Becoming a Peer 1: The phone call

I am often asked – well sometimes asked – or to be more precise somebody asked me once:  “What is it like becoming a Peer?”  Therefore, as a public service, I thought that over the next week or so, I would share my story.

In March 1998, I took it into my head that I might run for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.  It would be the first year of the new system with constituency representatives being elected by a ballot of all Party members.  As the Chair of the Association of London Government (the body now called “London Councils”) and as the leading Labour local government figure in London and with a quarter of the Party’s national members being in London, I thought I might stand a reasonable chance.  Before going any further, I thought, however, I should find out whether I would be going against some master plan determined centrally.  So I tried to ring Sally Morgan, who is now a colleague in the Lords, but was then Political Secretary to the Prime Minister.

Over the space of two or three weeks, I called four times and left a message.  No return calls.  I was beginning to get a bit irritated, I had known Sally for at least ten years, and however pressing life was in Downing Street the very least I thought I was entitled to was getting my call answered.  Finally, on the fifth call I was put through.  Before I could even ask about the NEC, Sally cut me off:  “I’m sorry not to have come back to you before, but I knew your name was being discussed in another context and I thought I should wait until it was resolved before I spoke to you.  Anyway, Tony would like you to go into the House of Lords.  You don’t have to decide now, but we do need to know by the end of the week.”  This was the Tuesday before Easter, so the end of the week was effectively in 48 hours time.

At his point I needed to sit down and I pointed out that I was being asked to make a life-changing decision.  I was so busy over the next few days (at that time I worked full-time running the consumer body for the NHS, and in addition was a Council Leader, as well as chairing the ALG) that I said I couldn’t possibly make my mind up on that time-scale and was grudgingly given until the following week, “But you mustn’t say anything to anyone, although I suppose you can tell your wife, but that’s all.”.

The Easter weekend was surreal – we were away with our two teenage sons, the television was full of the negotiations in Belfast that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, and we kept having muttered conversations about whether I should accept the offer from the man on the television with the hand of history on his shoulder.  My sons soon realised something was going on.  Eventually over breakfast one said “Oh God, they’re not going to make you a bloody Lord are they?”.

In the end – as is obvious – I accepted.  I genuinely had not expected the offer, nor had I sought it.  The title was no attraction – a few months earlier I had rebuffed suggestions that my name should be put forward for a knighthood on the basis of my local government service – indeed, I was worried that it would be political death in the London Labour Party.  Fortunately, I had realised some years before that the life of a backbench member of the House of Commons could be a pretty miserable existence – as a council leader I had far more opportunity to make things happen for my local community than an MP – so the ending of any possibility of entering the Commons was not a big issue as far as I was concerned.  I finally convinced myself that the House of Lords would provide me with a platform in which I could argue about the issues that concerned me, campaign on the issues affecting London and at the same time play a part in getting the details of legislation right.  (Eleven years on, I am less sure, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Threat of Anti-London bias on concessionary fares funding?

London Councils are warning that the three year settlement for the payment of special grant in support of concessionary fares is under review and that the third year of agreed funding may not now be paid to London Boroughs at the level that had previously been promised.

If this were to happen, it would be a breach of faith between central
government and Londoners.

I am sure that Department for Transport ministers realise how sensitive a topic this is, particularly when the Local Government Association has had to describe as “problematic” a recommendation in a research paper that they had commissioned that proposed means-testing concessionary fares, with the Daily Mail polling its readers on whether to introduce a means-test and with the matter certain to be an issue in the London Elections next year (and no doubt the General Election as well).

 So I trust Department for Transport ministers will kill this suggestion quickly.

The Labour Party in London has always had an excellent record on
concessionary fares and it would be unfortunate if that record appeared to
be tarnished by a redistribution of funds away from the Capital, as is
apparently being considered.

Essex County Council have made a series of bids to strengthen the local government role using the new Sustainable Communities Act

Most national Governments – whatever their political complexion – over the last 35 years have been centralist rather than localist.  In May 1975, Anthony Crosland famously declared in a speech at Manchester Town Hall that the party was over for local government.  The restrictions were intensified when the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979 and Tony Blair (allegedly scarred by his experience of being rejected by Hackney Labour Party as a prospective council candidate and then by his first-hand experience as a local MP of the delights of Durham County Council) was noticeably suspicious of Labour councils from 1997 onwards.  It is only in the last few years that this trend has begun to be reversed – albeit only at the edges.

