presented,
(g) as to the verification of any petition,
(h) as to the minimum and maximum number of days in which a ballot should be held,
(i) as to the format and wording of the recall ballot,
(j) as to the date on which, or the time by which, the Mayor must vacate office,
(k) for or in connection with enabling the Secretary of State, in the event of any failure by the Authority to take any action permitted or required by virtue of the regulations, to take that action.
(3) The number of electors mentioned in subsection (2)(b) is to be calculated at such times as may be provided by regulations under this section and (unless such regulations otherwise provide) is to be 10 per cent. of the total number of electors participating in the Mayoral election preceding the date of any petition.
(4) Nothing in subsection (2) or (3) affects the generality of the power under subsection (1).”.’.—[Michael Gove.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Motion made, and Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.
Division No. 21 ]
Brake, Tom
Fabricant, Michael
Gove, Michael
Hands, Mr. Greg
Neill, Robert
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Buck, Ms Karen
Butler, Ms Dawn
Cooper, Yvette
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Linton, Martin
McDonagh, Siobhain
Shaw, Jonathan
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 15

Limits of the general power (No.2)
‘After section 31(6) of the GLA Act 1999 insert—
“(6A) The Authority shall not by virtue of section 30(1) above incur expenditure in promoting activities or relationships which are primarily the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the Department for International Development, although this does not prevent the Authority incurring expenditure in co-operating with or facilitating good relations with other major world cities and regional authorities.”.’.—[Michael Gove.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Michael Gove: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I apologise for not welcoming you to the Chair at the beginning of the sitting, Lady Winterton. I was temporarily distracted by the confusion, as much in my mind as in that of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, about which of us was speaking at the moment when the clock froze the debate last Thursday. I associate myself with the Minister’s comments—it is a great pleasure to see you refereeing what I suspect will be the final stages of our deliberations.
New clause 15 is an attempt to deal explicitly with a controversy that has arisen around this Mayor. It has been our intention throughout the debate to separate as much as possible the personality of this incumbent from the broader office of the Mayor, for obvious reasons. However popular this incumbent might have been, one cannot expect him to continue in office throughout our lifetime, and we need legislation that is appropriate for whoever might occupy the office. Inevitably, though, for as long as there has been a mayoral office in London, Ken Livingstone has been the occupant, and his exercise of those powers has to an extent defined in the public mind what the Mayor’s job could and should be.
There is legitimate controversy about many of the Mayor’s decisions and the powers that he has exercised. We have had an opportunity to revisit some of those matters—the congestion charge, housing, planning—and we accept, although we as Conservatives might take a different view, that the Mayor is within his rights to exercise the powers allotted to him by the House to shape London in line with the vision that is his mandate.
However, we are genuinely concerned that the Mayor is overreaching himself by attempting to use the office of Mayor of London—and, by association, the prestige of our capital city—to pursue a foreign policy that is out of kilter with the views of a majority of Londoners and in opposition to the Government’s own stated goals. We are all aware that in the 1980s various local authorities attempted to use public money to effectively turn local authorities into lobbying groups for international policies. There were lively debates about whether that spending was legitimate or ultra vires. The new clause would clarify for this Mayor and, if the Government are willing, other local government figures, what is legitimate in spending on contact with foreign cities and other nations.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not so much the Mayor holding foreign policy views that we object to as when they conflict with his primary duty to serve the people of London? In November I chaired an open meeting relating to a bus route in my constituency, the C1. Everybody was there: myself, the two leaders of the council, the neighbouring council and two officers from Transport for London. Unfortunately the current incumbent Mayor was unable to be there because he was on a flight to Cuba.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Most Londoners would consider that if the Mayor had a choice between travelling on a British Airways flight to Cuba and working out how to make the C1 bus route work more effectively, his job would be to concentrate on the C1 rather than turning a flight to Cuba into his own version of Air Force One.
Tom Brake: Might not the Mayor have been in Cuba seeking to secure a deal for cheap oil on which to run the C1?
Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I shall come to the role that the Mayor envisaged Venezuela playing in London. One of the technical problems with the Mayor’s attempted oil deal with Venezuela, which on the surface might have been attractive to some Londoners, was that any petrol that he managed to secure would have been subject to excise duty and other taxation. That would have meant that any saving for Londoners was minimal. Whether those excise duties are too high is a matter for the Treasury. I simply point out that, not for the first time, the Mayor was on a fool’s errand in economic terms.
The hon. Gentleman and I have mentioned Cuba and Venezuela, and we must address how the Mayor has used his office to carve out a distinctive foreign policy for London. It is not one that reflects particularly well on London, because there has been a striking connection between the people whom he has seen. He has sought to use the prestige of his office and the money of London taxpayers to support and burnish the reputation of some of the least attractive leaders in the world. Cuba is a country that, for understandable reasons, occupies an honoured place in the minds of some people on the radical left. It is entirely understandable that the romance of the Cuban revolution, which led to the replacement of the Batista regime, can still entrance and enchant some. The reality of the revolution is now the betrayal of many dreams: the incarceration of gay men and women, the suppression of dissent and the limiting of political freedom where it matters most.
11 am
Mr. Slaughter: I fear that the hon. Gentleman might be falling into the trap that he accuses the Mayor of falling into. I am not sure why the history of the Cuban revolution is relevant to the Bill. I hold no brief for Hugo Chavez, but I can see why the Mayor might sympathise with a left-wing politician who has been the subject of vilification and abuse by extreme right-wing forces for a long time. I am not aware that there are any plans by the Conservative party to kidnap the Mayor of London in a coup, as happened to Senor Chavez, but if it does happen, I hope that my constituents will march peaceably on central office until he is released.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His view seems to be at variance with the official position of his party. He shows a degree of sympathy for Fidel Castro but the truth is that, in answer to my question on 12 January, the Minister for Europe wrote:
“The UK remains committed to the 1996 EU Common Position, which aims to encourage a process of...transition to pluralist democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 989W.]
The hon. Gentleman may well romantically associate Fidel in his mind with Ken and see them both as left-wing martyrs who are subject to vilification, but if they are subject to vilification, it is coming from his right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe as much as from Washington DC or Conservative central office.
Mr. Slaughter: On a pure point of correction, I do not think that I mentioned Fidel Castro at all in my intervention. I was concentrating on purely Bolivarist movements in South America. I would like to go on at greater length about them, but I fear that I may be falling into the same trap of a discourse too far.
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what I think was an attempt at clarification but I suspect that he was being a trifle disingenuous. His comparison of left-wing leaders who are subject to right-wing vilification was intended to allow us to see Ken and Fidel in the same light. If it was not, all I can say is that he should have made it clearer who he was talking about. I hope that he and other hon. Members will join me in making clear our unhappiness about what has been happening for the past 20 years in Cuba under Fidel and his associates. I mentioned the incarceration of homosexuals. Recently—
The Chairman: Order. What happened in Cuba is not relevant to the new clause, the phrases of which are somewhat wider. I should be grateful if Mr. Gove would return to the subject in hand.
Michael Gove: I certainly will, Lady Winterton. I am grateful to you for that gentle reminder. However, Cuba is material to the exercise of the Mayor’s powers because, as we know, he recently travelled to Cuba and, when he did so, he made a conspicuous and deliberate choice about whom he saw when he was there. He deliberately chose to see a group of individuals who were family relations to those known as the Miami five. The individuals whom he saw were the relatives of those who had been arrested by America on suspicion of terrorist activity.
It could be argued that it was fair enough for the Mayor to have spent some time visiting those people but it is striking that when he was in Cuba, he did not choose to see the women in white—the recipients of the Sakharov prize given by the European Parliament to those who have genuinely been struggling for human rights. The women in white are the relatives of 75 distinguished liberal academics and journalists incarcerated by Fidel Castro for speaking up for human rights. The question that we have to ask is what message does it send when the Mayor makes such a decision? If he is going to spend public money travelling to Cuba, we have a right to ask why he is using our council tax to fund that jaunt. When the Mayor goes to Cuba and the people whom he chooses to visit are those who support repression and the people whom he chooses to shun are those who champion democracy, we have to say that London’s reputation suffers as a result.
