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The Queen’s Speech

November 20, 2006

The Queen's Speech

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): One immutable rule of UK governance is that local government reorganisation and restructuring are always expensive?often very expensive. Few outside the House might realise that fully 2.5 per cent. of every VAT bill levied is what we might call the poll tax or community charge memorial fund. The rise in VAT in 1991 from 15 to 17.5 per cent. was introduced to dampen the effects of the change in local government finance that took place at that time.

The transition costs associated with the Government’s new local government Bill will almost certainly exceed the £121 per person mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which has been calculated in the Cambridge university study. However, I welcome in principle the streamlining of the performance and inspection regime, especially the much loathed best value and comprehensive performance assessments, although experience suggests that the implementation of these changes will be less than straightforward.

I hope that you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I focus most of my comments on the capital, as I am a London Member. The Greater London Authority Bill purports to transfer significant powers from central Government to the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly. As there are two serving Assemblymen sitting on the Benches behind me, I should assure the House that I intend no criticism of the Members for Bexley and Bromley and for Croydon and Sutton in that other place. However, this proposed transfer of power raises the question of why we have a Government office for London in the first place. The duplication involved is quite breathtaking, and reflects the suspicion that the Labour Government have had of the present mayoral incumbent since 2000.

Since the establishment of the Mayor and the Assembly in that year, spending on the Government office for London has doubled, and the number of its employees in 2005?the last year in which a parliamentary question on this matter was tabled and answered?was higher than before the new tier of London government came into play. Yet from the moment of his election, Mayor Livingstone began what has now been a six-and-a-half-year spending splurge, with countless advisers and policy and research officers producing endless reports, few of which concern areas of policy for which he has anything other than tangential responsibility.

Naturally, none of this comes cheap. The council tax in London attributable to the Mayor and the GLA?the mayoral precept?has more than doubled in that period, from £123 in band D in 2000 to almost £300 today. Yet the Mayor of London empties not a single bin, cleans not a single street and runs not a single school, library or social services department. His budget goes on a huge public relations exercise alongside policing and the transport system, which seems scarcely fit for purpose to those who live in, work in and visit London. His failure to keep his eye on the financial ball is legendary. When not frittering away tens of thousands of pounds on abortive jaunts to Cuba or Venezuela, two countries not known for their support of the global capitalism of which London is surely the greatest exemplar, he runs a massive central bureaucracy at City Hall, which has recently been assessed in damning terms by its own internal auditor, the accounting firm Deloitte.

The GLA is big and costly, with 673 permanent staff. The chief executive earns £175,000 a year while the average salary is some £50,000 a year. It has an annual wage bill of £35 million, yet there are also spiralling costs from the use of temporary agency staff. That wasteful, financially profligate story of incompetence is now the backdrop to Mayor Livingstone’s demanding yet more powers. That will all, of course, come at significantly higher costs.

On Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, I hope to address some of my more specific concerns about the proposals for housing and planning that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden touched on earlier. It would be inappropriate at this juncture to rehearse a Second Reading speech on such matters, but there are some deep concerns from the 33 London boroughs about precisely which strategic powers on housing and planning are to be transferred to the Mayor. If we are to believe in localism, which seems to be the new buzz word on both sides of the House, that must mean that such matters should be kept at the most local level rather than being decided at City Hall, with its enormous bureaucracy covering 7 million people over the whole of the capital city. I have some sympathy with the view that making the mayoralty work properly requires broader strategic powers, and so I will look on some of the proposals with an open mind. However, the evidence from the current incumbent has been of a grotesque failure that risks mortgaging the future of Londoners for decades to come.

I am afraid that nowhere is that more apparent than in the funding of the 2012 Olympic games. Typically, once the bid was won the Prime Minister’s interest waned. London council tax payers, presumably alongside worthy national lottery recipients, will have to foot the fast-rising bill. I say this with great regret, because I am a keen sports fan, but I rue the day that my city won the Olympic Games bid. Many of us warned before the bid was won that the financial implications were not being properly thought through, yet Ministers derided my concerns at the time. What shocks me now is only that we face financial difficulties so quickly. Less than 18 months since we won the bid, the budget has doubled. We have had confusion over VAT, disputes over land ownership and the increasing likelihood that we will not be able to rely on a fixed price construction contract after the fiasco at Wembley stadium. We have had little indication that there will be a worthwhile legacy in the lower Lea valley to justify the enormous costs.

Anne Snelgrove: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether he wants to abolish the Mayor of London and to give the Olympics to the French, as those seem to be the logical conclusions of his speech? He seems to be against those two things that have brought a lot of good to London on the international stage.

