For the second time in a year, the Mayor and London Assembly are subject to the UK’s arcane ‘purdah’ rules which are designed to stop politicians using public bodies and resources to campaign on the rates, but in reality just halt meaningful scrutiny.
Last year’s unexpected General Election brought Assembly meetings to a sudden halt for a month, and the local elections currently taking place in the capital have again suspended its work.
While the intent behind the rules is to stop politicians pumping out taxpayer funded PR which might help sway voters, when applied to a strategic scrutiny body such as the Assembly, the actual impact is to impede the public challenging of top decision makers at agencies such as Transport for London and the Met Police.
Earlier this month Assembly Members were forced to hold a private, off-camera meeting in order to ask the Mayor, the Deputy Mayor for Policing and the Met tough questions about the growing number of knife fatalities.
In 2014, when the same ruse had to be employed, I wrote:
“Welcome as that inventiveness is, AMs shouldn’t be having to work their way around rules which, far from protecting taxpayers, are limiting scrutiny and transparency and preventing elected representatives from raising matters of concern to their constituents.”
That still holds true.
I’m certain that, like AMs, both the Mayor and the Met would have preferred that the meeting take place in public as per City Hall’s usual arrangements. Such sessions allow both the Met’s political and police leadership to set out in far greater length and detail the steps they’re taking than any media appearance has space for.
But attendees, which included Daniel Greaves, Crime Director from the Home Office, were instead forced to talk among themselves, with no media presence and the knowledge that the broadcast of their appearance would only be released once the local elections were over (several weeks away), making it harder for them to give the public the information and reassurance they deserved.
And while the much-reported Prime Minister’s Questions continues to take place, giving all parties plenty of taxpayer funded chances to score partisan points and solicit votes, the much less watched Mayor’s Question Time is barred from taking place until after Londoners have all cast their votes.
They do of course do other work outside of attending public meetings but, with none to fill their diary, City Hall’s 26 politicians have more time to spend campaigning for their parties while still being paid by the taxpayer.
As I’ve also said before, there’s nothing wrong with politicians campaigning, and there’s nothing wrong with London having full-time, salaried politicians to run the city and hold its agencies to account, but there is a problem with stopping them carrying out this vital work when they’re not up for election.
And it’s not as if the rules as currently operated even stop politicians from using publicly funded data or work from campaigning – today journalists received a press release in the name of the Mayor citing official Greater London Authority figures but, instead of coming from the City Hall press office, it was issued (perfectly legitimately) by Labour’s.
So under purdah, all parties and politicians at City Hall are free to issue partisan press releases in which they refer to themselves by their official titles and all have more time to knock on doors, deliver leaflets and solicit votes.
And yet all, in the cause of preventing publicly aided and funded campaigning, are also blocked from being seen to ask and answer questions on behalf of Londoners.
At least the Assembly refused to be stopped from taking action by the rules and pushed the Mayor, MOPAC, Met and Home Office to come and face questions – albeit in private.
But it remains the case that the purdah system is broken. City Hall politicians should recognise this and lobby the Government to end this regular, legally mandated, blackout of legitimate scrutiny of local decision makers.