It is not just Cuba: the Mayor’s thwarted intention to travel to Venezuela, alluded to by both the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush, also raises troubling questions. The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, with whom he was attempting to negotiate a particular oil deal, is an individual who recently embraced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, and made common cause with him. As I am sure the Committee knows, Ahmadinejad is a holocaust denier who said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. Is it appropriate for the Mayor of London to champion someone like Chavez, who is happy not only to share a platform with a holocaust denier, but to embrace him?
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): If we are going to play this game, does the hon. Gentleman condemn the previous Conservative premiers’ embrace of General Pinochet?
Michael Gove: I believe that what happened under the Pinochet regime in Chile was a gross abuse of human rights. There is now a welcome greater recognition across the parties that human rights are integral to any modern foreign policy. If are talking about the sins of the fathers, I point out that it was a Labour Government who enabled President Ceausescu to come here to meet the Queen and to receive an honour. In that respect there are skeletons in both parties’ closets. My point, which goes to the heart of the new clause, is that whatever past Conservative or Labour Governments might have done, they were the duly elected Governments of their country with the responsibility to discharge foreign policy, and both were subsequently defeated at the ballot box. The difference with the Mayor is that he is attempting to frame his own foreign policy when it is entirely outside the scope of the office that was originally envisaged.
Mr. Hands: Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the key difference is that the various people he has described may or may not have had views on foreign policy, but what offends so many Londoners is council tax payers’ money being spent on promoting those views, and holding lavish conferences and receptions for the people whose views are often very offensive to Londoners?
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. The embrace of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by Hugo Chavez will have offended the majority of moderate Muslims in London and given other communities in London, notably the Hindu, Sikh and Jewish communities, pause for thought. They might have been inclined to notice that embrace more than others because of a previous hug that the Mayor himself indulged in. He physically embraced Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation that has extensive international links. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is on the record as supporting suicide bombing, the physical chastisement of homosexuals and of husbands hitting women in the home with an open hand—he said explicitly that a slap is an acceptable way of enforcing discipline at home. Most of us would find those views at best mediaeval and at worst barbaric, yet the Mayor chose deliberately to embrace that individual as part of what he construed as his own distinctive contribution to foreign policy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham says, the expense of bringing Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi over here is one thing, but the message that that embrace sent out about London and what the Mayor of London considered to be an effective model of multiculturalism is one that many of London’s minorities found deeply worrying.
Martin Linton: Would these views not be better expressed in a press release issued at the hon. Gentleman’s expense? Has he any idea how much it costs to run a Committee like this, which has been discussing Chile, Cuba, Iran and various countries around the world? Surely he could do that in his own time?
Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so scrupulous about the Committee’s time. If at any stage the Minister wishes to acknowledge that he will accept the new clause I will be more than happy to sit down to save myself the bother of developing the case and the hon. Gentleman the expense in time of listening to it. However, it is important to rehearse the case because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham pointed out, these issues go to the heart of the character of the current incumbent and to the heart of one of the weaknesses in the legislation that governs what he can do.
Mr. Slaughter: I hesitate to spring, or to rise gradually, to the hon. Gentleman’s defence. He has sat through the porridge of the Bill so far and this is his jelly and ice cream; this is what he enjoys doing. It is a little bit of froth on the top. He dismissed the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North rather too lightly. He cannot completely exculpate himself from his party’s link to, say, the regime of General Pinochet, who died recently. A great apologist for him, Lord Lamont, said that in South American terms the 300 or 3,000 people or whatever it was that Pinochet bumped off was a relatively trivial matter. Is that the official view of the Conservative party? There is a direct link of hagiography from Lord Lamont to the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to the hon. Gentleman. I think that he ought to be a little more precise.
Michael Gove: I suspect that I would tax the Committee’s patience too much if I were to embark on a lengthy explanation of the precise nature of all the crimes of the Pinochet regime. Suffice it to say, as I tried to point out to the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, past Conservative Governments have made specific foreign policy mistakes, some of which I have had the opportunity to point out elsewhere in Committee. For example, they could be taxed with their attitudes towards the Balkans, particularly Slobodan Milosevic, but now is not the time—
The Chairman: Order. I again point out to those contributing to the debate that the clause is about the authority incurring expenditure and so on. Discussion of the character of the present Mayor and the foreign policy of previous Governments is not in order. I shall be grateful if members of the Committee, having made their points, move on.
