Schedule 3 — Repeals

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 15th April 2002.

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Amendments made: Nos. 27, 29 and 30.—[Sir George Young.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee 7:44 pm, 15th April 2002

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is often said that the House does not discharge its task of scrutinising legislation adequately. However, this Bill has been debated for more than 25 hours and over a period of three and a half years. In the course of those debates, it could be said that more or less every permutation and combination of circumstances that might disclose grounds for objection to the Bill have been articulated. I do not propose to detain the House by trawling through the issues, but I want to touch on one or two that have been raised from time to time.

The fact that the City wards that are primarily resident in nature will remain so has been stated many times. The point has been made, however, by Labour Members that the increased business element will alter the nature of the common council even though the residents' role in terms of their voting strength will be preserved. The proposals in the Bill have been promoted in the light of a falling entitlement of business to participate as businesses have been incorporated. The proposals are designed to restore the equilibrium, not to change it.

The promoters have made substantive changes to the Bill. The replacement of the entitlement to appoint on the basis of rateable values by one based on work force size is particularly noteworthy. Although John McDonnell does not care to acknowledge it, the move is consistent with views that he has expressed. The City of London Labour party has been more straightforward in its response. In reacting to the change, its chairman, whom the hon. Gentleman chose not to quote, described the proposals in a press release as "radical".

One issue that preoccupied the promoters in developing the Bill was the possibility of an electoral qualification for City electors that could be conferred directly on people working in City businesses rather than having a nomination system. A commuter vote of 300,000 or more would, however, completely swamp the existing resident vote and would be unacceptable, not least to residents. I understand that my hon. Friend Mr. Field may wish to say a word or two about the interests of residents.

Any selection of the type of commuter given the vote to bring down the electorate from 300,000 to preserve a reasonable relationship with the existing resident vote would be arbitrary and highly discriminatory. It certainly would not be representative of the composition of work forces, a specific requirement of the present Bill.

I wish to thank all those on both sides of the House who have supported the Bill during its three-and-a-half-year passage through the House. I hope that the end of that process is in sight. I will not detain the House further. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 7:47 pm, 15th April 2002

Like my right hon. Friend Sir George Young, I shall not detain the House for long. However, it is only fair that I say a few words.

As promised last November when the Bill was discussed in the House, I have carried out an extensive survey of City of London residents and asked for the views of most of them about issues relating to law and order and to drugs. It is interesting that more than two thirds of the respondents were entirely silent on City of London corporation affairs. Their priorities were obviously elsewhere, and I am sorry that it has been such a tortuous effort over the past four years to get the Bill through. Many respondents wrote positively about the corporation and it is only right that I should point that out. Some residents, of course, had concerns about what they perceived to be the anti-democratic elements of the election process, but they were only a small minority.

I want to take this opportunity to remind the House and, particularly, John McDonnell, who unfortunately is not in his seat, that in the four main wards, councillors are elected by a resident majority. If the residents in the wards around the Barbican and Golden lane considered themselves under threat from the reforms that have been proposed, their concerns would have been felt by the sitting members of the common council who represent those residential wards.

We might also reflect on the fact that four of the 27 sitting members in the corporation of the City of London and representing those residential wards are, in fact, non-resident business people themselves. Eight residents represent business wards. That hardly discloses the concerns between the interests of residential and business voters on the common council that have been emphasised in the criticisms that have been made in the past. The relentless pursuit of objections to the Bill does not reflect a groundswell of opinion of the City residents whom I represent in this place.

Those objections certainly do not represent the views of business. Those who have criticised the Bill tonight and over the past four years have objected to the continued existence of the City as a separate administrative area. In that connection, it is worth repeating the comments that the chairman of the City of London Labour party made on the record before the Select Committee in 1999. He said:

"The majority of these citizens who reside in the City do not want the City of London abolished. They do not want it attached to another constituency. I think it is fairly clear that they do not want that."

