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Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill

3.10 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is limited in its ambit, dealing as it does solely with the arrangements for a pre-legislative referendum on the Government's proposal to set up a strategic authority--an elected assembly and an elected mayor for London.

It is, however, a vital staging post in the journey the Government embarked upon with our manifesto commitment, a journey which is due to end with a new authority for London in place for the new century, an authority capable of providing modern, strategic, democratic leadership for our capital city.

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In looking forward to the debate, like the rest of the House, I anticipate with pleasure the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Levene of Portsoken, with his long and distinguished association with London and its affairs. I am sure, too, we will all await with particular interest the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who, through his stewardship of the All-Party London Group, has contributed so much to the development and scrutiny of policy on the capital in this House; and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, whose paper to the Institute for Metropolitan Studies in 1993, A Fresh Start for London, did much to stimulate renewed debate on the future of London government; and of course we look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, to see, if nothing else, whether he has interests to declare. Who knows, among today's other speakers there may be others who wish to declare that at some point in the future they will be candidates for the office of mayor or for membership of the assembly.

Before setting out in detail the provisions of the Bill I believe the House would wish me to put it in the context of our plans for the governance of London, an issue in which this House has had a long-standing interest. London is a great city, a world city, comparable only perhaps to New York and Tokyo in size, influence and economic activity. It is our seat of government, a vital engine for our economy and a world-class centre for culture and the arts. And for more than 7 million people who have chosen to live and work here it is their home. Yet, despite its size, importance and complexity, for 11 years London has been bereft of strategic leadership. Unlike other great cities it has had no one to plan, to lead, above all to represent its community. Since the GLC was abolished, London has stood alone among western capitals--in a desolate league of its own--as the only major city in Europe with no form of strategic city-wide government.

Since 1986--and the dark days of Thatcherism--London has had to get by on ad hoc arrangements, obscure and unaccountable committees and unelected quangos. There has been no one to take responsibility for the important issues facing the capital. That has meant that too often nothing has been done about those issues. Of course there have been strategies and initiatives; committees set up to address this and that; reports published; but never anyone to take action forward; no real--no legitimate--leadership for London.

All of us who live or work here have seen the result of that strategic neglect: a decaying infrastructure, worsening air quality and a growing division between rich and poor. While knowing these were inevitably piecemeal and ad hoc measures, with typical resourcefulness and resilience, London and its citizens and institutions have done their best to fill that strategic vacuum. London First and the Association of London Government, individually and with others as part of the London Pride Partnership, have devoted time and effort to thinking about London's needs and developing practical solutions. They have mobilised local government, business and the voluntary sector. Many taking part in their activities have never before thought

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of their responsibility as to London as a whole. But the vacuum demanded filling and ways were found to fill it as far as was possible given that central problem. I think we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Didgemere, for his personal efforts in this regard.

But strategies and devices could never be enough. Busy people with many other responsibilities and no democratic mandate could never fulfil the fundamental strategic role, never maximize London's potential, never address its problems and never speak with its voice. London, a great world city, has drifted.

The Bill is a crucial stage in the task we have set ourselves of remedying the 11 years of London's isolation and providing democratic strategic leadership to the capital. I should make clear that that strategic leadership--the strategic government we are proposing for London--is not seeking to recreate the Greater London Council. What we want, and what we believe Londoners want, is a new democratic settlement for London, a settlement that is streamlined, modern and efficient, and one that is capable of taking our capital and its citizens into the next millennium. That aspiration is shared with many of different political persuasions and many who are not interested in conventional politics at all.

As part of the careful process of introducing a Greater London authority--consisting of a separately elected mayor and assembly--in July this year we issued a consultation document called New Leadership for London. It generated a huge response--more than 700 letters from individuals and more than 500 submissions from organisations representing tens of thousands of Londoners. That response showed an overwhelming level of support for our basic proposals. Many of the responses went into great detail. All of them demonstrated how intensely Londoners feel about the future of their city and the way it is governed.

At this point I should mention the response of the All-Party London Group of this House and thank it for its helpful and considered work on the Green Paper consultation. As with all its efforts, it demonstrated the valuable contribution the group makes to the consideration of policy issues affecting the capital. I should like to assure members of the group that the views they express will be taken seriously and will be addressed in our deliberations on the eventual shape of the White Paper and the legislation.