Michael Gove: I am grateful, Lady Winterton. I mentioned the particular case in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and the concerns of London council tax payers. One such concern will be the projected cost—£2 million—of a festival that the Mayor proposes to hold in 2009 to celebrate 50 years of the Cuban revolution. With your permission, Lady Winterton, I thought it appropriate to outline the Mayor’s views because I, and many Londoners, consider the nature of many of the regimes that he has feted to be unacceptable. The money is being spent on a cause and for a purpose that is entirely out of sympathy with the views, I believe, of a majority of Londoners.
At the beginning of my remarks I pointed out that in the 1980s there were lively debates about whether it was appropriate for local government to spend taxpayers’ money on pursuing foreign policies, or whether such expenditure was ultra vires. Central to that question was the importance of drawing a distinction. Local government can legitimately undertake activities to bolster civic pride and establish commercial and personal links between particular local government areas and comparable areas abroad. Twinning and fact-finding missions are entirely legitimate. What we contend is not appropriate is use of the mayoral office and council tax payers’ money on the prosecution of a foreign policy that runs counter not only to the stated foreign policy of the Government in power, but to the values that people in Britain and in London increasingly consider to be integral to civilised life.
The Mayor of London held a conference on Saturday, entitled “A World Civilisation or a Clash of Civilisations?” The Mayor used that conference as a platform to outline some views that I and, I suspect, the majority of Londoners do not share. I recognise as entirely legitimate that the Mayor may hold conferences in London on how London, as a multiracial, multicultural and multi-ethnic city, can be better governed and more harmoniously led. To do that is entirely within the ambit and scope of what is appropriate for the Mayor. However, the present or any future Mayor using public money to travel abroad and laud regimes that most Londoners and Britons find offensive is not appropriate, nor is then putting London council tax payers’ money into festivals intended to celebrate the achievements of regimes that the majority of our fellow citizens consider not worthy of celebration, but, rather, worthy of working to change.
11.15 am
Tom Brake: I echo the comments of pleasure about your chairmanship this morning, Lady Winterton. You have clearly set a standard and will not allow the Committee to stray far from its brief.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath is normally very persuasive. However, in the course of his argument in favour of new clause 15, my position changed from support to opposition. I might characterise the new clause as the Evening Standard new clause because it is intended to create a headline about not wanting a Mayor who spends more time in Havana than Havering, or more time in Caracas than Kew—a place that the Mayor has never visited.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. He will probably agree with me that in practice, the present Mayor or a future one will pay for any foreign escapades at the ballot box. That is the appropriate place to pay for any excesses. If we examine the proposed new clause, we find that it would introduce a degree of uncertainty. For instance, it would be difficult to confirm whether the Mayor has overstepped the mark by encroaching on something that is primarily the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or whether the expenditure that he incurs in co-operating with other major world cities is legitimate. The hon. Gentleman will realise that if the proposed new clause were accepted, the Mayor could proceed exactly as now. He would be able to say that he was having a series of meetings with key people in a major city, as opposed to encroaching on work that would be better done by the FCO and the Department for International Development.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make with the proposed new clause, but its weaknesses render it unusable. Should the hon. Gentleman press it to a Division, I will not support him.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I shall be brief in voicing my support for new clause 15 because the basic principles have been well rehearsed. I am disappointed by what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington says about it because the Liberal Democrats in the assembly have condemned some of the Mayor’s more outlandish escapades just as vigorously as the Conservatives have. Members of the Labour group on the assembly have looked embarrassed, as I hope some Government MPs are.
The Mayor’s behaviour is representative of a cast of behaviour that damages the institution of the mayoralty. When any Mayor does something that Londoners regard as wholly off the wall, it causes them to think that everyone at city hall is a waste of space and to ask what they pay their council tax for. That is a shame and a matter of regret for those of us who supported the creation of strategic city-wide governance for London at a time when it was not fashionable within my party.
