HL Deb 09 November 1999 vol 606 cc1257-62

1 Clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert ("; and (c) the holding of an election for Mayor in the event of a vote of no confidence in accordance with section 322(d) below")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

1A Because Clause 2(6) (b) of the Bill makes provision for the filling of vacancies in the office of Mayor of London and it is unnecessary to make special provision for particular cases.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A. I shall make the same point in relation to Amendment No. 6 and shall speak to that now.

These amendments relate to the issue of impeachment. When the amendments were moved in this House I argued strongly against them and am gratified that the Commons comprehensively endorsed the Government's view by a majority of 155 votes that the assembly should not be able to remove the mayor from office.

The effect of your Lordships' amendment would have been to allow the assembly to sack the mayor if 19 of its 25 members voted to impeach him or her. It is the Government's view, supported, I believe, by sound constitutional principles, that that would be wrong. We have the recent experience in the United States where one group of directly-elected politicians tried to remove another group.

Under this Bill, the mayor and assembly members will have different mandates and different roles. They will have a directly-elected executive, and the assembly will be there to scrutinise the exercise of his or her executive powers. Over 5 million Londoners will be entitled to vote for the mayor and they will do so directly. It is not right that 19 assembly members, elected under a different process, should be able to overturn that decision. That should be a matter for the people of London, not for a separate set of politicians.

As my honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning explained in another place, if these amendments were to be accepted it is not fantastical to admit to circumstances where a vote to impeach the mayor would take place and do so on pure political grounds. A popular candidate for mayor may well be elected who represents one political party but that party might be unpopular with the electorate and, therefore, the majority of seats in the assembly might be won by other parties. In a three-party system, it is entirely possible that the assembly could put together a 75 per cent majority to sack the mayor: not because he or she was doing a bad job, not because he or she had acted illegally or because he or she was corrupt, but simply because 19 assembly members disagreed with the policies being pursued. I hope that noble Lords will accept that that cannot be right. In such circumstances, each successive mayor would be subject to the whim of the assembly and short-term political gains.

As has been explained, there are ways of removing the mayor. In legitimate circumstances, the mayor can be disqualified from office. The normal rules governing the conduct of local authority members will apply to the mayor. I believe I recall the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, pointing out on Third Reading that, if you are going to remove a politician, it is better to have a judicial rather than a political process for so doing. That is what we have here. Under the provision the mayor must stand down if he or she is convicted of an offence which carries a sentence of more than three months' imprisonment, is adjudged bankrupt, is disqualified under Part II of the Representation of the People Act or is disqualified under Section 17 or 18 of the Audit Commission Act. That is judicial process. In addition, the Bill contains a number of "automatic procedure" situations where the mayor would be disqualified from office; for example, failure to declare election expenses and failure to attend six consecutive statutory meetings of the assembly, as prescribed in the Bill.

Therefore, we have provided for "high crimes" through the judicial process. We have also provided for electoral mismanagement or failure to observe the basic duty of the mayor through the procedure set out in the Bill. I do not believe that we should provide for a situation where the mayor could be removed by a political cabal within the assembly. That is a matter for the people of London; it is not a matter for members of the assembly who will have their own duties and responsibilities to pursue. Indeed, it could lead to incredible deadlock and considerable distraction from the objective of giving good governance to London. In moving this Motion, I should point out to the House that I shall move the same in relation to Amendment No. 6, which is the substantive amendment in this group.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Whitty.)

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I must say a few words on this amendment, and I suppose those words should really be: "On the Government's head be it". We have never pretended from these Benches that our solution was the only one to deal with a mayor who may go off the rails or, at any rate, lose in a very important and fundamental way the confidence of both the assembly and the people of London; nor have we pretended that this is the best solution. But it is the only one on offer.

The Government have not come forward with any different solution. They have not proposed a different number of assembly members who would be able to take this important step; they have given the electors of London no opportunity to unseat a mayor until the next election—and that might be three or three-and-a-half years away from when the issues arise; and they have made no proposal for a judicial or quasi-judicial process.

The Government have been very creative about the possible scenarios as to how such a procedure might be misused. But it is a matter for the Government to deal with the "what ifs"; for example, what if the mayor goes off the rails? What if the mayor acts in such a way as to bring the whole of London's government into disrepute through allegations about links with particular contractors dealing with major capital projects, or about private financial activities?

I have pointed out before to your Lordships that this party does not believe that the private life of a politician should be a matter for the public and the press to crawl all over. However, there are certain situations where it is legitimate for private activities to become a matter of public consideration because they affect the public's confidence in the office holder. There is also the situation where the mayor may bring the authority into disrepute because of investigations into activities which may lead to two months' imprisonment. Indeed, the list could go on still further.

