Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: I shall finish this passage first.

The scandal goes to the top, because the Prime Minister has refused to condemn the councillors involved in the asbestos scandal. He recently said of Tory policy:

and apparently that has now become the Tory advertising slogan. It certainly describes Tory policy on homelessness, because it hurts a family to be left in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or in a hostel, and it hurts even more to be placed in an asbestos-ridden flat.

That is what Westminster council called being

and it certainly worked. It gave the Tories gerrymandered local election victories in 1990 and 1994.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): Because of the general tenor of the Barratt report, will the hon. Gentleman give me the paragraph reference for his specific quotation from it?

Mr. Dobson: I shall give it to the right hon. Gentleman at the end of my speech.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): It is not there.

Mr. Dobson: The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) has just accused me of lying, but I shall deal with him later.

Of course, the auditor's report covers only the first period of the homes-for-votes scandal. Electors in Westminster have objected to the money wasted by Westminster on the scheme more recently--an estimated further £21 million. There is also the plain and deliberate failure--

Mr. Pickles: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not.

There is also the plain and deliberate failure of Westminster council to bill leaseholders for service charges and for the cost of major repairs--an estimated further £31 million, including interest.

14 May 1996 : Column 779

Further examples of wrongdoing are yet to be investigated by the district auditor: between £6 million and £7 million lost on the disposal of property below market value; spending on propaganda in the run-up to the 1990 elections; unlawful capital grants; and environmental initiatives unlawfully concentrated on the eight target marginals.

That is not the end of special Tory funding for Westminster elections. The Tories spent £1.5 million on a council propaganda campaign in the run-up to the 1990 elections. Not satisfied with all that money, Westminster Tories set up a charity--the Foundation for Business Responsibility. It channelled £98,897.96 to a public relations firm, Marketforce Communications, to help the Tories fight the local election. Contributions to that charity came from the Duke of Westminster and from Trusthouse Forte, at £5,000 each; from Taylor Woodrow, at £2,000; and from Allied Lyons, Rank Hovis McDougall, Brooke Bond OXO, Dewhurst, Whitbread and Grand Metropolitan, which all gave £1,000. None of those payments was ever declared. Another contributor was Gerald Ronson's charitable foundation, which gave £1,000. That was, of course, before Mr. Ronson went to gaol. The Westminster Tories were found out and the money had to be repaid. Even under this Government, charities are not allowed to fund political parties--not even the Tory party.

The facts of the scandals are not really in dispute. While Lady Porter and her Tory apologists may dispute the scale of the loss, or even the legality or illegality of what they have done, there can be no doubt about what they have done or why they did it.

So what is the burden of the complaint by the people surcharged and their friends? They complain that the system is unfair to them and that it places too much power in the hands of the district auditor. But that is not what the Tories said in the past about the district auditor. They were happy to give him the powers that he now enjoys under the Tory Local Government Finance Act 1982. They were quite happy to pass that law, which was to apply to every council and to every councillor in the land. I have carefully examined that Act of Parliament, which gave the district auditor his powers, and I am afraid that the Tories forgot to put in a get-out clause to say that it applied to every council except the Tory flagship council, or that it applied to every councillor except fat-cat Tory millionaires. It applies to them all.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not.

In 1989, after the district auditor had started his investigation into Westminster, the Government reasserted their view on the auditor's powers. They said:

of the Act--

and they remain there to this day.

14 May 1996 : Column 780

Those Tories have been found with their hand in the till for electoral purposes, subsidising a Tory election campaign at the expense of other people, and especially at the expense of the homeless. But neither the Prime Minister nor the Secretary of State will condemn them. The Prime Minister said when the auditor's preliminary report was published:

The allegations have been confirmed. The auditor's inquiry has run its course and the decision has been made, but still the Prime Minister cannot bring himself to condemn the wrongdoing. Last week he said:

the people who have been found guilty--

How long does this process go on? When is an outcome not an outcome? Lady Porter is a very wealthy woman and can afford to go on appealing and appealing. Should she lose in the High Court, will the Prime Minister tell us that his condemnation must await the outcome in the Court of Appeal? Will he tell us that we have to await the decision of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, the European Court of Human Rights or the International Court of Justice at The Hague? When will he condemn this wrongdoing?

The Prime Minister's other excuse for not condemning his friends is that they have protested their innocence. But that applies to everyone who does not accept a verdict. The question that the Prime Minister must ask is, "Have our friends, our Tory friends in Tory Westminster, behaved as if they were innocent?"

People who believe that they are innocent are not afraid for others to know the truth. They say, "Here we are, here are the papers. The papers will prove that everything was above board." But that is not what the Westminster Tories have done. No, they have obstructed the auditor at every turn. Documents were shredded. Attempts were made to erase items from the memory of the council's computers. Documents that the council said that it could not find were easily found by the auditor when he decided to take a look for himself. He also then found significant new documents previously undisclosed by these innocents.

People with the responsibility for investigating the innocent do not usually have to resort to dawn raids on offices or hiring inquiry agents to track down the innocent. Innocent people do not usually have to be sub-poena'd to attend interviews. But all that has been required of the district auditor in his search for the truth. People who are innocent are usually willing to avail themselves of the opportunity to answer publicly questions about what they have done. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) did that at the auditor's hearing and got off. Lady Porter did not do that, but now complains when she loses her case. Her problem is not that the auditor would not hear her. Her problem is that he did not believe a word that she said.

Innocent people do not usually attack the competence and integrity of the person investigating their case. "Tell the truth and shame the devil" is the motto of the innocent, but it is not the motto of Westminster Tories. They have

14 May 1996 : Column 781

peddled rumours to the press about the auditor, held press conferences attacking the auditor, complained of delays by the auditor. But as everyone knows--

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson: No, I shall not.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen): This is an extremely important debate and I am grateful for the opportunity to ask my hon. Friend to contrast the response of the Labour party in 1985, when 47 Labour councillors in Liverpool were surcharged £106,000, with the response of the Conservative party and the disgraceful way in which it is prepared to sit on its hands when the district auditor records that £28 million has been lost to the public as a result of the conduct of its councillors.

Next Section

IndexHome Page