For example, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007 enables local authorities to ask central government for additional powers to better achieve the well-being of their local communities and this can include having transferred to them the powers of other public bodies.  This is not legislation that one would have expected first-term Blair or any-term Thatcher to have promoted, but it does begin to recognise that local government does have a pivotal role in the delivery of local provision.  If local democracy is to mean something, it has to be about local people electing local councillors to determine the level of local services and local taxation.

Since the high-tide of Margaret Thatcher’s attack on local government, the Conservatives have been on a long journey regarding localism.  In recent years, their enthusiasm for devolution has no doubt been encouraged by the increasing number of Conservative councillors around the country (they were virtually an endangered species by the mid-1990s).

Essex County Council, which is of course Conservative-led (by no less a person than Lord Hanningfield currently dealing with his own “little local difficulties“), has come up with a series of bids to the Department of Communities and Local Government to use the provisions of the new Act.  (I am sure plenty of other local authorities have done the same, but I have not seen their bids reported.)

Essex have proposals on exempting the County from landfill tax, on adjusting local welfare benefits (to tailor benefit rates to reflect the local labour market and to support relevant local training schemes), on rejigging youth provision(with a view to encouraging volunteering) and on the County Council taking over the non-emergency patient transport.

They are also asking for powers (as the Council puts it) to:

” develop and agree a set of minimum standards for government agencies, non-departmental public bodies and other specified local partners. These would reflect the quality of service required in Essex and should be developed for the: Homes and Communities Agency; Environment Agency; Highways Agency; East of England Development Agency; Arts Council England East; Sport England East; Natural England; English Heritage; Business Link East; East of England Tourism and East of England International.  ….  propose that Essex County Council – as an elected community leader – be given the power to ensure that local standards are met. This might mean requiring specific action of an organisation, replacing local staff, devolving responsibility to local providers or bringing services under the control of the council itself (together with supporting resources).”

They have also asked for the power to run local referendums on key local issues.

Now I don’t agree with all of these, but what I find exciting is that the Sustainable Communities Act is doing what it set out to do: stimulating local councils to think innovatively about how they can best increase local well-being and ensure that local people get the sort of services they want.

Another achievement of this Labour Government.

So what will the cut in funding for the London Safety Camera Partnership mean?

Apparently Transport for London are to cut in half the grant that they pay to the London Safety Camera Partnership.  The budget will be cut from £5.9 million to £3 million.

The assumption seems to be that the Metropolitan Police will pick up any shortfall in funding – although there is no guarantee that this will be the case.

At present, the Partnership supports around 900 speed and red light cameras around London.  These enforcement cameras can only be located – under Department for Transport rules – in places where there have been at least three fatal casualties or serious incidents.  As a result, the cameras in London are said to have made a major contribution to the 27% reduction in death and injuries on the roads in recent years.

So what is behind this?  I hope it is not the Mayoral administration in London and the new leadership of Transport for London pandering to the car lobby and those who believe that they should be entitled to speed, drive dangerously and put other people as well as themselves at risk.

Meeting at the Department for Transport about Segway personal transporters

I have just had a meeting with Paul Clark MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport.  This was a follow up to the short debate I introduced in the Lords in May on the case for allowing the use of personal transporters, such as those manufactured by Segway, on road or cycle ways. 

My interest remains that there could be a wide variety of beneficial uses for such transporters by the police (Segways are used by police  in over a thousand jurisdictions world-wide) and by local authorities (eg for street enforcement).  However, there is also some evidence from overseas that personal transporters may lead to some modal shift by car users for short journeys by individuals who would not use a bicycle or walk.

