How to give the London Assembly the clout it needs

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 14th October 2016

This week is European Local Democracy Week 2016, and to mark it, we’ve been running a series of articles on how to make the London Assembly more democratic.

Today, Martin Hoscik, Editor of MayorWatch, gives his view on what reforms could be made to strengthen the clout of the Assembly to hold the Mayor to account. 

This is an external guest blog, and the views, opinions and positions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Too often discussion of the London Assembly starts from the incorrect presumption that it is a weak body in desperate need of intervention. In fact it has been a highly successful champion for London and members have consistently shown themselves to be highly effective and robust scrutineers. 

On several occasions senior officials with experience of appearing before both Assembly Members and Parliamentary select committees have remarked to me that AMs are often far tougher and notably better informed than MPs.

So before I set out some of the changes which I think would help Assembly Members speak up for Londoners, it’s worth recalling a few examples of what their dogged and non-partisan work has already achieved.

When Government and Parliament failed to act, the London Assembly stepped forward to investigate the blue light services’ response to the 7/7 bombings.

The inquiry was one of the most important pieces of scrutiny work ever conducted in this country, forcing service chiefs to publicly acknowledge weaknesses in their systems and ultimately making almost 60 recommendations, all since enacted, to ensure London is better able to deal with any future incidents.

The importance of this work was recognised by the 7/7 coroner, Lady Justice Hallett D.B.E, who said that “much of the credit” for improvements within the emergency services “rests with the 7th July Review Committee of the London Assembly.”

When the Metropolitan Police Authority was abolished in 2012, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime became responsible for overseeing the Metropolitan Police.

However some of the most important concessions and changes in policy have been secured by the Assembly which holds monthly scrutiny sessions at which the Commissioner or his Deputy are subjected to tough questions on issues of public concern, such as the use of Stop & Search and the expansion of Taser.

Thanks to Assembly pressure, the Met now routinely publishes data on how officers use both of these vital tools, ensuring that AMs, the media and, most importantly, London’s communities can better hold it to account.

And a thorough, detailed Assembly investigation into the transparency of City Hall and its agencies led to wide-ranging improvements which mean Londoners now have access to an unprecedented amount of internal fiscal and performance data and can more easily see how their money is being spent.

But just as the Assembly has improved the accountability and transparency of London government, there are ways it too could be strengthened. 

Firstly, it’s wrong that AMs often have to resort to making time consuming FOI requests for information held by the Mayor and his officials. This gives those being scrutinised the ability to delay and avoid questions. Instead all parts of the Greater London Authority group should be under a legal duty to provide copies of any data immediately on request.

And the Assembly’s committees should also have the power to compel witnesses from outside the GLA to appear, ensuring that they can always question organisations and companies which work alongside the mayor in delivering policies and major projects.

Both of these would require legislative changes, but AMs do have the power to address one key failing immediately after May’s elections.

In terms of media and public interest, the biggest date in the City Hall diary is the monthly Mayor’s Question Time session where the mayor is required to appear before AMs.

Sadly, during both Ken and Boris’s mayoralties, AMs have often allowed themselves to become the straight man for the mayor’s comedy routine.

The arrival of a new mayor [Sadiq Khan] this May gives the Assembly the perfect opportunity to ensure that sessions are better ordered, the mayor is kept in closer check and that casual viewers and observers understand that it’s AMs who control the session.

They could start by directly asking questions of the mayor instead of, as currently happens, having question numbers simply called out by the Chair and the mayor paraphrasing the question for the benefit of the audience before answering it.

This routine baffles the audience who can’t understand why people being paid to ask questions aren’t actually speaking and, more importantly, allows the mayor to frame questions in a way which is less damaging or awkward to him.

And moving the session from Wednesdays, where it competes for media attention with Prime Minister’s Questions, would do much to boost media interest.

So yes, some changes are needed but playing around with how Assembly Members are elected, as others may suggest, or the oft-made suggestion of replacing elected AMs with appointed councillors, would ultimately do nothing to boost mayoral accountability.

For the other articles in the ‘Building a Better London Democracy’ series, ERS Policy and Public Affairs Officer Charley Jarrett argued that switching to the Single Transferable Vote for Assembly elections would be better for voters and politics generally, while FairVote Executive Director Rob Richie looked at what lessons US cities can learn from London in democratising voting. And on Thursday, Professor Nirmala Rao from SOAS university said we need to think about serious reform of the relationship between the London Assembly and the London Mayor – and their respective powers.

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