Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 700-719)


8 JULY 2008

  Q700 Chairman: Welcome, Mr Livingstone. This could be one of those occasions where I just get my question out and then we get called to vote, giving you a quarter of an hour to think of the answer.

Ken Livingstone: More evasive than normal then!

  Q701  Chairman: I am sure you will not be evasive in front of us, especially when I ask you to give us some kind of thumbnail sketch of how your relationships with ministers in the UK Government actually operated during your time as Mayor?

  Ken Livingstone: I must have met a government minister about once a week for eight years, and it was a regular round of I wanted more money and I wanted more powers, and what I found was that, even when broadly the minister agreed with what I was doing, it was difficult to get a decision in under two or three years. If there was any point of disagreement, nothing ever got resolved. Even on relatively small issues, like whether or not we should require utility companies to put down a duct so that any duct burrowed out once could then be used indefinitely, where the minister agreed. This rumbled on as a debate for years and did not get resolved, and still we wait for such things to happen. There was a moment when Jackie Smith had just become Home Secretary, and I was at my second meeting with her when I realised most of the items on the agenda had been at my first meeting, seven years previously, with Jack Straw. You got something that got you through for another year but never really getting resolved; and I thought there was an unbelievable inability to get a decision out of Government, even when it was not controversial. I think, because as a local government councillor I had been involved in deputations to ministers going right back to Peter Walker's time under Edward Heath, it was the worst government of my lifetime to get a decision out of, and I suspected that was because so much power had been sucked to the centre in Downing Street and within Downing Street there was a conflict between Number Ten and 11, so even when it got to Downing Street you could not resolve the issue unless the Chancellor and the Prime Minister broadly agreed.

  Q702  Chairman: Does that mean that these problems relate to a particular government, or would that be a bit unrealistic? Are they not going to happen in some form or other under most governments where the powers that you are talking about require a government decision as well as your own decision?

  Ken Livingstone: I think this Government is worse than others, because so much was centralised. Relatively minor decisions, which Mrs Thatcher and other Prime Ministers would have left to their Cabinet ministers, still had to be agreed at the centre. No, I think there is that institutional problem that the Civil Service really does not want to let anything go. Even when you could get a minister to agree with you, they would often come back and try and block it. I think there was an institutional problem that they knew any power they gave up was a bit less of their empire. I can think of the one that is still running on and Boris Johnson has to resolve, which is the question of who lets the franchises for the suburban services serving London. Most of them go a few stations over the boundary, which always gave Civil Servants the ability to point out dozens of reasons why the Mayor could not possibly let the franchise. We eventually persuaded Tony Blair's Government to give the Mayor the power to let the franchise for Silverlink and we were still negotiating with Ruth Kelly about whether or not we could take over the southern franchise, almost wholly contained within London, and that was still rumbling on when I left. It had gone on for about two years, the Silverlink decision, about two or three years. If I think back, I cannot remember if it was the northern or western ticket hall at Kings Cross, but the Treasury suddenly got in a panic—it was costing too much—and put a stop on it. We then had two years of meetings discussing it, eventually recognising you had to build it. It is the interchange: it is a box under ground where people coming in on the Thameslink could interchange. They came back and decided, after two or three years had been wasted, yes, it would have to go ahead. I cannot remember, but I think it most probably ended up costing more than when they stopped it. I should imagine the biggest single item of my job was not dealing with the Assembly, it was just trying to coax ministers, working my way all the way up to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, to take relatively minor decisions which in almost any other city in Europe or America would be, at most, an issue between the Mayor and the Governor or the Mayor and the Länder but certainly would not have involved the Central Government.

  Q703  Chairman: Do you think, and did you ever compare notes to find out, that you were in a weaker position than, let us say, Scottish and Welsh ministers trying to get decisions out of government at Westminster?

  Ken Livingstone: We are in a much weaker position, because there was a real devolution of powers both to Scotland and to Wales. The Government was much more nervous about London and much more inclined—

  Q704  Chairman: Because it is London.