My concern is that the Mayor damages the argument for having an effective, strategic authority for London by going off on his digressions. One cannot help but feel that way. In the eight years the Mayor has been in office, he has visited Bromley three times and Bexley twice. People in those parts of London will compare them to the other places the Mayor has visited and question his priorities. That argument is not a game or a bit of knocking copy. The Mayor not only damages himself at the ballot box—though I hope he does—but damages the institution, which is the more serious point. The fact that he does so by visiting some particularly authoritarian types makes it all the worse.
I was particularly concerned about the Mayor’s recent jaunt, which I raise here because we have not yet had a satisfactory response. I shall not go into the details of his trip to Cuba, but considering some of the comments made by Labour Members, it is ironic that when the Mayor was asked about it in the London assembly meeting, he spent the bulk of his reply rubbishing the Foreign Office’s considered assessment of the human rights situation in Cuba. He specifically rubbished quotations from the Foreign Secretary that I read to him. I simply throw that into the ether for the consideration of Labour Members so that they know what their friend is doing.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Slaughter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Robert Neill: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield, who caught my eye first.
Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have spent some time touring Cuba. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only too easy for someone such as the Mayor to go there from London and get the impression that Cuba is a free society because people are quite open, but be totally unaware of the number of writers and artists who are held in prison in that undemocratic land? Is it not a waste of the Mayor’s time and resources for him to spend his time doing that rather than caring for the people of London?
Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sometimes the Mayor’s extraordinary naivety in that regard—I am trying to be charitable—reminds me of people such as George Bernard Shaw in the 1930s who told us what a wonderful place the Stalinist Soviet Union was, perhaps hoodwinked by the same type of extremely controlled visit. The message is exactly the same.
Mr. Slaughter: On a point of clarification, I have never had the pleasure of attending a session of the GLA. Is the one that the hon. Gentleman describes typical, with members reading quotes from the Foreign Secretary about Fidel Castro and getting a response from the Mayor? Before he criticises expenditure, perhaps he would like to put his own house in order and remove the plank from his own eye.
Robert Neill: That was an ingenious attempt to make a tackle, but it went wholly into the mud. The whole point of the question that I asked was to get the Mayor to give an account of the expenditure that had been incurred and the priorities that caused him to incur it. I imagine that it is not unknown for quotes to be read out in Hammersmith and Fulham council meetings, which seems to be the fount of most of the hon. Gentleman’s experience. I shall take no lessons from him on that.
The interesting thing about the Mayor’s attempt to enter into contractual relationships with the Government of Venezuela was that he was not dealing with another municipality or city. It was not the sort of deal that might be done between the Greater London authority and the authority of Shanghai, New York city, Bombay or another major city. It was an attempted deal between a local authority in the UK and a national Government, or at any rate the national corporation that controls the oil. That is bizarre, and I have not had a satisfactory answer from the Mayor on whether he sought advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Trade and Industry or—I shall come to my reason for including this last Department—the Home Office.
It was not only the contract that was of concern. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington might recall that in the assembly debate the leader of the Green party group made the fair comment that the Mayor did not seem to understand that oil was not necessarily compatible with a climate-friendly approach. The Mayor seemed to think that there were two types of oil—nasty capitalist oil, which was bad, and good socialist oil, which was to be welcomed. I hope that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will support us on the new clause.
Tom Brake: May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the effectiveness of the new clause? He has referred to the DTI. Negotiating oil deals might be that Department’s responsibility, but the new clause refers only to the FCO and DFID and so does not appear to cover the scenario to which he is referring.
Robert Neill: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to reconsider his vote, we will be happy to table a more comprehensive new clause on Report to include all the appropriate Departments.
Martin Linton rose—
Robert Neill: I shall give way in just a moment once I have finished my point.
Having gone down that route, the Mayor was condemned in the Assembly. It would not be a bad idea to prevent future Mayors from getting themselves into that mess.
Martin Linton: I just wonder if the hon. Gentleman has any idea of the cost to the public purse of running a Committee for half a day? His speech is in danger of forcing us to meet this afternoon.
