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In principle London Councils believes that increased local accountability can be better achieved by broadening the scope of existing scrutiny mechanisms.
I shall draw my comments to a close. Ministers must realise that the electorates concern right now is not just about the quality of government, and its quantityof course there is too much of that; a plethora of unaccountable regional government tiers has been set up. There is also concern about the quality of our democracy.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. One of the things I have tried to get the Leader of the House to do is to hold an annual debate on London, just as we have a debate on Wales on St. Davids day. Would that not be another way for us to raise London issues and put our concerns on record, rather than having the costs and administration of a new Committee?
Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is quite right. That would be yet another option for ensuring that London MPs could hold to account people who are taking decisions that affect Londoners, but of course it is probably too good an idea to be considered by the Government because they are so wedded to their costly, duplicative and interfering Regional Select Committee approach that they seem hell-bent on taking it no matter how much it costs and how ineffective it will be.
Mr. Chope: I feel entitled to participate in the debate because I was born in Putney and was a great supporter of the abolition of the Greater London council. Does my hon. Friend think that underlying the motion is the Governments state of denial, because they were defeated in the recent London mayoral election?
Justine Greening: I did not want to make the debate excessively political because I think that at heart the approach is structurally wrong for accountability whichever Mayor and whichever Government are in power. However, my hon. Friend is right to touch on that point. What concerns me about the proposals is that they feel like the politicisation of Select Committees, which have always been independent of the Executive. That has always been their biggest strength.
It feels to me as though the Leader of the House, like so many of her Cabinet colleagues, is merely shifting the deckchairs on the Labour Government Titanic. The biggest danger is that the proposals could undermine the effectiveness of our local devolution in London, through the Mayor and the London assembly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, Londoners had their say in the mayoral election last year. Now, like the rest of the country, we want to have our say about the accountability gap, which is real, but a general election will fill that gap, not a London Regional Select Committee. We have elected our Mayor, now we want the chance to elect new MPs and a Prime Minister who actually has a real mandate.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I certainly welcome the proposals, which are long overdue. We should have considered them six months ago when the other Regional Select Committees were being proposed. It is a regrettable oversight that the London Committee was not proposed at the time, and I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for listening to the representations made by my hon. Friends and me that London should be included in the programme of Regional Committees.
The Opposition put a false dichotomy. From my point of view, the more we scrutinise the activities of the Government and Government bodies, the better. I see no objection to a London Question Time; it is a good idea. I see no objection to an annual debate on London; that is a good idea, too. Indeed, when I was first elected, we used to have an annual debate on policing in Londonusually on a Friday morning, but it was welcome nevertheless. However, there is no reason why, having accepted and indeed agreed with those propositions, we should not also have a Select Committee for London, because there is no doubt that there is a significant accountability gap for various bodies for which the Government are responsible.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman envisage the London Select Committee, were it to be in place, considering a matter that had been devolved to the London assembly and reaching a different conclusion from the assembly? There would thus be two separate bodies with different conclusions about how a policy should be set, or how a matter should be resolved. What would be the pecking order between the London Select Committee and the London assembly?
Mr. Dismore: It would be most unlikely that the Select Committee would want to look at something that was entirely devolved to the London assembly, although we might find that there were areas of joint or overlapping responsibility. Of course, it is possible to come to a different conclusion, but that does not necessarily mean that different conclusions should not be reached or considered. Think-tanks in the outside world come to different conclusions. There is nothing wrong with that; it helps to inform debate and, ultimately, leads to better decision making when different points of view are expressed after detailed consideration.
The hon. Lady is right; there may be different conclusions. For example, there are significant overlapping responsibilities on housing policy. There are the Mayors responsibilities. He has just published his draft housing strategy, with which I profoundly disagree, signally on the abolition of targets for affordable homes. The boroughs have housing policies, some of which are in conflict with the Mayor because the boroughs are trying to negotiate different numbers. There is the Governments overarching strategy to try to provide decent, affordable homes for the people of London. The role of the Homes and Communities Agency, a central Government body, is vital in that operation. Indeed, a round of negotiations is going on between my borough and the HCA to try to get the money needed to support some of the regeneration schemes, which have run into the sand for reasons that I will not go into now. It would be helpful if a London Select Committee could call Mr. Bob
Kerslake to discuss the policies of his agency towards London. It has actually been very difficult for us to get hold of him to discuss some of the issues.
Earlier, I mentioned the NHS London consultation, which has just closed, on proposals for acute trauma and stroke servicesif we can call it consultation, and I have been quite critical of it. The proposals were of major interest in each of our boroughs, which have advanced different positions. For example, there are proposals for four major trauma units. The fourth will be at either the Royal Free or St. Marys, and there are significant differences across London about which should be chosen. Indeed, some people argue whether four is the right number.
