Last week we made history at the Assembly. Ten years after the GLA was created, a government minister finally presented himself before the Assembly to answer questions about London matters.
Before the Election
The previous administration always refused to appear. When the Assembly invited New Labour's Lord Falconer to take questions about his London responsibilities, we were airily dismissed on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for ministers to appear in their official capacity. We were told that unnamed officials had insisted on the convention which then became the norm. Ministers would answer to select committees in Parliament, not the London Assembly - a body which they had created.
Not that they never visited us - that would have been impractical. Ministers and senior civil servants were happy to visit City Hall to brief members, usually over a working lunch. But no minutes were taken and the meetings were not recorded.
Towards the end of Labour's term, the government admitted that there was a democratic deficit, but their solution was misguided. They set up a London Select Committee for MPs, along with select committees for all the other regions, thus failing to recognise the unique governance arrangements for the capital - arrangements that they had put in place themselves. Liberal and Conservative MPs joined together to oppose the new committee system, perhaps sending a signal for the greater cooperation that was to follow.
After The Election
Two former Assembly Members became ministers in May - Lynne Featherstone went to the Home Office to take on the equalities brief, and Bob Neill became the junior minister for local government. Bob always argued that Ministers should be answerable to the Assembly on London matters, so I was optimistic about our chances of securing an appearance. After David Cameron addressed the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, a new and welcome precedent appeared to be being set.
We invited Bob to take questions about devolution of powers to London and he accepted, appearing on Wednesday morning.
Localism in Action
Early in the session Bob stressed the government's support for the Mayor and the Assembly to continue. This welcome assurance should remove one of the tough questions that I faced when I first stood for election. Could the Conservatives be entrusted with London Government after they abolished the GLC in the eighties? The question was raised repeatedly at hustings around Havering & Redbridge and after the election it was cited as a rather dubious justification for the Labour and Liberal groups getting together to shut Conservative members out of major Assembly roles - thus setting an unfortunate precedent which endures to this day.
Bob also spoke of his desire to simplify the London Plan, making it a less prescriptive document and devolving decisions to the boroughs and to local people. I suggested that he might consider shortening the consultation period - the current document has the gestation period of two elephants - and he agreed that would be a good thing.
Bob was confident and clearly on top of his brief. The Assembly Members were constructive and sent him away in one piece. I hope the very positive session will reassure those 'unnamed officials' who discouraged Labour Ministers from attending, because there are other politicians who we would like to question.
Rail Minister Theresa Villiers, Housing Minster Grant Shapps, and Ministers with environment and policing briefs could all be invited in future. I hope they will come because we don't bite and I would venture to suggest that we are more constructive and better informed on London matters than some of Parliament's Select Committees. Perhaps we could even see an appearance from another former AM - Lynne Featherstone.