The Minister, of course, stuck to the Departmental line:  legislation would be required to permit their use other than on private property; and more evidence is required to justify the costs of making the changes.  He was not, however, wholly negative.  He felt that evidence from the Netherlands and from Germany might be helpful and was keen to maintain a dialogue with Segway.  How much more patience the company will have, given that they feel that they have provided ample material about the safety and use of  personal transporters in the USA and elsewhere, remains to be seen.

Ex-Deputy Mayor Ian Clement has form ….

Ex-Deputy Mayor Ian Clement – now apparently being referred to the Metropolitan Police for his expenses “problems” – was, until he was appointed to Mayor Johnson’s administration in 2008, the London Council’s portfolio holder on “Crime and Public Protection”.  Do I detect a less-than subtle irony about all of this?

Direct elections to two Scottish Health Boards

I see that two Scottish Health Boards are to be directly elected.  This is a pilot announced by the Scottish (SNP) Health Secretary.  The pilot will be evaluated after two years.  What would have been even more interesting would have been to run a parallel pilot in which the functions of two Health Boards were taken over by the relevant local authorities.

If people are really committed to the concept of local democracy and local accountability, then the answer is to make local councils genuinely all-purpose and equip them fully to represent the interests of their communities.


Peter Mandelson’s “reach” stretches right across Government

When I arrived in Parliament today, a friend pressed into my hand an organisational diagram showing the Ministerial appointments in the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (it’s DaBiz!).  My noble friend, Lord Peter Mandelson, who is now First Secretary of State (ie Deputy Prime Minister in all but name), Lord President of the Council, and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, rules over a Department with ELEVEN Ministers – an unprecedented number – the size of many nineteenth century Cabinets. 

Of the eleven, a majority (six) are unelected and members of the House of Lords (and that excludes Sir (soon to be Lord??) Alan Sugar who is “an advisor” not a Minister (so why does he need a peerage?). 

More significantly, five of the Ministers are also holding posts in other Government Departments: Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Ministry of Defence; Department of Children, Schools and Families; Department of Communities and Local Government; and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. 

This gives the First Secretary of State what has been described to me as a “tentacular” reach into most of the rest of the Government. 

And, of course, as Lord President he presides over meetings of the Privy Council. 

Not bad for a former Lambeth Councillor. 

There is nothing that a few years as a member of a London Borough Council does not equip you to do …..

A strong message for Parliamentary colleagues from Lewisham East Labour Party

I have recently got home to North London from speaking at a meeting of Lewisham East Labour Party.  The meeting was fixed months ago and at that time there was no indication that the political scene would be quite so volatile, so the topic I had originally been asked to speak on – “the outlook for the London Council elections in 2010” – was hardly relevant.  Instead, I talked about the events of the last few weeks, leading up to today’s reshuffle and the implications of the local election results emerging since last night.

The discussion was lively and the prevailing message was that the disunity amongst members of the Parliamentary Labour Party must not continue.  Party members were divided on what they wanted to happen next, but all were clear that the crisis around the Leadership must be resolved within days.

Some commentators are tonight, of course, saying that following the reshuffle the Leadership crisis is over.  I am not so sure.  The European election votes have yet to be counted and it will be critical what the mood is when MPs return to Westminster on Monday and, in particular, what happens at the meeting that evening of the Parliamentary Labour Party (at which Gordon Brown will be speaking).  I wouldn’t like to predict how the next 72 hours will play out, but what I am clear about is that – whatever else happens – Lewisham East Labour Party members are right: the lack of unity must not be allowed to go on beyond the next few days.

Re-election of Hartlepool’s “monkey” Mayor

Stuart Drummond, whose main claim to fame when he was first elected was that he dressed up in a monkey suit as mascot of the local football team, has been reelected comfortably as Mayor of Hartlepool for a third term.

When he was first elected, his election was portrayed as showing that the idea of directly-elected Mayors was a joke.  Certainly, his election was intended by local people as a protest against the main political parties.  However, they have since voted for him again twice, which rather suggests that he is getting something right.  His main challenger this time was also an independent – the boss of a local taxi firm.  The Labour candidate came third and the Conservative seventh after UKIP, the BNP and another independent.

Certainly, his re-election means that his original election can no longer be used as an argument that directly-elected Mayoral systems will automatically result in electors voting frivolously.