I believe that the solution we propose is the logical conclusion; namely, that the members of the assembly should be given the statutory responsibility to hold the mayor to account. Sadly, what is now going on as regards the selection of the Labour Party's candidate for mayor is threatening to bring the whole project into disrepute. I hope that that can be turned around and that public confidence in London having its own government will grow between now and 4th May. At present, the public feeling is that this will turn out to be something of a farce. That would be the most enormous tragedy. Indeed, having got through the whole process, it would be very sad if we were to find that the structure allowed the mayor to bring London's new government into disrepute, without there being any mechanism available to deal with such a situation. That would not be good for London and, above all, it would not be good for the political process.

We on these Benches do not propose to disagree with the Commons—although I wholeheartedly disagree with their reason—and we will not seek to send our amendment back to them today. However, I felt that the points that I have made were important enough for me to detain your Lordships for a few minutes.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I believe that the Government have got this right. For the many reasons outlined by the Minister, the assembly members should not be able to get rid of the mayor. However, if the people of London make a mistake and appoint the wrong person—for example, someone who, within six months, turns out to be a really bad mayor doing a thoroughly bad job, but does not invoke disqualification because the technical requirements are not available—is the noble Lord really saying to Londoners that there is nothing they can do for three-and-a-half years until the next election? I would be grateful if the noble Lord could make the position clear to the House, and to the people of London, when he replies.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, as the Minister knows, we agreed with this amendment when it was so ably presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Indeed, we agree with the arguments that she has put forward today for thinking that the House of Commons is wrong. We also agree with her in that we certainly would not dream of sending it back to the other place. In the end, if something goes unfortunately wrong, the responsibility will rest with the Government.

While I am on my feet, I should like to make a statement which is quite important as far as concerns Hansard. I should like the following to be on the record. During the course of the debate on the Question "That this Bill do now pass", on 1st November. I believe it was quite obvious that I was very angry. As I look at all the amendments which are before us today, I must say in sorrow that it seems to me that the Government are legislating on the hoof in sending the Bill backwards and forwards between both Houses. It is a contempt of Parliament itself that the amendments came to us so extraordinarily late and then went to the other place. They were the Government's own amendments; but, somehow, they are now being altered by the Government again. This is not the way to legislate. I very much hope that it will not happen with any other Bill that ever comes before this House.

This has been an extraordinarily bad Bill. I believe that the Secretary of State at the department and the Permanent Secretary should be asked to look at the way it has been handled, not, as I said, by Ministers in this House, but overall. As I said on the Bill do now pass debate, we have run a sweepstake on when the Government will have to come back to Parliament with an amending Bill. I shall not speak again on this Bill. Frankly I believe that the Government have treated the people of London with contempt in the way they have produced this Bill. It does not bear speaking about further.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, one thing needs to be said. The Minister has called in aid the fact that the mayor will be elected by some five and a quarter million Londoners. We need to remind ourselves that those same Londoners will also vote for and back the assembly. It is not a case of one group of politicians being against another; it is much more serious than that. We have to accept the Government's position, but I do not think that we should use false arguments in order to do so.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I note the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We all accept that there have been problems with the passage of this Bill. As the noble Baroness has said that she will not speak on the more detailed amendments later, I point out that these amendments were for the most part indicated earlier to avoid the possibility—that the noble Baroness suggests—that some of our amendments may be slightly defective, as was the case in relation to measures on transfers and pensions. I shall explain that later.

I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we have a procedure for removing the mayor for high crimes; namely, we have a judicial process. The judicial process is the most appropriate in these circumstances. It is a fundamental principle that as regards their mandate—I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on this point—and responsibilities, politicians are accountable to the people and not to another set of politicians unless those politicians elect the politician in question, as is the case with the Prime Minister or the leader of a party. The matter we are discussing constitutes an entirely new situation in Britain but the circumstances of political office in general do not. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, that the people of London will elect a mayor for four years, as they elect a government for that same period. There are those who felt it was fairly evident that certain governments in the recent past were making a thoroughly bad job of thipgs after six months and that people had no redress. However, people can seek redress after five years. That applies also to the matter we are discussing.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, people can get rid of the Government; they can fall.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the people cannot get rid of the Government in that sense. They cannot directly get rid of politicians. The politicians themselves are directly elected and cannot get rid of one another. The same principle applies to the matter we are discussing. The same principle should apply to all elective office.

I refer to the analogy with the United States, where the system which the noble Baroness proposes has almost brought the whole American constitution into disrepute. But at least the founding fathers had the wisdom to include some qualification, with regard to high crimes and misdemeanours, of the circumstances in which the system could operate. Admittedly that has been stretched a little in recent years. However, this amendment—as was agreed by this House—would have no such limitation save one; namely, the ability to cobble together 19 members of the assembly to vote against the mayor. That is not a sensible way to proceed. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has said, it is a situation where one set of politicians is effectively cancelling the mandate of another. That is purely a matter for the people to decide.

In my view this amendment is seriously constitutionally flawed. It is also politically unwise, legally doubtful and probably operationally pretty impractical. It adds nothing to the Bill but it provides an opportunity for serious political mischief in certain political circumstances, distracting both the mayor and the assembly from their central job of providing better governance for London.

On Question, Motion agreed to.