  Ken Livingstone: Because it is London, and also the worry that you might have someone there that would not do what you wanted, and there were huge numbers of reserve powers in the Act setting up the GLA that allowed ministers to step in and overturn the Mayor, plus 55% of the income to the Greater London Authority was direct or indirect grant from the Chancellor. So you always were in a position that, if you ever really upset the Government, they could make your life very difficult. It has left me totally committed to a federal structured government, like, say, West Germany or the United States of America, so these powers get really devolved to people who are much more directly accountable.

  Q705  Chairman: What were relations like further down between officials?

  Ken Livingstone: The difference between the devolution to London and Scotland and Wales: Scotland and Wales were the traditional relationship between politicians and Civil Servants. Basically, the officials at the GLA were my officials. I was able to sack them and get rid of them indirectly because it was done through the Assembly, and, therefore, I did not inherit something like the Scottish or Welsh Office with its deeply ingrained traditions, we created it from scratch, and that is why now Boris Johnson is making substantial changes amongst the layer of Civil Servants, as he is entitled to do, because the Mayor is the elected executive. It is my signature on the lease for the building, it is my signature on the photocopier contract. You are not working through somebody, and had we been, we would never have got the congestion charge or the expansion of the buses. The Mayor is responsible. There is no-one else to blame when it goes wrong.

  Q706  Chairman: If there had been some kind of English structure you were dealing with, as opposed to a UK structure, would it have made any difference?

  Ken Livingstone: I do not know. I think such a head of steam built up over decades for Scottish and Welsh devolution that there really was not much Civil Servants could do about it. It was what John Smith called "the settled will". In the GLA it was really starting from scratch and, I have to say, many Civil Servants, particularly in GOL, at that stage were arguing for a real aim.

  Q707  Chairman: Government Office for London.

  Ken Livingstone: Government office for London. There was a strong rear-guard action from the Home Office against any real mayoral power over the Commissioner of Police or even over the Metropolitan Police Authority. So the only power the Mayor has, which is a big one, is to set the budget. I remember Jack Straw saying to me, "I would like to have gone further, but you could not let London be too out of line with the rest of England." They did not think London might be an experiment that would lead the rest of England. Of course, I now find myself in agreement with the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson in that I do believe it is right that the Mayor should appoint the Commissioner of Police and should be answerable to someone who is answerable to London.

  Q708  Chairman: How significant was Government Office for London? You have spoken about having endless meetings of ministers to resolve difficulties. Is Government Office for London an irrelevance?

  Ken Livingstone: In the times before it was thought that—. If you think back, in the run-up to the first mayoral election, for a long period the presumption was that I would not be allowed to stand, and I would not think of leaving the Labour Party, so they structured it on the assumption that I would not be there, and even then they built in very strong constraints. When I did turn up there, suddenly the Government Office, which had been quite keen to devolve and try this experiment, was under real pressure to watch everything I was doing and for about three years the mantra was there could be no reopening of this settlement for years to come, "We want to see several terms", and so on. Certainly, once I came back into the Labour Party, that became more relaxed and we got a second round of legislation. The Government Office for London at that point started to fade a bit into the background, but they were quite active as a presence between the period between my first election and my second; much less so in the second term.

  Q709  Mrs James: You have talked a little bit about how the role changed, et cetera. Would you say that the powers of the Greater London Authority have changed since 1999, and how do you perceive they have changed?

  Ken Livingstone: I remember during the debates, because I was on the committee passing the legislation, Nick Raynsford repeatedly said that the prestige of the post will allow the Mayor to do more, and I was deeply cynical about that, but it did turn out that, simply because you were the directly elected Mayor, you had access to business and to foreign governments and to international institutions in a way that, I think, would not be the case if you simply had the leader of a council. American politicians clearly understood the nature and role of the mayoralty. Immediately after my election we were facing the closure of Ford. I was able to pick up the phone and get straight through to the boss of Ford in America, meetings were set up and I do not think that would have been the case if I had been the leader of a council. I think they thought the Mayor of London was most probably as powerful as the Mayor of New York—sadly, this was not the case—and I got a very good response, and once the Government settled down and it was not so nervous about me, we started lobbying for more powers. I was quite careful in this. I only lobbied to takeover from central government the things that central government was doing badly—housing policy in London, skills, and so on, and waste. I did not waste my time trying to persuade them to give me things that were not a problem, just to focus on the ones that were not working well.