Similarly, in relation to stroke services, there is a strong argument about whether the eight places selected are the right ones for hyper-units and, again, whether eight is the right number. The best way of dealing with that issue would be to call Ruth Carnall and the other people at the top of NHS London who are involved to give evidence to a London Select Committee and answer those very detailed questions.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The hon. Gentleman and I are as one on the importance of stroke services and major trauma centres, but he has not explained why a London Select Committee will be more effective in highlighting those issues than the Greater London assembly, which his Government created.
Mr. Dismore: Because the NHS is a central Government serviceI would have thought that that answer was self-evident. The NHS is accountable to the House, like the Government, but it is only indirectly accountable to the GLA and the London assembly. Borough scrutiny committees will of course examine health issues, but only from the perspective of their individual borough. The hon. Lady will know that Barnet, which we represent, has formed a particular view, but that is very different from Hammersmiths view. How can those differences of view be reconciled except through an overarching inquiry by a pan-London Select Committee of the House that scrutinises officials and holds them to account? Such a Committee will be able to call officials such as Ruth Carnall and the medical experts who have been giving opinions as part of the consultation. Indeed, they could be held to account for the appalling way in which the consultation has been conducted.
Mrs. Villiers: One advantage that the GLA would have over a London Select Committee when scrutinising such matters is that its members would have been elected by Londoners, whereas I understand that a London Select Committee could have members from all over the country.
Mr. Dismore: I hope that would be very unlikely. If the motion on membership of the Committee included a plethora of non-London Members, I for one would not vote for it, and I doubt that the hon. Lady would either. I, like her, have certainly been elected by Londoners.
May I dig a little deeper into the Select Committees role that the hon. Gentleman envisages? Following the ongoing consultation on stroke and trauma, is he suggesting that after the strategic health authoritys
board reaches a conclusion, it could be overruled by the Select Committee? In such circumstances, would the SHA have a role as the body that should make decisions about London health, or would it be subservient to the London Committee?
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Lady knows that that is not the constitutional position. Members of the House are not the Executive, but the legislature. In that context, Londons SHA is part of government and must be held to account for the decisions that it makes. It would not be for the Select Committee to overrule the SHA, but it would be able to express its views and opinions to influence the debate and the decision-making process. The ultimate decision would be taken by Health Ministers and the SHA, but it would be the job of London Memberscollectively, through the Select Committeeto inform the debate.
The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) talked about post office closures in response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). I have no axe to grind because I was one of the rebels on post office closure, but it is important to bear it in mind that responsibility for post offices lay with Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Ministers at that time. The London Committee could have held BERR Ministers to account and discussed policies on post office closures with them, and then the Committee could have formed a view. That could not have been achieved in any other way except through the much wider debate on post office closures, which was very difficult to participate in because many Members wished to speak.
My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) talked about employment policy. We all accept that Londons economy is different from the rest of the countrys. London faces challenging economic circumstances and, in the light of what has happened in the City, the problems facing its labour market are completely different from those in other parts of the country. Neither the Treasury Committee nor the Work and Pensions Committee is holding an inquiry into Londons job market, but the London Committee would probably want to examine the way in which Government policy affects Londons labour market in the City and throughout the wider city. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), such an inquiry could involve working with the London Development Agency and the GLA, but given that economic policy is a matter for central Government, a London Committee should hold central Government Ministers to account on their policy for London.
Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. He says that economic policy in London is fairly and squarely a matter for the House, so he must be unaware of the huge amount of work being done under the Mayors auspices in city hall to determine what can be done to help Londoners and Londons economy to navigate their way through the recession. His suggestion sounds like an absolute duplication of what the London assembly and the Mayor are trying to deliver for London.
I do not think that the hon. Lady was listening to what I said. I was giving an example of complementary responsibility. I cited the NHS to illustrate
something that is central Governments responsibility, but I was picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Upminster and setting out an area of overlap. I fully accept that the GLA and the Mayors office are examining some of these policies, but responsibility for the economy lies with Treasury Ministers, and we can hold Ministers to account through the Select Committee process in a way that the GLA cannot. That is why it is important that we establish the Committee although, of course, there would be no reason why the Committee could not take account of work carried out elsewhere. We must, however, recognise where the responsibility lies.
Justine Greening: I take the hon. Gentlemans point, but I think that he is forgetting to whom he is accountable. If we asked any owner of a small shop whether they would prefer money to be spent on a Regional Committee that reports on the recession in London, but duplicates all the work of the Mayor and the GLA, or spent on directly supporting shops, they would probably go for the latter. He talks about this as though it is an interest point and a study programme, but we are meant to be representing our constituents and working alongside other tiers of government. He suggests going far beyond that with a structure that will be sheer duplication and will cost taxpayers money that they cannot afford.
