Orders of the Day — Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 10th November 1997.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 7:32 pm, 10th November 1997

I congratulate the hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches in this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for having given me the opportunity to acquaint myself with large areas of his constituency during the wettest July since 1853. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) on making a speech that demonstrated his commitment to his constituency—the scale of our victory there showed the strength of support for our policies in London, as in Britain as a whole.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), who played an absolute blinder of a maiden speech. It showed the warped humour and affection for his constituency that we associate with him. My name is a gift to punsters—I wish I had a pound for every time there was a newspaper headline saying "The Buck Stops Here" or "The Buck Starts Here"—but my hon. Friend is in a class of his own. It is alleged that pinned to a noticeboard in his office there is a news cutting carrying the words "Blair Rattled by Pound's Strength". That might not have been true yesterday, but I am sure it is today.

I have great pleasure in supporting the Bill, which represents a massive extension of democracy in London. I am staggered by the hypocrisy of some Conservative Members who have argued against the referendum, saying that the nature of the question means that it is a challenge to democracy, when in 1986 the wishes of Londoners were brushed aside so casually. I look forward with great excitement to the campaign for a yes vote in May. We will give Londoners what they want: a voice for the capital, dynamic leadership and effective scrutiny of the decisions and policies that affect us. It will be the different, but complementary, roles of the mayor and the Greater London authority that will deliver those aims; and it is because those roles are so complementary that it is necessary that we put a single, simple question to Londoners.

I derive a certain personal pleasure from speaking in the debate, because it was Dame Shirley Porter's Westminster council that led the campaign for the abolition of the Greater London council. I now represent part of Westminster and am able to give a voice to those who opposed the abolition of the GLC then and who now want the return of a single London authority. I disagree with Conservative Members who say that such an authority has not been an issue, because, again and again, when on the doorstep during the election campaign and since, I have found that the lack of a voice for London is a recurrent theme. People feel that London has been the poorer for the past 11 years for being without an authority.

Far greater satisfaction comes in knowing what the mayor and the Greater London authority together will achieve for London, for the story of contemporary London is truly a tale of two cities. The story of both cities must be heard if we are to get the full picture—that is a mixed metaphor, but I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me.

The first London is on a roll: last week, we were voted the best city for business for the eighth year running; London is setting the trends in art and culture; and our property and housing markets are booming—land in central London currently fetches up to £3 million an acre and the housing market is dominated by international investors attracted by the business climate. This London attracts the envy, and sometimes the annoyance, of other parts of Britain. London's success is something we should be proud of and I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) in that respect. We want to attract tourism as well as top-quality business and industry, and central to the mayor's role will be the championing of London.

Yet London's success masks and sometimes aggravates the problems of the second city. The property values I have just mentioned add up to a crisis in affordable housing, especially in central London. Because of London's position as a capital city, our local authorities shoulder a disproportionate share of both the practical and the financial responsibility for the care of asylum seekers. As the London Research Centre's excellent strategy document "The Capital Divided" demonstrated a few months ago, we have pockets of the most acute deprivation to be found anywhere in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the problem of unemployment in the capital; in my constituency, there are estates and pockets where the rate of unemployment, especially among members of ethnic minorities, far exceeds 50 per cent.

We have a complex needs profile because we have high levels of mobility. We have many single people, which can lead to problems of support. We have great ethnic diversity and, although we should celebrate that diversity, there is no question but that it adds to the pressures on the city by increasing the complexity and costs of service delivery in every field—from health care, to further education, to policing. Without a single voice for London, we cannot tackle those problems effectively.

The solutions to the problems of the second city of London must be Londonwide and arrived at democratically. They must ensure that commercial success and social cohesion go hand in hand. That view is expressed in the prospectus for London published by London Pride, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate referred and which demonstrates that business interests recognise the importance of social cohesion to the creation of economic success.

I pay tribute to the work of the Association of London Government, which represents many London constituencies. It is a measure of the maturity of modern London politics that its wide geographical differences and diversity of politics have so often been synthesised in a way that allows the ALG to speak convincingly for London. The ALG should not, however, be London's sole voice. It is quite properly concerned with local government, and its representatives from the boroughs must champion, first and foremost, the interests of those boroughs. It is quite right that the representatives of each local authority should vigorously lobby for their own corner, but the new London mayor and the new authority must speak for the whole of London and be free from local concerns. I therefore strongly believe that the new authority should not consist of an elected representative for each borough. The danger is that such representatives would inevitably champion their own corners at London's expense.

When it comes to promoting London commercially, or to regeneration, social cohesion or transport policy, we need a pan-London focus. Representatives must stand above the interests of particular boroughs; hence I agree completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) that it would be wrong to elect people on a borough basis.

I have a request to the Minister: we must not allow a yes vote to be the end of extending local democracy, however excellent the latter may be. Many organisations such as the London Voluntary Service Council and London Youth Matters have come up with imaginative ideas for building on local democracy in London. If there is a democratic deficit in London—and there is—that deficit is even greater among young people and black and ethnic minority communities. Perhaps the GLC's most creditable achievement was that it connected with groups of people who were usually outside the traditional processes of government. Even the GLC's fiercest critics would recognise that, in its last years, through its grant giving and its arts and culture policies, it managed to connect with people's imaginations and to draw in people who would not ordinarily even vote.

The new mayor and the new GLA must bring that achievement up to date for the 21st century. As the London Youth Matters journal says, the mayor and authority should establish strong, clear and recognised channels for consulting stakeholders, experts and service users, including the youth sector". The priorities of the mayor and the GLA will probably mirror the concerns of young people. A great deal of work will be done on the environment, on sustainable development, on promoting the arts and culture and on policing. We shall have an excellent opportunity to engage with young people in the black and ethnic minority communities—people who are usually left outside the traditional political process, albeit at our peril.

The London Voluntary Service Council has published proposals for a civic forum to increase participation by Londoners in their own government. Certainly, there are dangers in creating ever more tiers of organisation, but a great many good ideas are present in the proposal for a civic forum, which I commend to the Minister for more debate after the White Paper comes out. There is, for instance, the idea of holding a regular and open question time for the mayor and of holding meetings in rotation across London. I am not so sure about the proposal to copy the mayor of Barcelona, who stays with families around the city now and then. That might turn into too much of a good thing: first prize in the raffle would be a night with the mayor, second prize would be two nights with the mayor.

Be that as it may, such ideas, although not appropriate for legislation, have a great deal to commend them. They also give the lie to Conservative Members who have poured scorn on the scale of the consultation exercise. Most of the 1,200 responses came from representative organisations that had themselves consulted their members or member groups and which have stimulated an exciting debate, whose fruits we are only just beginning to see in London.

As a central London representative, I am conscious of the fact that many people who will want to vote in the referendum will be excluded because they are not on the electoral register. My constituency, possibly along with that of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), must contain the lowest number of eligible voters on any register in London. It is difficult to ensure that everyone is on the register; it is up to local authorities to make sure that they are.

I hope that the Minister will do everything in his power to urge registration officers during the next couple of months, while lists are being prepared for next spring, and to sign up everyone—particularly single people living in houses in multiple occupation. They are often the hardest to reach, but it is important that they take part in the referendum too. They want to vote in this exciting extension of democracy. They will vote yes in the referendum. That is what the people of London want and deserve.