  Q710  Mrs James: Do you think that impacted in a way upon your successor and that he is going to possibly have a better time of it or a more defined role?

  Ken Livingstone: I think Boris will have quite a good two years, because a whole series of financial commitments have been given to the Mayor and, if the Labour Government was seen to renege on any of those, it would be catastrophic for their public standing to be seen to be punishing Londoners for having elected someone they did not like. I think Boris may have more of a problem if there was a change of government and it was looking for major cuts in public spending. I think these might be the best two years of Boris Johnson's mayoralty and he should make the most of it.

  Q711  Mrs James: And for the Assembly in general?

  Ken Livingstone: I think that the weakness of the GLA system was that it is a purely American system, so the executive power rests with the mayor. If you look at many of the American cities, there the City Council has real powers over planning and has the power to have minor legislation, like the writing of by-laws and so on, so I do not think they were really given enough to do. Also, I think the Assembly would tend to come into its own much more if you had a mayor that was personally corupt or following a very extreme ideological agenda. We have broadly created a consensus about where London was going. Therefore, there was not much for them to get dug into, and I think as well that they would have been more effective looking at things, not specifically GLA powers. Often when they did, when they looked at the state of football clubs, they tended to get more attention with their advice on things like that, or the state of borough parks and so on.

  Q712  Alun Michael: You have already referred to comparisons with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Your role as mayor was an executive role. In the case of Scotland you have got the Executive and in Wales they have moved in that direction from originally a single body to a split between the Executive and the Assembly. How would you compare the role of the executives in those two cases and your role and that of your team, as it were?

  Ken Livingstone: The job is so demanding. I had occasional contact with the Welsh and Scottish bodies, but they were very limited. It is a 24/7 job, and you just got on with what you had and made the best of what you had got. Whenever I bumped into people from the Scottish and Welsh authorities I was always rather envious of their wide-ranging powers, certainly Scotland's taxation power.

  Q713  Alun Michael: You would have used that, would you?

  Ken Livingstone: I would have used it. I would have preferred it if it could have been more progressive than just two pence up or two pence down. That is the reason the Labour Government seems to have so many problems today. It tied itself into not redistributing tax through a progressive system.

  Q714  Alun Michael: That model of the Mayor and the Assembly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of it?

  Ken Livingstone: I remember for five years as the leader of the GLC my focus was wholly internal to the Council and managing the Labour caucus and making sure we won all the votes. As Mayor, my focus was completely outside of the Assembly to a coalition of business interests, to lobbying for Crossrail, with the Greens, and so on, so I think I went from being the manager of the party caucus, which is really what every council leader is—even in hugely safe majorities often you have to manage it more than where you have got a narrow one—and I do not believe that we would have been able to get the congestion charge or the consistent expansion of the buses. We had a seven-year expansion of buses and policing. If I had had to win votes from the Assembly, there would have been those who would have said, "We cannot afford it. The boroughs are too pressed", or whatever. I think as well the ability to get so much done so quickly, having been totally hostile to the idea of a directly elected executive, I am now completely besotted with the idea. Tony Blair was the only person in the Labour Party who had this idea. The others were all broadly unsympathetic. I think he saw it as a substitute. He actually could not be a directly elected Prime Minister with executive powers. This at least gave him an idea of experimenting at a lower level, and I have to say, I think most probably recruiting a government from Parliament is not the best place to look. I think the executive model of government might very well be a better place to look, as the Israelis have done. They have kept a Prime Minister but directly elected somebody whose job is the role of government and the legislator should be the role of oversight and legislation, the actual day-to-day executive managing. If you come to look at people as talented as, say, Charles Clarke or Alan Milburn, managing huge bureaucracies like the Home Office or the Health Service, I do not believe you can manage stuff from Westminster, not direct services.