Robert Neill: It is interesting how sensitive Government Members are on this topic. The Committee has a timetable for a full day’s business, but given the promptness with which the Committee has dealt with the Bill, we should finish our proceedings well within that timetable. I am sorry that Government Members are so sensitive about the subject that we are discussing.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): First, I apologise to you, Lady Winterton, and to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for not being present for the beginning of his contribution this morning. I am happy to take part in the debate. Secondly, I wish to defend Conservative Members. I do not do it very often, but let me do it quickly. The House of Commons operates a democracy and we are entitled to use the time available for what we think is appropriate. The Bill has been timetabled for a particular length of time and if Conservative Members want to occupy it with the debate that they have introduced this morning, that is a matter for them. If I may say so, it is not for others to bring in arguments about how much a particular debate might cost. That is entirely inappropriate.
Having defended Conservative Members, I shall now disagree with the case advanced this morning by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. There is a danger of confusing the occupant of an office with the office itself. Comments this morning have been largely critical of the activities of the Mayor. I am not going to defend his activities in all respects. I do not think that some of his foreign affairs expeditions and activities are appropriate. I would even go as far as to use the word “escapades”, which I think was used by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
The Committee might recall, however, that last week we had a debate on climate change, during which I argued strongly, as too did Conservative Members, that it was inappropriate for the Government to set terms of reference for the Mayor’s climate change strategy and that he should be free to pursue a policy on, say, energy or transport that might differ from the Government’s if he thought it appropriate for London. We argued that the Mayor has his own mandate through the ballot box and is fit to discharge it, and the people who should judge whether he discharges it appropriately or whether he is abusing his position to undertake activities that are irrelevant to London are the electors of London when they next vote for a Mayor. The same argument applies today.
11.30 am
I do not think it is appropriate that the Mayor has undertaken some of the activities he has but he should be free to behave badly, if that is how people wish to interpret it. He should be free to undertake escapades, to use the expression of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. He should be free to liaise with unpleasant, dictatorial, authoritarian regimes if he thinks that he should. I happen to think that he is entirely wrong on that. I think he is entirely out of step with the people of London in following that course, but he has his mandate to do so and he will pay the price for that accordingly—and indeed does pay the price by way of the negative coverage that appears in the newspapers and the damage to his personal reputation.
I also think it is dangerous to try to talk about the regime. We should stick to principles here. Members have criticised the Mayor for meeting particular regimes that are authoritarian by nature, as indeed they are, and which have rather unpleasant aspects to them, but would the same criticism apply if he met people from Italy or from Canada or from New Zealand or other countries where the same criticism on the same human rights basis would not be applicable? I did not hear criticisms of that. I hope that we are not saying that the Mayor is free to meet foreign leaders or undertake a foreign policy where Members would not object to the people he is meeting but not free to meet those to whom they would object. Surely the principle is whether or not he is free to undertake meetings at all on a foreign policy basis. I happen to think that he is because he has his own mandate; because London is a very important city in the world; and because there is a great deal of decentralisation in most countries of the world, beyond that which there is in this country in terms of the power exercised by leaders of major cities. Indeed, leaders of major cities across the world would expect the Mayor of London to deal with matters beyond whether the dustbins are emptied on time. It is a great pity that the Mayor of London, and indeed our local elected representatives at all levels, do not have the freedom in this country that they have in other countries, and we should move towards that.
It would be entirely respectable and understandable if leaders of other major cities in the world wanted to discuss foreign policy and foreign matters with the Mayor. As I say, he will pay a price or otherwise for that. I urge Conservative Members not to play the ball but to play the game, as it were, on this particular occasion because we had an unfortunate incident 25 years ago when the then Conservative Government took great dislike to the same individual, Ken Livingstone, when he was running the Greater London council. They objected to how he was using his powers in the Greater London council and the consequence of that was that Mrs. Thatcher decided to abolish the Greater London council. In my view, that was an entirely wrong decision to have taken. She should have criticised the leadership, if she wanted to. She did do so and I would have to agree with her on many occasions regarding Ken Livingstone’s activities in that incarnation as leader of the Greater London council. Just because the occupant at the time was behaving in a way that many people would find unacceptable, however, is not a reason to abolish the authority. Similarly, because the present Mayor of London is not to everyone’s taste and is not particularly to mine in many respects either, that is not a reason to impose curtailing powers on what a Mayor might do. I ask Members to look at the general principles rather than the personalities; to consider the principle, apart from anything else, of devolution and of his own particular accountability and mandate. For those reasons I cannot support the new clause.
