|Sir George takes City of London Reform Bill a step further
15 Nov 2001
Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir George proposed that the Bill to reform voting procedures in the City of London should be "revived" in the new Parliament. After a two hour debate, the House agreed.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) rose--
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is impolite of me to raise a point of order without giving you notice, so may I say that there is a range of points of order relating to compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998, the publication of the statement by the promoters, the declarations of interest relating to the Bill and the hybridity issues in relation to any changes in the Bill, which I would not raise today because I have not given you notice but which, if the Bill proceeds, I will raise at a later date?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have noted the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.
Sir George Young: As hon. Members who were present for the debate--or rather, the debates--in the previous Parliament will know, the Bill has an element of the controversial about it. Those debates were replied to, with great wit and courtesy, by Peter Brooke--now Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville--the City's MP in the last Parliament. I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), his successor, that sponsoring a measure such as the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is not the best initiation for any hon. Member, however able, in his first parliamentary Session.
John McDonnell: Why has the right hon. Gentleman been selected for this honour?
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my very next sentence. As a Minister at the Department of the Environment and subsequently as a Treasury Minister, I had frequent contact with the City, as I did as Transport Secretary. Also as a former London MP, a former borough councillor and indeed a former Greater London council member, I hope that I can satisfy the hon. Gentleman that I am acquainted with local government in the capital. Therefore, when I was asked to sponsor the Bill, I readily agreed.
John McDonnell: May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that on the basis of his experience he should know better?
Sir George Young: I could not disagree more strongly. It is my knowledge of the background to the Bill, dating back to the Herbert commission in the 1960s, which decided that the City of London should remain as a corporation, that gives me renewed conviction to carry on the Bill in the footsteps of Lord Brooke.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: May I make some progress? I am familiar with the pattern of these debates. I should like to get a little bit of mileage on the mileometer before I give way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, deal with some constituency aspects relevant to the merits of this revival motion, and will pick up on points made in other hon. Members' contributions towards the conclusion of the debate.
As this is a debate on revival, not a general debate on the merits, I will not risk your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by roaming at large over the Bill's provisions. I should, however, in addition to the procedural case for revival, like to refer in passing to the features of the Bill, which have led the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to contend, through the early-day motions that he has tabled this Session, that no further parliamentary time should be allocated to it. I should also like to refer to the amendments that will be proposed by the promoters if the revival is agreed by the House, as these may well be relevant to hon. Members' views as the merits of the motion before the House.
Jeremy Corbyn: There is a sense of deja vu about the Bill, dating back to November 1998, because we are now in our fourth year of discussing the Bill. However, in the light of the right hon. Gentleman's considerable local government experience, does he not find it a little odd that he should be promoting a Bill that actually reduces the democracy of local government and increases the autocracy of the business vote in local government? Will he tell us what these wonderful amendments are that are about to be brought forward?
Sir George Young: I said a moment ago that I would like to refer to the key amendment. I slept easily in my bed last night, knowing that I was going to propose the revival motion, because I do not find the Bill offensive in the way that the hon. Gentleman alleges it to be.
The proposition that a private Bill might be continued from one Parliament to the next on a revival motion is unexceptional. By way of example, the House currently has before it the Barclays Group Reorganisation Bill, the Greenham and Crookham Commons Bill and the National Australia Group Europe Bill. Those are all private measures, which originated in the last Parliament, fell with the general election and have been revived again this Session. As the cognoscenti among hon. Members will know from "Erskine May", edition 22 page 928, motions have even been made to revive a number of private Bills en bloc. The motion before the House is of a more exclusive nature, but can claim no other distinguishing features.
You may think it right, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for me to refer to one procedural aspect that had a significant bearing on the promoter's ability to make progress during the last Parliament and on the enhanced ability to make progress in the current one if the Bill is revived. That is the issue of human rights, to which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred in his point of order, or rather the procedures to be applied to private legislation under the Human Rights Act 1998. That issue took up virtually all of two of the previous three-hour debates allocated to the Bill, the last being on 11 January. A substantial amount of time was also spent on points of order during the other debates. The House agreed the procedures to be applied to private Bills on 2 May and I know that that will be a relief to the hon. Gentleman, who has devoted a good deal of time to the subject during earlier debates.
I note that the Standing Order changes were adopted by the House on 2 May without objection. If the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill is revived, the promoters will of course comply with the procedure that the House agreed.
