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My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, in this debate. I have a great admiration for the noble Lord, as he knows, particularly in his role as chairman of London First and the work that it has been responsible for, particularly in some of the thoughtful contributions that it has made to the debate within London.
I am afraid that I may well disappoint the noble Lord. As the chairman of the campaign of my honourable friend Simon Hughes for Mayor, I may allow politics to intrude on my speech. The election has already well and truly started and my honourable friend published his manifesto on Monday. I am sure that the House will forgive me if my speech is not totally devoid of some political comment. However, I share many of the points that the noble Lord made on governance issues. I speak as a Londoner by adoption. I have lived here for over 30 years and I would not dream of living anywhere else or, indeed, supporting either a football team or a rugby team other than Chelsea or Wasps. So, by acquisition, my London credentials are not too bad.
All the candidates and parties in the election will be arguing that they uniquely are best placed to realise the massive potential of London and to make it a better place in which to live. We are talking about potential. London has by no means reached its full potential and that is what our candidate will be talking about. I hope the election this June will not be a foregone conclusion—we certainly do not believe that it is—and the election system that the Government adopted for this purpose makes it a fairer and more open competition. That is quite right, too, considering that the election is one of the major direct elections in Europe.
There have been some positive aspects of the current Mayor's term of office. We believe that congestion charging was one of them. There have been improvements in transport services such as buses and there have been some increases in police numbers. If one is looking at the balance sheet—and the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, was dispassionate in saying so—the history of underfunding is one for which the Conservative Party, when it was in government, should accept some significant responsibility. All of that adds up to the fact that London certainly has problems.
The Cabinet Office produced its report on London last July and stated that London,
"has high numbers of jobless people and substantial deprivation . . . has a housing market which is under strain and which will come under increasing pressure . . . has a transport infrastructure that has not kept step with the city's developing needs in the last 50 years . . . has public services that face substantial challenges as a result of the city's unique characteristics . . . has a complex system of governance"
There the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, has scored a bullseye, as it was set up by the Greater London Authority Act. The report adds that the system of governance,
"does not easily enable the city to focus on its strategic needs".
Of course that is a long roll of issues with which we are all familiar. What are the main concerns of Londoners? Do they mirror the concerns set out by the Cabinet Office? When the cross-party Association of London Government surveyed Londoners last autumn, it asked them about their biggest concerns. Crime was at the top, council tax was second, the health service was third, traffic was fourth and education was fifth. Most of us would agree that those are the issues that concern us as Londoners.
The issue of the level of council tax is also a matter of governance. The increase over the past four years under the current Mayor has been huge—greater than in any other authority in England. It is in the order of a 100 per cent increase, for which the Mayor must take responsibility. I have no doubt that the other parties who are competing against the current Mayor will be making their own proposals for saving on some of the council tax expenditure. When the current Mayor of London has a press office larger than that of the Prime Minister, one begins to wonder about the levels of expenditure that are taking place.
But one of the key issues is the balance of expenditure and the contribution to the UK economy made by the London economy. Currently it is some £17 billion, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, referred. Many of us believe that there should be much more informed debate about the balance between Londoners' contributions to the national economy and what it is right for London to take into its own economy. After all, as the Cabinet Office report makes clear, we have our own considerable problems in London, with many areas of deprivation, which should benefit from higher expenditure.
Crime and security are important to Londoners and, no doubt, the parties will be putting their proposals, as we have, in that extremely important area. Security, not just crime, is of great importance in the current climate. Violent crime, which we have seen rise by 4 per cent over the past year and by 20 per cent since 2000, is a matter of considerable concern.
On transport, there is disagreement about the future of the congestion charge. We on these Benches believe strongly that it should not be extended westwards. Instead, we would ameliorate it, even within the existing zone, by allowing people to pay in advance and allowing payment the following day so that people are not hit with a £40 fine when they forget to pay during the course of the day. We would also terminate the charge at five o'clock, which would allow some businesses, such as theatres, restaurants and cinemas, to benefit from people coming into the city without being hit by the charge.
Of course, Tube services will inevitably be a matter of considerable concern. There are ways in which one can improve on Tube services through planned maintenance during holiday periods, which would massively reduce the inconvenience caused to passengers by maintenance schedules. We would also extend the hours of the Tube to 2 a.m. at weekends.
Obviously a great deal of detail will be involved, but one key issue of governance is how the business community relates to the Mayor's office. We on these Benches want to create a Greater London business council to assist the Mayor and Assembly in considering the economic challenges facing London. We feel that there is not nearly enough connection between the business community, which we would like to see operate much as do organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce and London First. We believe that London is an absolutely key business centre and that it should be recognised as such by the Mayor's office.
If we had the opportunity—this is a matter on which the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, was extremely cogent—we would abolish the Government Office for London, and we shall be lobbying seriously for that. It seems to us completely illogical that the Government Office for London should survive into the era of the Mayor's office. It creates confusion in terms of accountability and responsibility, and we see no reason why that should continue.
We also wish to see far better co-operation between the boroughs. One issue that has bedevilled the Mayor's current regime has been the lack of co-operation between the boroughs, the city council and the Mayor. We consider that to be a serious weakness in the current governance situation. However, to some degree, it is curable by the office of the Mayor. It is rather counter-productive for the Mayor to suggest that the borough councils should be abolished and the power taken in by the Mayor. That is not a particularly good way to ensure co-operation with the borough councils.