Mr. Field: I have made it clear that I understand the view that says that we should increase the Mayor’s powers. Clearly, we will have the Olympic games in London in 2012 and although we have seen the sorry financial situation, it is quite clear that the games will go ahead. They will be a success and a great spectacle, but I am addressing the issues of the long-term cost. I fear that the London Olympics will prove financially to be every bit as much of a disaster as the Montreal Olympics exactly 30 years ago, which are still being paid for by council tax payers in that Canadian city. Now, the Government say that they want to give more prudential borrowing power to the man who gave us this. We will need to give close consideration to the proposals in the Greater London Authority Bill.

I also want to say a few words on nuclear power, which will be an important consideration this year for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agenda. Like many Conservatives of a sceptical disposition, I am not entirely convinced by some of the more apocalyptic predictions made by the environmental lobby on climate change and, more particularly, about the man-made elements of recent fluctuations in global temperature. All too often, that has been used as a stick with which to beat global capitalism. Although I do not doubt the sincerity of some in this House who wish to parade their green credentials far and wide, the conversion of many others smacks of an ill-thought-through tactical manoeuvre.

David Taylor: I am reluctant to intervene on my own constituency MP between noon on Monday and 9 pm on Thursday, but when he refers in a rather stinging aside to those who parade their green credentials, does he have in mind those who use wind turbines of such a power that they have been assessed as creating hardly the energy for a hairdryer in the Notting Hill area?

Mr. Field: Nothing of the sort. I think we all realise the importance of making certain contributions. In many ways, that has to come from the bottom down, whether it involves recycling household waste or having a green turbine on one’s home. I am certainly not making the point that the hon. Gentleman suggests in any way whatsoever. I am glad that he is a council tax payer for those four days a week; he will no doubt be looking forward to paying for Mr. Livingstone’s folly in the years to come.

I am old enough to remember the time when expert scientific opinion, whatever that might mean, was resolute in predicting that we were entering a new ice age. That was only 30 years ago, and past centuries of statistical evidence were said to make the case. The same weight of statistical evidence, going back beyond the middle ages, apparently makes precisely the opposite case today, and we have global warming of an epidemic scale. In all this we need to remember that no scientist, especially one paid for by the Government, should be regarded as entirely independent. Scientific studies sponsored by BP or Shell should be treated with caution, but equally, a Government-funded study in this area is carried out by people who know that their future funding will be enhanced by a more definitive conclusion to their research.

All I am saying is that expert opinion must inform the debate on global warming and in a number of other areas, but ultimately what we do in going forward must be a political judgment. Politicians must make decisions after weighing up the evidence along with broader considerations about the importance of maintaining economic growth. Our role is not simply to abrogate responsibility in the face of a highly organised environmental lobby that is never reluctant to distort the facts to make its case.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is clearly a climate change sceptic. Is he saying that the Stern report, with its extremely good analysis, is wrong?

Mr. Field: I am not saying that the Stern Report is wrong; I have not read enough of it to make a definitive judgment. I suspect that the same could be said for most of the other 645 Members of this House who would none the less still want to jump to that conclusion. My point is clear?there needs to be a political judgment and a political balance. It is not just a matter of giving a outside adviser or an expert in whatever field the opportunity to make his or her case. There must be a political judgment about what we do as we go forward. Clearly, some of the proposals in the Stern report are extremely worrying as regards what the future will bring. There is little doubt that there has been some global warming. The question is this: how much is man-made, how much is avoidable and how much is down to natural circumstances with the ebb and flow over time?

There needs to be a sensible debate about how we should go forward. As part and parcel of that, it is prudent to consider renewables, and I support the significant investment in solar and wind energy that will take place over the decades ahead. However, unless technology develops beyond our expectations, there is little doubt that such sources will not be able to make more than a small contribution to energy needs in the near future. In my view, we need to upgrade our nuclear energy capacity and we need to do so with great urgency, not only to reduce carbon fuel emissions and thereby counter global warming, but in recognition of the fact that this country needs to maintain a significant independent energy supply.

Dr. Whitehead: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that even if that were to happen from tomorrow, not one kilowatt of new nuclear power would come on stream before 2021 and that by that point, the investment in alternative forms of energy would probably mean that the system did not require a great deal more capacity, as the most recent study on the subject published by the Department of Trade and Industry states?

Mr. Field: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point that we need to make decisions now, because there is a run-in of about a decade and a half, as he rightly points out. Obviously, many of our nuclear power stations will be leading up to decommissioning before 2021 comes into play.

We need to invest in other non-renewables, but I am highly sceptical as to whether that will be sufficient considering our energy needs, which are not simply economic. There is also a rather important political issue at stake: it would be most unwise for this country to be overwhelmingly reliant for energy supplies on either oil and liquefied natural gas from an increasingly unstable middle east or gas from a Russian state that is fashioning a post-cold war place in the international community with what might be some uncertain political consequences.

I support the programme of updating our nuclear power stations and building anew. The Government have dithered for far too long on this, as in so many other areas. The legacy that they will pass on to their successors is one of delay and administrative failure. I hope that, in this area, they will now have the courage to act, and act soon.