John McDonnell: On a point of clarity, it is true that, as a result of the labours of Members on the Labour Benches in this Chamber, our procedure has changed. However, the fundamental point remains that the Bill strikes against fundamental human rights, which base democracy on one person, one vote.
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman may have his own reservations. The promoters propose to comply with the new Standing Orders that were adopted by the House without dissent.
With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall draw two remaining aspects to the attention of the House as they are relevant to consideration of the revival motion. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington sponsored two early-day motions. The first, early-day motion 112, proposes that
"no further time of the House should be wasted on this measure"
"offends against basic democratic principles by extending the business vote".
I should record that, contrary to the situation that the hon. Gentleman implies in his motion, the practice of Parliament since the great Reform Act of 1832 has been to extend the City's non-domestic franchise to meet changing circumstances. For example, business voters are no longer required to live within a particular distance of the City as they were at the time of the great reforms, and changes made as recently as 1995 have extended the City's business vote to European Union nationals.
The hon. Gentleman's other motion, 265, argues that no further parliamentary time should be given to the Bill because
"many of the companies implicated in laundering terrorist funds via the City of London's financial institutions will gain a vote in the running of the City Corporation".
This is not the occasion to debate the substance of that assertion, but as those entitled to vote in ward elections will, according to the Bill, be confined to British subjects and citizens of the Republic of Ireland plus those of other EU states, the promoters are not confident that they fully understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. On behalf of the City I should, however, record the view that the sentiment expressed in the motion is somewhat tasteless.
The Bill plainly does not enjoy the support of all hon. Members. It does, however, enjoy cross-party support and in previous debates the Government's attitude to it has been consistently supportive. The Minister for Local Government may wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will remind the House of what the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) said when, as Minister with responsibility for London, he contributed to the last debate on a carry-over motion. He said:
"The Bill's changes to the electoral system recognise the unique nature of the square mile and the need for an inclusive form of local governance that reflects . . . all those who have an interest".--[Official Report, 2 November 1999; Vol. 337, c. 190.]
Jeremy Corbyn: It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman could explain to the wider world what possible justification there may be for the City of London to have a totally different electoral system for local government than the rest of the country, or is it a pattern that he and some of his friends wish to be repeated elsewhere?
Sir George Young: I have taken the opportunity of reading Hansard accounts of revival motions. On an earlier occasion, the Deputy Speaker was anxious that the debate should not stray beyond that motion and into the merits of the Bill. I do not want to fall foul of the Chair, by dealing in detail with some of the issues in the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss the Bill in detail, the best thing that he can do is to agree to the revival motion so that we can debate at a later stage the issues that excite him.
Jeremy Corbyn: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) has obviously gone way beyond the revival motion in describing the Bill's merits and you have accepted that, so presumably it is in order. It would surely be in order, therefore, for him to reply to the point that I made in my intervention.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have listened carefully to the points that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is making in his opening remarks, and he has not yet strayed far enough away from the revival motion to incur my displeasure. Indeed, I agree with the remarks he has made to date, and I shall listen carefully to the contributions of other hon. Members.
Sir George Young: That is a great relief to me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about the amendments that the promoters will propose if the House agrees to revive the Bill, as that may assist the House in reaching a view on the merits of the motion. One of the principal objections advanced by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others has been to the extension of a property-based vote through rateable values. The reason that that route was taken by the promoters is a matter of record and has been debated extensively. The promoters have sought to deal with that objection, given the constraint that any form of general commuter vote would swamp the existing residential vote and would therefore be unacceptable to City residents.
The promoters now believe that an alternative to rateable values could, however, be introduced as the basis for the voting entitlement that would be conferred by the Bill. So, if the House agrees to the revival motion, amendments will be introduced to remove the proposed voting entitlement based on the rateable value of premises and replace it with a scheme that relates voting entitlement to the number of people who work on the premises. If the House agrees to the motion, as I hope it will, hon. Members will have a full opportunity to examine the proposals and take a view on them.
The failure of the House to agree that the Bill should be revived would derail the reform movement in the City of London as the Bill would be lost in its entirety. Neither the City of London, nor Labour Members--indeed, no one--agrees that the status quo is satisfactory, but that would remain unchanged if the Bill were not revived. I hope that the House will agree, by supporting the motion, that the status quo should not remain unchanged.