On Tuesday I took part in a Centre for London panel on the future of the London Assembly, it was a lively discussion which included defences of the Assembly, suggestions of additional powers and even calls for its abolition.
My view is that the Assembly has achieved much in the past 15 years, including fairer ticketing for the Olympics, enhanced transparency across the Mayoral agencies and first rate scrutiny of the Met where its police and crime committee has usurped MOPAC as the public face of police accountability.
It’s not all perfect – some AMs sitting on the fire authority maddeningly seem confused between their two roles, too much time is spent making points of personal explanation in response to daft knockabout from opponents that often no-one’s even heard, and the practice of agreeing meeting dates, actions and other legally necessary business is done so laboriously that it sucks the life out of many a meeting, including AMs’ monthly quizzing of the Mayor.
But in the round, I think Londoners have a higher quality of Mayoral government because the Mayor and his top team know that there are 25 experienced, full time scrutineers ready to pounce and expose any gaffes, errors or misdeeds.
And I think those who suggest borough leaders or a local councillor selected by each borough council could provide the same high level of scrutiny are wrong.
The fact that the Assembly doesn’t deliver any services means AMs can take a wider, more strategic view of any given policy and assess how it benefits the capital as a whole.
Borough delegates however would be under enormous pressure to champion local considerations, especially when it came to scrutinising the Mayor’s budget, police deployments and transport provision.
Here’s a quote which is likely to become a staple in such discussions, it’s taken from evidence Sir Eddie Lister, Boris’s chief of staff and former Wandsworth council leader, gave to the Communities and Local Government Select committee:
“The borough leaders are always going to be concerned about their boroughs and about negotiations for their boroughs, and they are not going to provide proper scrutiny of the Mayor. They will only be interested in those things that affect them.”
And to the same inquiry, the LSE’s Professor Tony Travers, probably the most authoritative commentator on London government, said palming the job off on councils would create:
a risk of what I think Americans call pork-barrelling. By that I mean the mayor, in order to get a majority to get his or her budget through, would have to do deals with the Borough leaders, and that would undoubtedly involve carve-ups of what was spent where.”
Londoners deserve honest scrutiny of the Mayor’s budget, not lazy self-interest or back room deals aimed at buying off boroughs in return for their votes, and they’re entitled to elect their own Mayoral scrutineers, not have them imposed in some 1950s style carve-up.
How can a councillor elected by only a few hundred people claim to represent a whole borough? How could the majority hold that person to account if they can’t chuck them out of office?
And with most councils led by Labour and the Tories, how would Liberal Democrat and Green voters be represented? How would a party like UKIP which held seats on the Assembly between 2004-08 get a voice in the London debate?
No, a directly elected Mayor with a multi-billion pound budget and a huge electoral mandate needs to be scrutinised by a body with a clear, unambiguous mandate to come together and revise his budget and overturn his strategies.
But where I agree with the Assembly’s critics is that it needs more powers to do its job and, at times, to better use the powers it already has.
It’s a nonsense that AMs have to make Freedom of Information requests because some agencies are too slow or uncooperative to provide information, and it’s unacceptable that a future Mayor could stop the Assembly from questioning the Met’s leadership.
The Assembly and its committees need a general right to summon anyone who works within the GLA group and to compel them to provide information regardless of Mayoral agreement.
Sometimes it won’t be possible to publish that information in full and AMs will have to simply refer to it or publish it in a redacted form in any subsequent reports or press releases, but the days of officials refusing to provide information about how public money is spent, or deciding when and how they release that information need to end.
And the Assembly’s role needs to expand to ensure that it finally escapes the Mayor’s shadow.
While we might all agree that life would be better if the train operating companies were sacked and the routes in and out of London handed over to City Hall, there’s no immediate sign of that happening.
So let’s make the TOCs answer to the Assembly on a regular basis and while we’re at it compel Network Rail to come along and explain, not in a lunchtime briefing but on camera and on the record, why they’re making such a balls up at London Bridge.
And it would be to everyone’s benefit if the British Transport Police were also made to appear regularly before AMs who could ask questions about the seemingly growing numbers of its officers now carrying Tasers or other firearms while policing the Tube.
Making the Assembly responsible for scrutinising these and other non-Mayoral London services would both help the body establish its own identity and improve the quality and accountability of services Londoners receive.
AMs should be willing and ambitious enough to make the case for this expanded role and additional powers to their own parties and, regardless of Mayoral backing, to ministers.
But while some of the Assembly’s weaknesses and disadvantages can only be addressed through legislation, others can be more easily resolved provided AMs are willing to reconsider how they do business and challenge those in their parties who actively undermine their role.
As I’ve said before, they need to stop offering themselves up as partisan party commentators on a day when the Assembly has published an all-party report which its press office is working hard to publicise.
Competing with yourself is never a good idea, there’s only so much airtime or space any outlet will give to City Hall on any given day.
And Labour AMs should have shouted down their leader for appointing a media hungry Shadow Minister for London when no such minister exists and, along with Tory and Liberal Democrat colleagues, should be objecting every time party press offices help broadcasters line up an MP to debate and discuss devolved issues.
Because ultimately AMs are never going to cement their place in the wider political ecosystem if they’re unwilling to demand that their parties take their expertise and role seriously.