Damian Hockney, a member of the London Assembly from 2004 to 2008, says the London Assembly suffers from one major problem – lack of access to the REAL information which would allow the body to do its job of holding the Mayor to account.
As a member of the London Assembly from 2004 to 2008, elected for a party which has a jaundiced opinion of much of the political class, I was pleasantly surprised by the abilities of almost all of my fellow Assembly Members, including those who did not share our views at all.
To take those I had quite a lot to deal with, Len Duvall was an able and fair chair of the MPA, Dee Doocey and Jenny Jones were staunch allies in areas where we shared views or thoughts, Brian Coleman was combative but understanding, with great energy and the type of respect for opponents which never allowed him to dismiss them. I could go on listing, but all had the desire to do their job properly – never once did I feel I was in the presence of time servers and I always felt that all of them took their roles seriously. Every one of them.
But very quickly I felt that they did not have the tools to really enable them to fly in their roles. The difficulty for the London Assembly is surely that it is there but that others have most of the actual powers to do its job of holding the Mayor and what he does to account. It is denied the type of information routinely used by journalists and those with actual power (ie the House of Commons and the EU institutions) to hold to account.
Let me give you an example of something which came up right at the outset of my time as an Assembly Member and that relates to an area of business I can claim to have some commercial knowledge of.
It concerned that publication the ‘Londoner’, a free distribution paper from City Hall which was published under the former Mayor. Unlike some, I took the Mayor’s point that there were times when a body like the Mayor and Assembly should be able to communicate directly with those upon whom they had an impact.
I might have done it differently but that is a matter of detail and form. But as a journalist/publisher by background myself, I remember feeling that some aspects of this publication were a little odd and decided to raise them at Question Time.
So I tried to obtain the very basic info you need to hold such a publication to account. This is what I asked for: “I obviously want to have the following info which is basic to holding any publisher to account – print contract/prices, ad details, rates charged, how they are solicited, who is paid to collect them, who has the distribution contract and what the rates are etc. Above all, what is paid for things and what ads are sold for/who gets them and why…at market rates? At a loss? Why?”
It’s what the accountant did with the magazines of which I had been publisher for more years than I care to remember, and what anyone would do if they were looking into such a business. Simple stuff, without which you can do nothing by way of holding to account. All denied to me! “What? Any journalist can ferret around and get a lot of that that info and publish it, but of course the resources and time used would be considerable,” was my reply.
“I can’t keep it secret in our business, the moreso as much will eventually be in the public domain. Advertisers have the right to say ‘I paid X company Y hundred/thousand’ (if they want to and have to – ie when claiming costs against their business), printers have rates upon which they base their quotes. And if of course someone is getting a public sector deal which is non-commercial, why? And what else are they getting in return? This kind of stuff is the core of forensic accounting, investigative journalism etc when you think something might be amiss.”
In essence, what I was told was that in anything important I had no right to have access. Well OK then. I couldn’t even obtain the very basic information needed to hold a very minor and relatively unimportant aspect of the mayoralty to account.
What price serious matters? I was to find out, constantly being given the run around for months and then having to threaten FoI and then told that Freedom of Information (FoI) does not apply. So holding to account becomes a tame political exercise scoring a few points here and there, and is only possible in a meaningful sense if journalists or MPs have already spent their resources on investigating – they therefore will dictate the agenda on genuine oversight as long as this power balance exists, and not the body set up to hold the Mayor to account.
There were even times when you were told you could not actually raise some detail or information you had managed to locate outside of the tame and flawed processes in place at City Hall. But if it had been in the press you could use some of it.
Oh dear. This a serious own goal with lessons for anyone who understands power and the use of information. “Don’t bother with the Assembly and its systems,” it is saying – “use your position to go straight and always to the press/online commentators and attack City Hall and its staff as well for being partial and party to potential corruption and failure for refusing to give you the information”. I was actually advised to do this by contacts in the USA who have far greater political and campaigning experience than I could dream of.
There are a host of reasons why I did not take this advice but someone will, for sure. They will say: “why should I be criticised by opponents/the media etc for not doing my job of holding to account when in fact I am being muzzled and stymied by those supposed to help me?”
State radio and tv and much of the media do not like small parties and actively campaign against them. This is increasingly being recognised by those who find themselves entangled in the processes. It presents a whiff of corruption masked with the false pretence that there is a bogeyman (the BNP) whose existence means that all small parties should fall on their swords and accept that they will be labelled extremist or mad.
The media then often use their muscle, if the “mad” have been elected, to accuse those people from small parties like UKIP or George Galloway/Respect of being “ineffective” in the relevant bodies to which they have been elected (untrue matters of opinion repeatedly being foisted onto the public as “news” and “fact” allowing no room for challenge or right of reply). A streetfighter will spray invective all over the place in those circumstances, and I am not surprised.
And of course look what happened over the 2008 electioneering for Boris Johnson in which the former Mayor was attacked about LDA spending. It was media led, using the Assembly (not the other way round). Add to this the superior powers of the House of Commons to have access to the material that the Assembly has no right to, and well, you have a recipe for something approaching a talking shop.
I use the word “approaching” a talking shop because the status of the Assembly as a body “holding to account” at least means that its existence begs the questions as to its lack of powers to do the very job it was set up for. But the review of its powers during the term when I was there, while widening the remit to some degree, actually reduced the ability of the Assembly to hold to account (or more accurately it ensured that the Mayor’s friends on bodies like LFEPA and the old MPA could hold the ‘majority’ more easily and avoid political problems).
It lessened the ability to challenge, and entrenched the need for large majorities to be effective, majorities which were nearly impossible. And the ability of the London Assembly to hold the Mayor to account over the Olympic Games (dashed by edict, central government/IOC stitch-up and artful planning) is a scandal of the highest proportions in allegedly “devolved” government but is symptomatic of what “devolution” really means.
Smaller powerless devolved bodies at present mean weaker oversight of major aspects of governance, and allow the larger bodies in charge (the IOC for the Olympics, the EU for 81% of UK laws), a clear run and no meaningful challenge other than in occasional whiny pieces in the media.
And when I say “powerless” I do not mean lacking the right to vote up or down policy or action. I mean powerless to do the job the Assembly is supposedly there for: the ability to have access to the really meaningful information to hold to account – this was something that the MPA in its old guise was tentatively approaching and edging towards.
No wonder they got rid of it…