For the benefit of hon. Members, I should also like to say something about progress on the other reforms that the City is pursuing alongside those anticipated by the Bill. Mindful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of your earlier comments to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, I will seek to remain in order by being extremely brief.

The promoter has undertaken considerable work in the review of its ward boundaries. A review panel was established, comprising the recorder and the common serjeant—the two most senior judges at the Old Bailey—and the City's town clerk following advice from the local government boundary commission. Following public notices and a public consultation exercise, the review of the internal boundaries of the first two wards—Aldersgate and Cripplegate—is now almost complete.

A summary of the final recommendations was published as recently as March this year and sent to all voters, resident and non-resident, who would be affected by the changes. A more detailed report was also sent to all members of the common council and all those who had made representations to the town clerk at previous stages of the review. The final recommendations are currently out to consultation, and it is anticipated that they and any further representations will be submitted to the court of common council before the summer.

In addition, a City residents' liaison unit has been established as part of the package to reinforce the existing liaison arrangements between corporation departments and the City's residents. Other measures coupled with that include the introduction of regular consultation meetings, attended by the town clerk and other senior members and officers, and guaranteed resident representation on the corporation's non-ward committees. For example, four seats on the policy and resources committee are now reserved for such resident members.

A further undertaking given by the promoter was that the number of members of the City corporation would be reduced to 100 by the time the new arrangements came into operation. I can report that the number of members has been already been reduced by 18 to 112, and that process continues.

As a result, the Bill represents the right way forward for the City of London and the resident population is entirely happy. It seems ironic that some of the great largesse of the City corporation often goes to the areas such as Hampstead heath, Highgate woods and Queen's park. Enormous sums are spent on those most wonderful open spaces in central London, and the City corporation puts an enormous amount of time and money into its London gateway with the east of London representation. I do not wish to detain the House any further, other than to say that I hope that hon. Members will join me in voting for the Bill on Third Reading.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Local Government) 7:52 pm, 15th April 2002

I, too, do not intend to detain the House, but it is right that there should be a brief comment from the Government before the completion of Third Reading.

The Bill has been considered in great detail for some three and a half years, as Sir George Young, who is its sponsor, has clearly said. There have been protracted discussions in Committee and debates in the Chamber on several occasions. All the points of principle that relate to the Bill have been exhaustively considered, and the House has certainly done justice to its scrutiny function.

The Bill represents a measure of reform to the constitutional arrangements in the City. The Government have welcomed the fact that the City has promoted legislation to face up to the need to put its governance on a more modern footing. We believe that the Bill represents a step in the right direction and that it will make the governance of the City more modern and more in touch with life in the City today. However, the City is doing, and must do, other things to take forward its reform agenda, some of which were mentioned by Mr. Field. I hope that the City will wish to pursue that reform agenda.

The City corporation is a unique institution. That reflects the fact that it covers a business district with a relatively small number of residents, so it is not possible for the City to copy the electoral system that applies elsewhere in London and the country. The principle of business representation is uniquely appropriate to the City, but it must be reformed.

The current system allows only sole traders and partners of City-based businesses to vote. The incorporated companies that play an increasing part in the life of the City have no equivalent right. Other anomalies, such as the possibility to vote twice under current arrangements, will be ended by the Bill. If the Bill were not to proceed, those undesirable practices would be perpetuated. Quite simply, the choice is between reforming the City corporation and maintaining the status quo. In that context, the Government have no doubt whatever that it is right to support reform by supporting the Bill.

The remarks made by my hon. Friend John McDonnell in his numerous points of order at the beginning of these debates are deeply regrettable. He made a series of wholly unfounded and false allegations, imputing motives to the Prime Minister and the Government for which there is no basis whatever and which I unequivocally rebut. The Government's concern is simply to assist the passage of a private Bill, which represents a modest measure of reform that most sensible people recognise as a step in the right direction. The Bill will not necessarily provide a long-term solution because of the further measures to which I have referred, but it is a step in the right direction and it is right that the House should agree to its Third Reading tonight.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—

The House divided: Ayes 278, Noes 30.

Division number 210

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.