HL Deb 10 May 2000 vol 612 cc1568-71

3.4 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the process for the recent election of the Mayor of London.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, a number of electoral innovations were tried out for the first time in the Greater London elections. I am unsure whether the Question of the noble Lord refers to the constitutional arrangements, the voting system, the communications with electors, the new voting arrangements, the turnout, the count, or indeed the result. While there are many grounds for satisfaction on all of those, it would be true to say that the Government are not entirely satisfied on many aspects.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that almost honest Answer. Is it fair to say, on a non-party political basis—the Mayor of London is now an independent— that the shambles was probably the worst since Admiral Byng was shot for not relieving the garrison in Menorca? At least that has not happened yet to poor "Dobbo". He is on the Back Benches, which is probably the equivalent.

Does the Minister agree that the result is probably the worst possible for London as the Prime Minister is on record as constantly saying that he neither has any trust in Mr Livingstone nor does he believe that he will he a good mayor? Despite all the hoo-ha, only one-third of the electorate voted. Do the Government seriously intend to proceed with elected mayors for every unitary authority in the country? What other constitutional changes does the Pied Piper of Downing Street have in mind? Surely, the British people have a right to know.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the situation in London, we should do what the new Mayor has said. We should draw a line under the electoral period and, in effect, all parties should try to make the new structure of our capital city work. To that end, the Government will be supportive of the Mayor and the Assembly. There will be difficult tasks for the Mayor and the Assembly. This is a big extension of democracy in London. Clearly, I regret that the turnout was not as high as anticipated. However, it was significantly higher than in many previous local elections. I believe that the people of London gave a fairly clear indication that they wished to see the authority work.

With regard to the rest of the country, the proposals that have been debated at great length in this House under the Local Government Bill give the option for other local authorities to go for directly elected mayors. Whether they do so or not will not be decided in Downing Street or by this House; it will be decided by the people in the localities, as should happen.

Lord Lang of Monkton

My Lords, with the new constitutional arrangements for London now in place, will Her Majesty's Government decline to answer for London issues in this House, as they now do for almost everything affecting Scotland and Wales? If English regional assemblies are set up, will we, in this House, end up with more and more new Labour Peers who will have less and less to do?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are a few new Labour Peers who wish that they had a little less to do. As always, the demands of this House are quite substantial for Front Benchers and Back Benchers. The position must be that the Government will take responsibility for that which is within the powers of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is responsible for local government and that includes Greater London. On areas of competence, the situation is not equivalent to that of the Assembly in Wales or the Parliament in Scotland. Nevertheless, the Government have never sought to defend every single decision of any local authority. I suspect the same will be true of the Greater London Authority.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a widespread cross-party view, including that of the Mayor of London himself, that the whole idea of an executive mayorship is a failure and should be dumped as soon as possible?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I suspect that that is no longer the view of the Mayor of London. Indeed, four or five days after the elections it would be a little premature for us to take that view, and we certainly do not. We believe that an executive mayor, certainly in London and probably elsewhere, will be of benefit.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating your Lordships' House for ensuring, by our recent votes, that everyone in London received at least an election address from all the candidates? Looking at the electoral system, I understand that the number of spoilt ballot papers was significantly greater than normal. Can the noble Lord tell me how many ballot papers were spoilt and confirm whether that number is significantly greater than normal? Does he put that down to a bad explanation in the leaflet from the Home Office or the fact that the PR system was as complex as some of us suggested during the debates? As Livingstone's victims always end up in your Lordships' House, when can we welcome "Lord Dobbins"?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, my noble friend Lord Bassam and myself can congratulate ourselves on the cross-party agreement reached in this House on the communication which meant that 5 or 6 million Londoners had in a single leaflet the claims and promises of all the candidates. That was useful and therefore I am grateful to the noble Lord for his cooperation in the matter. As regards his other questions, I fear I cannot be quite so forthcoming.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, rightly raised the question of spoiled ballot papers. In one electoral division in which I took a particular interest, there were, I believe, 12,494 spoiled ballot papers in relation to the assembly election. That represented a figure approximately 3.5 times the size of the majority of the winning candidate—I make that comment with some interest. It was not so much the information provided by the Home Office but rather that provided on the ballot paper, instructing people to cast two votes and to register those votes in different columns, that perhaps should be reviewed. Can my noble friend offer his views?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the reason I was unable to be more forthcoming on that aspect of the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, was that I do not yet have the full picture. My noble friend is correct to point out an unusually high number of spoiled ballot papers. Undoubtedly that will lead to an investigation by the returning officer for Greater London. He will look at all aspects of the election and will shortly make recommendations to Ministers. My colleagues and I will need to consider those recommendations in due course.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, since the Government have repeatedly assured us that they believe in transparency in all matters electoral and political, is the noble Lord able to enlighten us as to what advice was given to members of the Labour Party as to how they should use their second vote?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as far as I am aware, the Labour Party gave no advice. However, that is not a matter for this House. No doubt political parties will give different advice and, as I understand it, they will give different advice in different parts of London. I do not believe that that in any way invalidates the transparency of this election and the fact that, by and large, London now has an authority which, for the sake of everyone in the capital, we now wish to see work.