Mr. Hands: I join other Members in welcoming you back to the Chair, Lady Winterton. You will be delighted to hear that I am not going to speak at length and nor am I going to discuss items of foreign policy because I think that is slightly missing the point about this amendment. This amendment is in a tradition of regulations governing local authorities on things like ultra vires. It is about what local authorities, in this case the GLA, or the Mayor of London can or cannot spend. The key part, in my view, of this proposed new clause are the two words “incur expenditure”. I do not think that anybody is disputing the fact that the present Mayor or future Mayor or, indeed, anybody here may or may not have views on the big foreign policy issues of the day. The key question, in my view, is whether he or she should be allowed to incur expenditure in promoting those views. I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush’s criticism of those at the assembly who sought to initiate a debate about human rights in Cuba, when real the point was whether the Mayor should incur expenditure in promoting a particular view about Cuba. This is really a debate about what local authorities should be able to spend money on.
We are talking about considerable sums. The conference last Saturday, “A World Civilisation or a Clash of Civilisations?” to which my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath referred, was held at lavish expense at the QEII conference centre; the entire centre was booked out to discuss foreign policy. An elite panel of speakers from around the world came to the conference, which included sessions on democracy in the middle east. I am a huge believer in promoting democracy in that region, but I have never used council tax payers’ money to do so, which is the key point behind the proposed new clause.
Many council tax payers in London are feeling the effects of rising council tax, although my own council, Hammersmith and Fulham, has just achieved a 3 per cent. cut. Residents are appalled that, at the same time as their hard-working, newly elected council has achieved that reduction, the Mayor has hiked his take in the GLA precept by more than 5 per cent. Part of that rise is undoubtedly due to huge extravagance on the part of the Mayor in running events such as that at the QEII conference centre.
I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats do not support the proposed new clause, as it would protect council tax payers’ money. It is in the ultra vires tradition, in which I assume they believe. It would give protection against local authorities spending council tax payers’ money on things that were well beyond their remit. I therefore support the proposed new clause.
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I welcome you to the Chair, Lady Winterton. I will follow your guidance in refraining from tours of Cuba, Latin America, the Balkans and whatever other countries Opposition Members may suggest.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has said throughout the passage of the Bill that he does not want to be capricious, to personalise the debate, or to single out particular individuals. That is exactly what he has done, however. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes that a political debate about an individual has been confused with a debate on the sensible legislative proposals that the Committee must consider.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham attempted to make the proposed new clause an issue of principle, which I assume is to distinguish between the interests of the Foreign Office on one hand and good relations between cities on the other. I am sure that hon. Members want to be consistent and, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, would apply that principle to any mayor, be it the Mayor of London, a borough mayor, the mayor of a local council or the lord mayor of London. In order to depersonalise the issue, it is worth considering the impact of that approach on the lord mayor of London and his foreign visits. In his speech to the City banquet in September, the lord mayor said:
“During this year so far, some 72 heads of government...or...ministers from 39 countries have called on the Lord Mayor...I am in the final stages of an annual programme of visiting 23.”
In an earlier debriefing after a series of trips, he said:
“Welcome to this debrief on the Mayoral visits to Kuwait in January; Libya, Tunisia and Malta in February and Iran; Oman and Qatar in April and May.”
Mr. Hands: Fundamentally, the Minister does not understand the nature of the City of London corporation. The role of the lord mayor of London is to promote London as a financial centre, which is what the visits are all about. The visits are paid for by businesses located in the square mile, which are more than happy to see London promoted as a financial centre competing with the relative attractions of Frankfurt and New York. Those visits are very important. It is events such as the clash of civilisations conference in the QEII conference centre that she appears to support and that the amendment is seeking to stop.
Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the promotion of London, whether as a financial centre, a great location to do business, the best possible location for the Olympics or a great capital city. He is absolutely right—we do believe that that is important. Many of the issues raised by the lord mayor of London on his overseas trips are ones in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a strong interest. Many of them could well be regarded as primarily the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The point is that the new clause’s approach is simply not practical. It is not sensible and confuses personality debates with the attempt to provide sensible legislation for the future of the mayoral role.
Michael Gove: The Minister acknowledges that the lord mayor of London has a valuable role in burnishing the reputation of the City as a centre for investment. Does she believe that the current Mayor of London—the only person to have exercised those powers so far—has burnished the reputation of the City by, for example, embracing the international head of the Muslim Brotherhood or visiting the families of people detained under terrorist offences?
Yvette Cooper: Once again the hon. Gentleman wants to engage us in a discussion about the particular individual who is the current Mayor rather than the clause before us. That is what he has attempted to do throughout the debate. I presume that that is his motivation, other than simply to show us that he is a frustrated shadow Foreign Secretary and would like any opportunity to tour the world with his further examples.
Martin Linton: I thank my hon. Friend for that. Is it not also true that the lord mayor of the City of London often gives the impression on foreign trips that he or she is speaking for the entire population of London? Often they speak not only in the interests of the City but against, for instance, Canary Wharf in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for London, which is a competitor to it. The lord mayor of London often actually damages the interests of the rest of London, and it is only right in those circumstances that the true Mayor of London should have the flexibility, when he judges it to be right, to promote the interests of all Londoners and not just those of a section.
Yvette Cooper: I shall resist the temptation to comment on the individual decisions and outings of any mayor, whether it be the lord mayor of London or the Mayor of Greater London. It is not the purpose of the Committee to allow me to comment on any of those visits or approaches. I will say simply that the issues raised may well be issues of strong interest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and would therefore be covered by the clause.
Mr. Hands: It is unfair and wrong of the Minister to seek an equivalence between the role of the lord mayor of London and the elected Mayor of London. The lord mayor is doing a brilliant job in promoting London as a financial centre, the envy of the world; New York City has just launched its own large-scale inquiry into why it is falling behind London as a financial centre. To equate his work in any way with the activities of the elected Mayor of London and his foreign policy activities is fundamentally wrong and undermines the role of the City of London Corporation in promoting Britain as a financial centre.
11.45 am
Yvette Cooper: I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks as an indirect compliment to the hard work of the Government’s City Minister, who has indeed been working hard alongside the lord mayor, whether in New York or in other countries, to raise issues about the City. I do not think that the debate is about the individual trips that any mayor, lord mayor, mayor of a borough or mayor of a council across the country should take. It is about the appropriate framework for the legislation. We do not think that it would be appropriate, as Conservative Members seem to be suggesting, to introduce restrictions on mayors who are directly elected that we would not introduce on those who are not. On that basis, the Government oppose the amendment.
Michael Gove: I am disappointed that the Minister declines to speak warmly of the amendment, let alone to support it. I am surprised that she seeks to shelter behind the lord mayor’s carriage to avoid expressing any view on issues of political moment to Londoners. In a way, I am not surprised that she has done so. It seems to be a rather tragic example of political cowardice at a time when the country is crying out for political leadership that she should decline to offer any opinion about one of this country’s most famous Labour politicians and his embrace of authoritarian regimes and mediaeval theocratic ideologues, but I think that Londoners can draw an appropriate inference from her silence on such matters. Her Pontius Pilate approach does not reflect well on her or the Government.
It is quite clear from the Government’s approach that they are perfectly happy to play a double game. They are happy to allow Ken Livingstone to run a foreign policy in London in order to gather votes from one particular constituency and at the same time, with the voice of the Foreign Office, to run a foreign policy more closely in tune with the country’s interests. Londoners will draw an appropriate conclusion about the cynicism of the Government from the way that the Mayor is operating at a deniable distance for electoral reasons. For that reason, I believe that this debate has served its purpose. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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