  Chairman: The Committee will be suspended for 15 minutes. I expect it only to be one vote.

The Committee suspended from 4.34 pm to 4.48 pm for a division in the House

  Q715 Alun Michael: You did quite a good job, Ken, of telling us the pros of the system that is there in place. What about the cons?

  Ken Livingstone: I actually have to say that I have just been through an election where I was constantly asked: "What has been your biggest mistake?" and I think on all the major issues we took the right decision. It may not be perceived that way nationally, but it was there to make the case for London.

  Q716  Alun Michael: I am sorry, this is about the Mayor and Assembly model.

  Ken Livingstone: It is quite interesting. When this was first going through Parliament the original idea was that the assembly would not be a paid job. Then we had a change of heart, it was going to be a paid job, and I remember Nick Raynsford talked about it being an almost permanent session, discussing all the things that mattered to London, and we envisaged—

  Q717  Chairman: You are talking about the Assembly.

  Ken Livingstone: The Assembly, yes. It was set up and part of the problem was that a lot of the members still had local government interests—some were in the House of Lords, others were standing for Parliament. I think the weakness is that they never set out to give it the—. It was not the first call on people's time.

  Q718  Alun Michael: So it is the role of the Assembly rather than the role of the Mayor?

  Ken Livingstone: If you ever get a mayor that takes an extreme ideological and divisive role or was a bit dubious financially, the Assembly really come into their own and that is when they grind the mayor down and bring them down. It is very difficult when you have got a broad consensus that covers 90% of political policy, most of green policy and quite a chunk of Liberal and Tory policy tacked on to the Labour Party. Also, looking at legislation, I would go back to saying it should be your primary job, not one you tack on to something else you are doing. I think that is part of the reason it has never got into the public consciousness. I was on the GLC, where you were paid just your attendance allowance, about £2,000 a year. I was in there all the hours God sent because I loved it and I was stirring up trouble all over London. Assembly members: a lot get incorporated into the Mayor's administration, and that may be wrong actually, being part of the administration and supposedly having a scrutiny role, but it is very difficult to see people not having other major outside interests until they are given more to do, which is why it seems to me absolutely ridiculous that the by-law on pigeons in London ended up being determined by the Government of the day. All those sorts of things do seem to me should be devolved.

  Q719  Alun Michael: That is helpful. One of the questions is the relationship to the boroughs. You have seen this in two contexts, because, obviously, you saw it in the old GLA situation and you have seen it now as Mayor of London. What is the relationship to the boroughs like?

  Ken Livingstone: In the public domain it looks very hostile. I have to say, behind the scenes there is much closer collaboration. There are things we are not going to agree on and we will denounce each other, but, say, in 2006, when the Conservatives gained many London boroughs, some of those borough leaders were in my door so quick saying, "How can we work together?", and even, "Can we build more affordable housing?", and this was not a party issue. I found there was a Labour borough, as difficult to work with, as the most extreme of the Tories. It is not really a Labour, Tory or Liberal issue—those people who think the whole world should go away and allow them to manage that borough all on its own, it would be like a nirvana within one borough, and there are others that recognise—. If I take Westminster Council where Simon Milton is the leader, he knew Westminster could not do its best if it was not working closely with the Mayor, because the Mayor's powers were most concentrated in central London. If I take another extreme, the Labour Council of Greenwich, it broadly had a view that they were sufficiently far from the centre and if everyone else could go away they could create socialism in one borough. At the other extreme is Hillingdon. I never met the leader of Hillingdon Council in eight years and I thought this was a terrible snub, and then I discovered most of the Tory leaders had not met him either! So there is a sort of insularity in some of the boroughs. I think there are really messy areas where Londoners are not aware who is running things. You have got 32 boroughs with different parking policies, residential zone times, different policies relating to bus lanes. The only roads the Mayor runs are 5%, the red routes, and that is why you have a wonderful cycle lane going through one borough and it stops at the borough boundary.

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