When I first went into politics I was told that no one was interested in constitutional change. Yet that has not been the experience in Scotland; it has not been the experience in Wales; it is not even the experience in debates on the future of your Lordships' House. Six months before the referendum is envisaged on a Greater London Authority and two years ahead of the earliest date for the mayoral election, people in London, Members of your Lordships' House and Members of another place, not to say the newspapers--I see a new flurry of anticipation in recent newspapers about potential candidates--are already talking about who might stand and what their manifestos might say. Last week the Association of London Government published

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a survey showing that, some six months ahead of the referendum and without the benefit of any formal public campaign, six out of 10 Londoners already know they will have the chance on 7th May next year to vote on London's future.

We believe that the people of London are enthusiastic because they are being trusted to have a say in what their government should be; trusted, I have to say, in a way that, I understand from reports, even the Cabinet of the day was not trusted on the issue of the abolition of the Greater London Council in the first place. The Government are committed to creating a strategic authority for London but it is right and proper that before we make these changes, Londoners should have the chance to say whether they agree with what we are putting forward. That is the crux of this legislation.

Perhaps I may now explain the provisions of the Bill in more detail. Clause 1 provides for a referendum to be held on 7th May 1998, or at a later date if so appointed by Order in Council. Subject to the Bill gaining Royal Assent in sufficient time for arrangements to be made, we fully intend the referendum to take place on the date set out in the Bill. The provision for changing the date is there for use only in the event that unavoidable circumstances force a postponement of the poll. Noble Lords will be aware that 7th May is also the date of local elections in the London boroughs. That brings with it benefits and challenges. Considerable money will be saved by the sharing of facilities and administrative arrangements--around £2 million to £3 million when compared to the cost of a stand-alone referendum. It will increase the chance of a good turnout for both polls. However, the combination of two elections on the same day will need careful planning.

We are discussing arrangements for the referendum with representatives of the Association of London Government, with returning officers and with electoral officials from the London boroughs and the City of London. Their help, assistance and experience have proved invaluable in planning for the referendum and the combination of polls.

As I said, the Government believe that it is right that the people who live in London, who will be the most directly affected by the new authority, should have the chance to give their consent as to how they are governed. Clause 2 of the Bill defines the classes of persons entitled to vote in the referendum; namely, those eligible to vote in local government elections in any of the London boroughs and those entitled to vote at ward elections in the City of London by virtue of residency. This will provide for a uniform franchise across the capital. I am sure that noble Lords resident in London will be pleased to learn that, as a result of this and provided they are on their local electoral roll, they will be entitled to a vote next May. I am certain and confident that they will use their votes well.

Clause 3 provides for the appointment and functions of a chief counting officer for London and of counting officers for each borough and the City.

Clause 4 sets out regulations governing the conduct of the poll. It provides for the poll to be combined with local elections, if they occur on the same day, and for

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provision to be made as to the conduct of the referendum and the combination of polls. This would be by Order in Council, following affirmative resolution of both Houses.

Clause 5 enables grants to be paid to London boroughs and the City of London in respect of expenditure incurred in connection with the referendum. While we are intent on minimising the cost of the referendum to the public purse, we will ensure that local authorities do not lose out as a result of their administration of the referendum.

Clause 6 excludes legal proceedings to question the results of the referendum as certified by the chief counting officer or a counting officer. Such a provision is well precedented in previous referendum legislation and a similar clause was fully debated by this House during the passage of the Referendum (Scotland and Wales) Act. The clause is designed to prevent frivolous challenges and legal obstructionism, not to prevent any legal action when there has been serious malpractice or a failure to fulfil statutory duties.

Parts II and III of the Bill deal with expenditure and paving provisions. It is intended that there should be fast progress towards the creation of the new authority. The Bill therefore provides for initial work to be done on the electoral areas of the authority and for expenditure, primarily on obtaining and preparing accommodation for the authority. Ministers in another place have already undertaken that paving provisions will not be used until an affirmative vote in the referendum and that significant expenditure will be incurred only after Second Reading of the substantive Bill establishing the authority. I can repeat that assurance this afternoon.

Clause 7 confers new functions on the Local Government Commission, requiring it, at the direction of the Secretary of State, to prepare a report recommending electoral divisions into which Greater London should be divided for elections to the new authority.

Clauses 8 to 10 set out the framework within which the commission must operate. They enable the Secretary of State to give the commission directions as to how it should carry out its functions under this part. Clause 11 provides for payment to be made to the commission in respect of its functions under this part of the Bill.