Mr. Dismore: I disagree with the hon. Lady. The same would be true if we asked anyone whether they would like money spent on one thing rather than another. Given the reputation of the House in the outside world, people would probably suggest abolishing the lot of us and spending the money on something else, but that is not really the answer to the point. We are trying to develop effective scrutiny.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Hon. Members will be familiar with the background to the setting up of Regional Select Committees and the crucial vote on their composition, which was won with a Cabinet Ministers casting vote. The Leader of the House knows that my party does not object in principle to the establishment of Regional Committees or the London Committee, but we object to the composition agreed by the Government. We also have doubts about the ability of Regional Committees and the London Committee to do their job of holding Government agencies and quangos to account.
The process cannot work without real consultationmy hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) gave an example of a complete lack of consultation during business questionsor when Members in a region are not represented in the right proportion on a Regional Select Committee. I acknowledge that the London Committee will be one of the fewif not the onlyRegional Committee whose membership, albeit completely by chance, reflects the proportion of MPs in the region. The process certainly cannot work effectively if, as is the case on other Regional Committees, a Ministers Parliamentary Private Secretary is holding
that Minister to account. That is not a way of ensuring that regional quangos and other bodies are scrutinised effectively, as it clearly involves a significant conflict of interest. The Leader of the House talks about Opposition intransigence, but she would do better to consider whether there is intransigence on the part of the Government and an unwillingness to be flexible about the composition of the Regional Committees. The Liberal Democrats therefore cannot agree to the establishment of the London Regional Committee. As I have stated, I acknowledge that the composition of the London Committee would roughly reflect the number of MPs of different parties across London, but that has happened by accident, rather than design.
The second reason why we have serious reservations about the establishment of the London Select Committee is that we, like the Government, wanted a transfer of powers when the Greater London authority was set up. Indeed, we wanted a more significant transfer of powers to the Mayor and the London assembly than there has been. In many ways, that would have done away with the need for a Regional Select Committee, because the Mayor and the assembly would have held more powers, so the scrutiny role would have been undertaken by the assembly. It would have had a wider range of powers and responsibilities to consider, so there would have been even less demand for a London Regional Select Committee. However, I accept that certain areas of Government policy would remain within the remit or control of the national Government, rather than the London government. Hon. Members have referred to health; there is no reason why significant health powers could not be delivered at a London region level, rather than provided by national Government locally in London. If so, it would have made sense for the assembly to conduct scrutiny at that London level.
We have the same concerns as others do about the duplication that is taking place. When the London assembly and the Mayors powers were set up, the expectation was that the Government office for London would go, but its powers and budget seem to have increased, rather than decreased. There is no end in sight to the duplication that arises as a result of the Government office for London remaining in place after the creation of the assembly and of the London Mayors powers.
If there is an issue relating to scrutiny, by all means let us look at whether the assembly needs additional powers; it could also propose additional powers itself. There may be issues to do with the extent to which it carries out its scrutiny role, particularly as regards the London Development Agency and the £100 million that may or may not be missing. If there are issues, I am sure that they can be addressed. Other hon. Members have made sensible suggestions about having a London Question Time or an annual debate in the House about London.
Members who have been in the House as long as I have, or roughly as long, will know that in earlier years, but not so much in the past couple of years, we had a series of one-and-a-half-hour Adjournment debates on London issues, on subjects such as the police or health. That seems to have died down, partly, I suspect, as a result of the transfer of powers to the London assembly
and the Mayor. London Members do not feel quite as engaged, or that they have as much responsibility, as they did prior to the implementation of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. However, there are other ways in which we can boost scrutiny, and give Members greater oversight of the matters that are still of interest to them in London, without setting up a London Regional Select Committee.
Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman referred to the scrutiny role, and to the role of powers. It is not clear whether the London Select Committee would have any powers at all, or whether it would simply be a scrutiny body. It is difficult to see how it could influence decision making in this place, in the London assembly, or in any other public body, unless it had powers. However, if it had powers it would be creating duplication, as he rightly said.
Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. My assumption is that the London Select Committee would have the same powers as every other Select Committee; in other words, it would have the power to make recommendations and to bring Ministers to appear before it. However, in practice, as we Members all know, if the Government, or possibly the Mayor or the London assembly, choose to disregard those recommendations, there is nothing that we Members can do about it, apart from draw attention to it in debate and so on. I agree that that is a valid point to which Ministers need to respond.
To conclude, there are no guarantees about the London Select Committees composition, and there is not clarity about what scrutiny it will provide that is not provided by the London assembly. Until that clarity is there, the proposal cannot be allowed to proceed.
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