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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I have put my name to both Amendment No. 14 and Amendment No. 19 and I am pleased to support them. Both are to the same effect. One relates to absences on the part of an assembly member, and the other to absences on the part of the mayor. The principle is the same in both cases.
The Government suggest that an assembly member can be absent from no fewer than five consecutive meetings of the assembly and the mayor can be absent for five consecutive statutory meetings of the assembly without forfeiting office.
As I promised, I have carefully considered the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, in response to my amendment in Committee. It seems to me that her observations actually supported my amendments rather than providing a reason to reject them.
I turn first to the situation regarding the mayor, which is covered by Amendment No. 19. The Bill as drafted refers to the statutory monthly meetings of the assembly held pursuant to Clause 44(2). The mayor is obliged to attend pursuant to Clause 37(3). The Bill states that,
But we are not talking merely about meetings of the assembly. Clause 13 relates to the statutory monthly meeting which the mayor is required to attend under Clause 37(3). In her reply, again at col. 92 the Minister reminded the House:
In a mayoral term there will be 48 statutory monthly meetings of the assembly. Clause 13 as drafted permits the mayor to be absent for five statutory meetings before the sanction comes into effect. So despite what the Minister concedes is the vital importance of those meetings, the mayor could avoid attending all but eight of them during the whole of his term of office. That is completely unacceptable." Those are the Minister's words, not mine. She said:
The mayors of other great cities spend a large part of their time, sometimes up to 18 hours a day, glued to their desks. Although we agree that the mayor will have duties, possibly overseas, promoting London as a business and tourist centre and studying the government of other cities, the dates of the statutory meetings will be well known. The mayor will simply fix his absences abroad around those dates.
I stress that our amendment refers to the mayor's absence from the statutory monthly meetings. The Minister's reply was based upon it relating to only six meetings of the assembly, including those that the law will not oblige him to attend. The Minister said that the Government were linking the procedure for
I now turn to the situation regarding the assembly member covered by Amendment No. 14. The Government propose that an assembly member can be absent for up to six consecutive months from all, or any, meetings, statutory or otherwise. In her reply, the noble Baroness said, at col. 93:
The Minister attempted to draw an analogy between an assembly member and local authority members as provided for in Section 85 of the Local Government Act 1972. With the greatest respect, there is absolutely no relation between the two situations. Local councillors represent infinitely smaller constituencies than the 14 super constituencies that the Bill will create. Each of those local wards usually has two or three councillors, so that an absent member can be covered by a colleague. Here, the constituents will be effectively disfranchised.
In my view, there is no reason to establish two different scales of permitted absenteeism. So the same period should also apply to the so-called London members elected on their party ticket. Here again, the difference between us and the Government is just a question of numbers. The Government offer an assembly member a generous six absences whereas we and our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat side say that three is enough.
The job of governing London is not a part-time job either for the mayor or for a member of the assembly. We do not want an assembly which is a mere talking shop, whose members drop in when they have nothing better to do. We also do not want a mayor who is supposed to be accountable to the assembly but who can treat it with total disdain by ignoring seven-eighths of its statutory meetings during his term.
The amended periods of absences that we have proposed are more than adequate. Except in cases of illness, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out, when there might well be a need to have a few absences, if a person really cannot guarantee to give the time, he should not offer himself as a candidate.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I support the group of amendments, which are reasonable, sensible and, under the circumstances of the Greater London authority, necessary. As others said and we discussed at Committee stage, the provisions in the Bill are based on the current law and practice in local government. I know them well and have had to use them on a number of occasions, so many occasions that for the first and only time in my local government career, I knew the practice rather better than
The provision permits local authorities to give consent to the absence of a councillor for longer than six months. They will do so if it is seen to be for good reasons, the most obvious being illness, but there are others. In my 25 years in local government I have known that happen on quite a number of occasions. I have never known it to be refused. No doubt it has been refused somewhere, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Where an application is made for leave of absence for a demonstrably good reason, regardless of party politics, generally the body concerned will grant it. That is the situation referred to under Amendments Nos. 15 and 20. In other words, it is not automatic that if for any reason someone fails to attend a meeting within the specified period he or she is disqualified. It is not mandatory, there is a discretion on the assembly. In my experience, if there is a good reason, the body will exercise its discretion.
We come to the crucial point in the amendments: should it be six months, as is the provision for local government, or three months, as we propose? There are a number of reasons why I think it should be three. First, the Government have told us continually and probably rightly that the Greater London authority is not local government. It is not regional government either, it is unique. Therefore, it follows logically that we should have a unique provision.
It is unique in that it will be the first authority in the country to have a directly elected mayor with a high profile and considerable personal powers, unlike the situation anywhere else in the country. It is therefore reasonable to have a different provision with regard to his or her absence from that which applies to any other borough or district councillor anywhere in the country. Those people are in a different position. For a mayor to be absent without good reason and the consent of the assembly for a period of longer than three months--I believe it is unlikely to happen--would be serious and a situation for which provision should be made.
I turn to the assembly. There will be 25 assembly members, half the number of the smallest London borough council. The assembly members will be full-time, unlike most London borough or any other councillors. They will have heavy and important duties both on the assembly and, most of them, on the functional bodies. For them to go absent without good reason for a period of six months would be very serious indeed for the workings of the assembly and the effect on their colleagues in the assembly. That is qualitatively different from the position if one of 50 or more London borough councillors should be missing for six months.
Six months is much too long a period, especially in a four-year term of office. It is reasonable to provide that three months should be the maximum unless there is a good and unavoidable reason for a longer period of absence--for example, illness. Should that happen, the assembly will have the power to give consent to that absence. In my 25 years' experience of local government I know that under those circumstances consent would generally be given.
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