Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Minister's Question Time

Last week we made history at the Assembly. Ten years after the GLA was created, a government minister finally presented himself before the Assembly to answer questions about London matters.

Before the Election

The previous administration always refused to appear. When the Assembly invited New Labour's Lord Falconer to take questions about his London responsibilities, we were airily dismissed on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for ministers to appear in their official capacity. We were told that unnamed officials had insisted on the convention which then became the norm. Ministers would answer to select committees in Parliament, not the London Assembly - a body which they had created.

Not that they never visited us - that would have been impractical. Ministers and senior civil servants were happy to visit City Hall to brief members, usually over a working lunch. But no minutes were taken and the meetings were not recorded.

Towards the end of Labour's term, the government admitted that there was a democratic deficit, but their solution was misguided. They set up a London Select Committee for MPs, along with select committees for all the other regions, thus failing to recognise the unique governance arrangements for the capital - arrangements that they had put in place themselves. Liberal and Conservative MPs joined together to oppose the new committee system, perhaps sending a signal for the greater cooperation that was to follow.

After The Election

Two former Assembly Members became ministers in May - Lynne Featherstone went to the Home Office to take on the equalities brief, and Bob Neill became the junior minister for local government. Bob always argued that Ministers should be answerable to the Assembly on London matters, so I was optimistic about our chances of securing an appearance. After David Cameron addressed the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, a new and welcome precedent appeared to be being set.

We invited Bob to take questions about devolution of powers to London and he accepted, appearing on Wednesday morning.

Localism in Action

Early in the session Bob stressed the government's support for the Mayor and the Assembly to continue. This welcome assurance should remove one of the tough questions that I faced when I first stood for election. Could the Conservatives be entrusted with London Government after they abolished the GLC in the eighties? The question was raised repeatedly at hustings around Havering & Redbridge and after the election it was cited as a rather dubious justification for the Labour and Liberal groups getting together to shut Conservative members out of major Assembly roles - thus setting an unfortunate precedent which endures to this day.

Bob also spoke of his desire to simplify the London Plan, making it a less prescriptive document and devolving decisions to the boroughs and to local people. I suggested that he might consider shortening the consultation period - the current document has the gestation period of two elephants - and he agreed that would be a good thing.


Bob was confident and clearly on top of his brief. The Assembly Members were constructive and sent him away in one piece. I hope the very positive session will reassure those 'unnamed officials' who discouraged Labour Ministers from attending, because there are other politicians who we would like to question.

Rail Minister Theresa Villiers, Housing Minster Grant Shapps, and Ministers with environment and policing briefs could all be invited in future. I hope they will come because we don't bite and I would venture to suggest that we are more constructive and better informed on London matters than some of Parliament's Select Committees. Perhaps we could even see an appearance from another former AM - Lynne Featherstone.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Last Wednesday's question time was the last until September and a holiday mood might have been expected. Instead Boris found himself under pressure from all sides - including his own. The Conservative Group are quite an independent minded bunch and colleagues often raise matters of fundamental disagreement during questions. On occasions several difficult subjects coincide on the agenda and the Mayor gets a difficult time - this was one of those occasions.

Financial Matters

With cost cutting now on the agenda throughout the country, tough budgetary decisions loom ahead and they featured in the initial questions from all three groups.

First off was Labour's John Biggs, demanding to know if Boris supported George Osborne's budget. Of course he does, generally - but what about the parts the threaten London's public services. Here Boris made his promise to fight a robust defence, particularly of Crossrail and Tube renewal. John found this circle hard to square, but really it's not that much of a struggle - not to anyone who watched Ken fighting London's corner against New Labour (then campaigning for their re-election). London needs a Mayor who will stand up to - and a little way apart from - governments of their own political hue. Westminster, with its hordes of MPs from the provinces, is always suspicious of the capital. Ken managed the balancing act and so does Boris, a Mayor not known for always agreeing with David Cameron.

Mike Tuffrey's turn next, and he sought to get some early indicators of the fares decisions that are traditionally made over the Summer. Boris wasn't being drawn, so I shouldn't have been optimistic when I pressed him on council tax. Would there be an unprecedented freezing of the precept for the third year running? Again the Mayor refused to make any commitments, so we will have to wait until next year's budget round for an answer.


Andrew Boff piled in on the Olympic stadium. He is concerned that the site will prove to be a white elephant when the games are over. The problem is that nobody wants a stadium which has a running track separating the crowd from the on pitch action - well nobody who isn't called Seb... Boris reassured us that the games would be fantastic and all the venues would subsequently be put to good use.

Andrew came back on the vexed matter of the Olympic Village. Current plans are likely to result in rich block and poor block housing after the games - a phenomenon that Andrew refers to as Social Apartheid. Again we were reassured that housing would be available for people from different backgrounds to form a mixed community.

Then Victoria Borwick raised the contentious matter of Oxford Street and its bus jam. Boris tells us that some services have been moved, clearing space in the street, but Victoria believes that more can be done. The opinion of traders in the street is hotly contested and there was a robust exchange of views. On Sunday the east end of the street was moving freely but road works mean that some buses are currently diverted so my own observations may not be typical.


I flagged up the Romford incident and asked for clear guidance to be issued to police officers. The public should be free to take photographs of events in London without fear that they are breaking the law. Unfortunately Boris was not in the mood to make many concessions by now, and an earlier question had flagged up some of the more basic guidance given to officers as a waste of time. The Mayor was sure that matters could be left to the discretion of individual officers. At one time I would have agreed with him, but having seen the evidence of heavy handed policing of photographers I'm not convinced.

I tried a new tack - perhaps the sections of law making it an offence to photograph police officers should be repealed as part of the government's welcome review of civil liberties. Boris brushed this suggestion aside, preferring to rely on the common sense of police officers.

I was disappointed because I suspect it is only a matter of time before another Jules Mattsson type episode occurs. I will be writing to the Home Secretary making the case for a change in the Law.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Questions to the Mayor

Tomorrow sees the last question time before the August break. Following recent events in Romford I will be asking about the police approach to photography in London:

What are the current police guidelines on photography by members of the public? How are these communicated to front line police within the Met and are there any plans to review them?

This fairly open ended approach will allow follow up questions about the Romford incident as well as the Home Secretary's recent announcement that stop and search guidelines are to be tightened.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Pride 2010

A first for me on Saturday - I took part in the Gay Pride parade. The route starts at Baker Street, running down to Oxford Street then along to Oxford Circus. It then follows Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus before concluding in Trafalgar Square. Not a short walk, and it seemed longer under a blazing sun, with plenty of stopping and starting.

Everyone was in a party mood and we received a good reception, despite the presence of Socialist Worker activists. The Conservative contingent was around 40 strong and included a couple of MPs and my Assembly colleague Andrew Boff, pictured along with myself and Graham Archer who contributes some superb material to Conservative Home.

It is important for the Party to be seen here and I hope we can persuade more people to join us next year - we may even hire an open topped bus.

Reception for New Councillors

On Thursday evening the Assembly hosted a reception for new councillors at City Hall. Many of those elected in May took advantage of this opportunity to meet members and officers, and to find out more about the GLA. The meeting was addressed by Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles and Mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, with Assembly Chair Dee Doocey, extending a welcome to the guests.

Of course most of those present were Labour, reflecting the mixed result in May, but there were plenty of Conservatives and Liberals too. Pictured are:

Cllr Damian White (Hylands Ward, Havering)

Cllr Bernadette Mill (Larkswood Ward, Waltham Forest)

Cllr Osman dervish (Mawneys Ward, Havering)