Clause 12 of the Bill provides for expenditure to be made in connection with the referendum and in preparation for the Greater London authority. The explanatory memorandum attached to the Bill makes clear that, if it takes place on 7th May, the total cost of the referendum will be some £3 million. This compares favourably with the costs of referendums in Scotland and Wales, reflecting the savings to be gained from sharing facilities with local elections. If the referendum were to take place on any other date, its cost would rise to around £5 million. It is estimated that the maximum cost of expenditure under this clause on paving provisions, in particular obtaining and preparing accommodation, will be around £20 million.

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The form of the question on which London will vote is set out in the schedule to the Bill. This was the issue most fiercely debated in another place with various and, I have to say, inconsistent criticism made of the single question set out in the Bill. That question reads,

    "Are you in favour of the government's proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly? Yes or no".

We believe that this question is as clear and as fair as possible. In drafting it we have taken expert advice and rigorously tested it for comprehensibility. We believe it is the right and the only practical question to ask of London.

The case that has been made for more than one question arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is the Government are proposing. I would like, therefore, at this early stage to set out the reasons underlying the Government's position.

The Government made a clear manifesto commitment to deliver a new deal for London: to establish a new Greater London authority made up of a mayor and assembly, both directly and separately elected. However, we undertook first to establish the consent of the people of London to see what it was we proposed. In keeping with our manifesto commitment, what we will put to the people of London, in a White Paper to be published in the week of 23rd March, is an integrated and balanced package of government--a mayor and an assembly, together making up the Greater London authority.

The White Paper will be comprehensive and it will be comprehensible. It will have to set out clearly to the people of London what they are voting for or against. If people vote yes, we will implement our proposals. If they vote no, we will not. It is as simple and as clear-cut as that.

We have never said that the pre-legislative referendum should be an opinion poll. We do not think it would be right to make it so now. We made a clear manifesto commitment to establish a new Greater London authority which has two separate but important and complementary parts: the mayor and the assembly. We undertook to establish the consent of the people of London to that proposition. It is a balanced package that we are putting forward. To put forward anything else would not be clear-cut and neither would it be responsible, given that as a government we are certain that it is important that we put what we believe is a workable and balanced package to the people of London and one that we are willing to implement.

A White Paper that said, "If this, then that, but, on the other hand, perhaps the other", would not be offering real choice. No one would know what they were voting for or what the impact of their vote would be. It would lead to confusion. There would be a confusing White Paper and a confusing ballot paper. There could be no clear mandate at the end of the day. It would deny the point of holding a referendum in the first place, because that referendum is to seek consent to the Government's proposition, not to put a range of alternatives about which the Government have no separate views. We have clear-cut views and it is those views to which we are seeking assent.

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I have explained our position to the House. The Bill is both about implementing a manifesto commitment and testing out our views as to how London should be governed with the people who will be governed by the new proposals. It provides a clear and straightforward question to be asked of the people of London. It is capable of providing a clear mandate on detailed proposals. If Londoners vote yes on 7th May, they will know not only what they are voting for but that it is a workable solution in which the Government have full confidence and which they intend to legislate to implement.

The people of London have waited 11 years for the return of city-wide government to the capital. This Bill gives them the chance to shape their own future and give London the leadership that it deserves. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Baroness Hayman.)

3.29 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction and explanation of this important Bill. I shall endeavour to concentrate on its proposals, although if one were to do that exclusively, one's contribution would be very short. I wish that there was a good deal more detail about the arrangements and functions of the mayor and the authority. However, if the Bill is passed and there is a positive vote in the referendum, I am sure that there will be extensive debate on the consequent legislation. We have had some indication of the Government's thinking in the Green Paper, but that is not before us; still less do we know what will be in the White Paper to be published following consultation.

We on these Benches do not oppose the Bill in its entirety. We recognise the commitment made in the Labour Party's manifesto,

    "to put to a referendum the proposal for a strategic authority and a mayor each directly elected",

and we accept the expression of popular opinion in favour of the mayor.

Nevertheless, we are concerned about a number of principles and details, and consider the Bill flawed in different respects, not least the lack of important detail to which I have just referred. In the words of the manifesto, the referendum is "to confirm popular demand", but in the absence of detail the population of Greater London will not know what they are confirming.

The Green Paper contains a number of different proposals upon which the Government have consulted--indeed, 61 questions--and which they will incorporate in legislation if a successful vote is achieved in the referendum. However, I have to ask the Minister whether the referendum would not be more effective and meaningful if it had been deferred until the form of the legislation were known.

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