Confessions of a Political Animal

October 11, 2008

A continuing question of scrutiny

A few weeks ago, I took Tory London Assembly Member Roger Evans gently to task for a low-grade ConservativeHome article in which he claimed that the Conservative Assembly group was doing a pretty good hash of their new-ish role as Boris’ cheerleaders ‘critical friends’. In that post I pointed out that the Tory group was asking a miserably low number of questions of the Mayor per member compared with the other parties and that the quality didn’t make up for the lack of quantity.

So, how goes the scrutiny of the Mayor from the ‘government’ benches? Well, the first big change is that Roger Evans himself is now the Conservative group’s leader. And the second big change…is that nothing much has changed. The Conservative group is continuing to table nearly four times fewer questions to the Mayor (questions for October 15th Mayor’s Question Time here) per member than any other party group. Even the Assembly’s increasingly delusional resident fascist Richard Barnbrook has found time – despite having single-handedly deposed Sir Ian Blair – to table five questions (and only two involve some form of race baiting! Well done Richard – you can kick the habit!). The Tories managed to piece together just 4.4 each, with Roger Evans and Brian Coleman, another favourite of this parish, both managing to think of just one thing they wanted to ask Boris this month.

Party Group No of AMs Questions tabled Questions per AM Change from last month
Conservative 11 48 4.4  -0.3
Labour 8 132 16.5  +0.9
Liberal Democrat 3 82 27.3  -6.7
Green 2 98 49  +/-0
BNP 1 5 5  -1

At least this month we are spared a Tory question about Segways and there is a little less Ken bashing than last time, but the Conservative group’s questions still fall mainly into two camps: the broad policy question that one suspects has been placed to allow the Mayor a ready-made opportunity to extemporise upon his plans; and a large number of questions regarding the minutiae of transport or planning system micro-management within a member’s constituency. Nothing particularly wrong with either of these – every governing party uses the first, and on the latter, Evans was very clear in the article referenced last time that

[the Conservative group] should use the opportunity to focus on constituency matters.

In which case, you will be relieved to learn that the only problem facing Roger Evans’ boroughs of Havering and Redbridge is that the timetables on the 462’s stops are two weeks out of date. But whilst the questions being asked are mainly legitimate enough, there is absolutely nothing tabled by the Tories that probes the Mayor, or attempts to tease out any developments in his thinking that have emerged since his election. Obviously, the tabling of questions for the Mayor is only a small part of the scrutinising role of Assembly members – but the approach to it tends to be symptomatic of how members act within their wider role. There seems to be very little desire amongst the Conservative Assembly Members to rise above the roles of lapdogs or parish councillors. Poor show, Mr Evans: must do better next time.

Luckily, amongst the 312 questions tabled this month by politicians other than the supine Tories or the bonkers Mr Barnbrook, there is a better range of probing and thought-out questions on wider issues. Three that particular caught my eye and whose answers I eagerly anticipate are:

#2199/2008 from Val Shawcross: Why has the dispatch of the tender documents for the Greenwich Waterfront Transit scheme been delayed?

Having written about the Greenwich Waterfront Transit scheme before, I’d missed the news that the tender documents had been delayed. This is a very worrying development indeed and certainly suggests that Andrew Gilligan is going to get his way in having this vanity project/scheme for improving bus services to economically deprived areas of south-east London (delete as your attitude to any project launched by Ken Livingstone dictates) scrapped. If relatively small schemes like GWT or the Dagenham DLR are going to the wall, we can give up any hopes of strategic thinking on bigger transport schemes for the next four years.

#2283/2008 from Joanne McCartney: What legal basis do you have for investing in academy schools? How do you intend to circumvent the provisions of section 31 (3) (b) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999?

Congratulations to Ms McCartney, or her researcher, for spotting this. Having spent months immured in the GLA legislation I hang my head in shame for not having remembered this clause when the story about Boris opening 10 city academies with the help of Lord Adonis first emerged – and a few journalists should probably join in with my head hanging. The clause in question (which falls under the grandiosely named section ‘Limits of the General Power’) is pretty clear:

(3) The Authority [i.e. the GLA] shall not by virtue of section 30(1) above incur expenditure in providing—

[…] (b) any education services […]

in any case where the provision in question may be made by a London borough council, the Common Council or any other public body.

Without setting myself up as a legal advisor to the Mayor (life’s too short), I think there may be ways round this, particularly with city academies being in such a grey area half way between the state and the private sector. But it will be interesting to see how well thought through this whole scheme is.

#2220/2008 from John Biggs: In your answers to 1415/2008 and 1878/2008 you seem to be unable to understand the question. Could you advise: Did your predecessor enter into an agreement regarding Olympic funding, commonly known as the ‘Olympic Memorandum of Understanding’, which states specifically how the increased Olympic funding package was to be met? Was that undertaken in pursuit of his ‘statutory functions’ and if not why did he sign it and what status does it have? And have you yet read it or acknowledged its existence? Do you think it represents a good deal for London in particular in its treatment of lottery funding? If your reply to this question remains the same as when asked on previous occasions would you not accept that Londoners will begin to wonder what purpose you serve?

Remember when Mayor Johnson got himself involved in some sort of inverted pyramid of piffle after declaring to the nation that the Olympic memorandum of understanding probably didn’t exist? John Biggs certainly does, and has been annoying Boris with sarcastic questions about existential crises ever since, being continually told that his questions did not merit a taxpayer-funded reply. Whilst Biggs’ latest effort is as sarcasm heavy as its predecessors, it’s a lot more carefully worded and can’t be as easily dismissed. Can Boris avoid embarrassment this time round? I’ve drafted a Mayor’s answer or two (two, actually) in my time and I would imagine he can with some careful wording, but I wouldn’t put any money on Biggs’ fun not continuing into at least another month.


  1. I’ve attempted to look into the academies question by speaking to the DCSF. It seems incapable of supplying any kind of answer about how the mayor’s idea would work. Is it something personal or are there deeper reasons for its reticence? I suspect the former, yet I do find the department’s silence odd.

    Comment by Dave Hill — October 12, 2008 @ 7:28 am | Reply

  2. […] the written answers from the Mayor’s most recent Question Time session (which we previewed here) are now available for public consumption, although as yet only in the rather clunky pdf […]

    Pingback by Questioning Boris: some highlights (& lowlights) « Confessions of a Political Animal — October 21, 2008 @ 3:06 pm | Reply

  3. […] autumn I wrote a couple of posts examining the effectiveness of the London Assembly’s questioning of the Mayor […]

    Pingback by What a difference 12 months doesn’t make « Confessions of a Political Animal — September 4, 2009 @ 4:07 pm | Reply

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