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London

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:29 pm on 28th April 2004.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions 4:29 pm, 28th April 2004

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard. Before the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, reminded me that he was an honourable exception in his party, in seeking to form, and forming, a cross-London group which included local government. Many of us were grateful for that. I was a member of the original board. I remember the different approaches of business and local government. When somebody made a good proposal, business would say, "That is very good, let's do it" and local government would say, "That is very interesting, let's consult". I think that we have moved together a bit since then.

I read the report of London First with interest. I was informed and probably prejudiced by my interests, which I must declare, as a Member of the Greater London Assembly, which I currently chair; as a candidate in the forthcoming elections; and as co-president of the Association of London Government.

Descriptions of the Greater London Authority often include the term "dysfunctional". Certainly, the GLA, which is not the whole of London's governance, as we have heard, is disarticulated, a term that I have picked up. It is true to say that the quango spirit has survived, despite governmental changes. I was taken by the idea that the GLA was a holding company. Perhaps, that again shows the difference between commercial and political backgrounds. Thinking about it, I realise that it is not necessary—or even a good thing—to seek a single, rigid organisation. I say that not only because we would probably never agree on one but because I prefer—I hope that it does not sound too "Mother pie", to elide the terms—to regard the elements of London government as a family.

However we regard the matter, we are all still concerned with outcomes. We judge the efficiency and effectiveness of members of the family on that basis, including their effectiveness in securing the engagement and trust of citizens. Both the bishop and the vicar, if I may call the noble Lord that, referred to that point. It is difficult to be engaged, if one is unclear with whom one is engaged. It is difficult to trust, if the responsibility for a given service is fractured—or appears to be—and each element points at somebody else for not doing the business. The sheer number and complexity of responsibilities and, sometimes, the lack of logic in their division, is an issue.

I am a firm believer in strategic government and in government at the right level, which is as local as possible. I am sorry that there are no parish or community councils in London. When we created the executive Mayor, we talked as if New York was the model. However, New York is different. New York has a so-called strong mayor. It has a council that is, as its website says,

"an equal partner with the Mayor in the governing of New York City", with sole responsibility for approving the budget and making land use decisions. That is very different from the situation in London, where the Mayor is, in formal terms, weak. In part, that is because of the continued existence and, indeed, growth of the Government Office for London, which has been referred to several times. The office has been described as extending its tentacles and having more funding responsibilities than before 2000. The mantra used by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—"No new powers and no new money"—applied to regional assemblies, but it did not apply to the Government Office for London. We all know that almost everyone has what might be described as empire-building tendencies or, more benignly, a wish for powers to achieve what one knows to be right. However, I say simply that GOL could make a lot of friends by deciding quietly to divest itself of functions—or for the Government to do so—and retire from the scene.

Other relations in the family—the boroughs—would want to be clear about the demarcation of certain issues. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, referred to housing, and it is one such issue. I agree with what the noble Lord said about waste and other functions. The boroughs' relationship with the Mayor is still settling down, if I can put it that way. Recently, I was at an occasion at which a representative of an outer London borough complained that the Mayor had been able to spend only 25 minutes in his borough in the past four years and that 15 of those were spent trying to find the way out and into the neighbouring borough. A representative of an inner London borough said, "Thank your lucky stars that he ignores you". Well, relationships between family members are not necessarily always straightforward.

The boroughs share the problem of boroughs throughout the country: they carry the can for the discredited council tax, while struggling to explain gearing and so on. That point is relevant to matters of trust, responsibility and understanding. My theme of wholehearted devolution to the lowest possible level applies there.

Even when presented with new opportunities, central government seem to shy away from joining up government. Otherwise, why was central government so determined, for instance, to have learning and skills councils that were separate and whose boundaries did not really replicate any other groupings? It is a serious point. Economic regeneration and skills are serious issues for London and, by extension, for the whole nation. I hope that that approach is being relaxed. I heard that recently, when the case for a London regional rail authority was launched by Transport for London, it was done at the request of the Department for Transport. However, I also heard that the Secretary of State for Transport would not have any of it. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity this afternoon to clarify the Government's attitude. After all, a fully integrated public transport system for London is impossible without a rail authority that is as directly democratically responsible as possible.

Holding to account is a large part of the job of the Assembly, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said. I must also say a word about what he called the more inward-looking task or skill of scrutiny. It is still quite new, and we are learning it. The Greater London Authority is not the same as local government, where councils are responsible for policy making and budgets and have powers to call in decisions. We heard about the two thirds veto on the budget. It may be a veto, but it is certainly a mechanism to force political groups to find common ground. Too often, finding common ground in any situation is finding the lowest common denominator. It is difficult to apply that when there are different philosophical approaches to taxation and the provision of services. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said about considering a veto over policies and strategies. We do not have that, but I think that it would work well.

We do not all agree on what scrutiny involves. Should it be done in arrears only? I think not. I know that Select Committees in another place complain that the executive's responses to their reports are not always very good or very useful. However, the executive is required to respond, and it would be helpful if London's executive Mayor were required to respond to the scrutiny recommendations of the London Assembly. I am not sure that there has been a battle over funding for scrutiny anywhere, but it could be a battleground. The executive allocates resources to scrutiny. If we were to have a shrinking violet of a mayor, that mayor could use that as a tool to constrain scrutiny. One learns that being scrutinised can be unpleasant, but it would be useful if those who are scrutinised could understand that questions are sometimes asked in order to give the questioner ammunition to support a proposition, not attack it. I am acutely aware that it is impossible to cover all the issues today. My time is up. We cannot even cover the major question of what the London that we want to have governed is.

The current Government may not naturally turn to Gladstone for advice, but his reflection applies to devolution in London as well as to his comments at the time. He reflected that liberals have trust in the people qualified by prudence and that the other lot—not this Government, of course, but the government at that time—showed mistrust of the people qualified by fear. As I said, that applies to devolution now. I think that it applies to devolution from central government to London's fledgling—I hope that it will be supported and successful—strategic government.