Commons approves Birmingham's mayor referendum
The order which forces Birmingham to hold a referendum on creating a directly elected mayor was approved by the House of Commons today - although it was formally opposed by the Labour Party.
Shadow local government minister Chris Williamson demanded a division and then voted against the measure, which obliged the city to hold a referendum on May 3.
Edit - Labour have contacted me to say that this does not mean the party is opposed to a referendum. The party is opposed to national government obliging the city to hold a referendum - which is what the order does - and believes local authorities should be free to hold referendums on the issue if they choose. See more below.
The order was discussed at a Commons delegated legislation committee, which is a Commons committee set up to consider detailed changes to the law which do not require an Act of Parliament. The general power to force cities to hold referendums is contained in the Localism Act, which became law last year, and the Government has drawn up orders for each city which are now being considered in committees, one at a time.
Plenty of Labour MPs back the idea of holding a referendum, including Richard Burden (Lab Northfield), Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill) and, of course, Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston), who hopes to be a candidate.
But it was the critics that turned out in force for today's hearing.
Shadow Local Government Minister Chris Williamson, who provided the official Labour view as the front bench spokesman, said: "Elected mayors can offer a highly effective form of local leadership."
But he went on to say: "As we know, the government has already imposed a 19 per cent cut on local government in the last two years, with more cuts to come in the years ahead.
"And rather than spending valued public money on insisting on a referendum, I think the Government ought to think carefully about the way they deploy public money when there has not been any public clamour at all.
"Even though the government is picking up the bill for the cost of a referendum it is still an expensive activity and I think that public money could be deployed in better ways.
"And for that reason the government should think again and that is why I will be calling for a division on this issue today."
As I said, he later voted "no" when that division took place. To my knowledge, this is the first time Labour has said it
opposes holding the referendums. opposes central government ordering councils to hold referendums
The Government spokesman was Lib Dem local government minister Andrew Stunell. There was laughter when he pointed out that Birmingham Labour Party had issued an enthusiastic response to a Government consultation on the powers a mayor should have.
Labour MP Roger Godsiff (Lab Hall Green) interrupted - and claimed that the Labour group's comments reflected the views of Sir Albert Bore, the group leader who has said he wants to stand for the post of mayor, adding: "That is Albert Bore and his campaign to try to become the first elected mayor, and he doesn't speak on behalf of the Labour Party in Birmingham."
Mr Stunell said the cost of Birmingham's referendum would be £322,000, and although he wasn't entirely clear on the arrangements it appears the city council will have to pay the cost and then reclaim the money from the Treasury.
Birmingham MP Steve McCabe (Lab Selly Oak) complained: "I'm sure the minister is aware of the extremely difficult budget situation in Birmingham and if these costs are going to be advance costs found by the people of Birmingham and then subsequently paid by the government then clearly services are going to be affected now."
Responding at the end of the debate, the Minister suggested Birmingham was rich enough to afford it. He said: "As far as the point raised by the honourable gentleman for Selly Oak is concerned about the possibility that Birmingham might be short of money in the meantime, can I recommend him to look at the council's last published set of accounts which will show him the multi-million pounds of balances they have in the bank? I don't think they'll be suffering from a shortfall."
Mr McCabe demanded the chance to respond and shouted: "He's not telling the truth", before immediately apologising for accusing his opponent of lying, which is against the rules of the Commons.
Mr Godsiff criticised potential mayoral candidates - who include former Labour MP Sion Simon and Labour MP Gisela Stuart as well as Sir Albert - saying: "There is a list of Wannabes, or Mrs Wannabes, who rather like the idea of being the dictator of Birmingham. But I don't think it's actually good for democracy."
Black Country MP John Spellar (Lab Warley) pointed out that the mayor of Birmingham would inevitably have some power over other parts of the West Midlands, for example by chairing or co-chairing the transport authority or helping oversee West Midlands Police.
Edit: Labour sent me a statement following the publication of this blog, which I include below:
A Labour Party spokesperson said: "Labour believes that elected mayors can offer a highly effective form of local leadership. That's why when we were in Government we gave local councils and local people the power to choose to have a mayor if they wanted one.
"Local communities can petition the council for a referendum. And the council can also decide to hold a referendum or alternatively, by a 2/3 majority vote, decide to have a mayoral election. This means that local people are in charge of their own system of local government in their own area.
"There are a range of views in the cities concerned about whether there should be a referendum for an elected mayor, including in Birmingham. The decision on that, however, should not be taken in Westminster; it should rest with local councils and their local electors.
"We also think that Government should pick up the whole cost for the referendum up front given the cuts it is imposing on councils."