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Mr. Skinner: Is there a distinction to be drawn between what happened under that squalid bunch in Westminster and what happened in Liverpool, Clay Cross and Lambeth? In those three instances, the Labour councillors did what they did openly--there was no secrecy. They wanted the world to know what they were doing. They were involved in a political act because they believed that more money should go to local government. In effect, they were trying to stem the Tory tide of money being taken away from democratically elected councillors and being given to quangos. It was an overt act.

Mr. Wareing: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. They built good solid homes, bungalows for elderly people, sports centres for the youth and the first municipal park to be built in an urban area for decades.

Of course, the Labour party did not excuse misdemeanours at the time and, although I did not agree with everything he said in his speech to the Labour party conference at Bournemouth, we should contrast the courage of Neil Kinnock with the mealy-mouthed words of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister.

How low the Tory party has sunk. There are one or two honourable exceptions. After the publication of the provisional auditor's report, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said that he would condemn the council. He saw that this was the biggest outrage facing a Conservative Government over the acts of Tory local authorities. There were even a few honourable exceptions within Westminster city council. Councillors such as Patricia Kirwin, Tony Prendergast and Angela Killick were willing to give evidence. They did not have parliamentary privilege, but they condemned what was being done and gave some of the most important evidence to the auditor. Who defends them from the Tories?

There was a time, perhaps during the days of Harold Macmillan, when Tory Ministers would not have tabled an amendment such as that before us today defending a council so rotten in its attitude to decent yet poor people. My friends in Liverpool who suffered the surcharge of £106,000 apiece were not millionaires like Lady Porter. In the main, they were poor, honourable and decent

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people who wanted to do good for those whom they were elected to represent. They were not getting anything through the till. They were certainly not benefiting from any fiddles from a Tory Government. In fact, they took the actions they did precisely because they were being starved of funds by the Tory Government.

Mr. McWilliam: Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that no judge who has to deal with the case would, under any circumstances, be able to set aside the evidence that Westminster council under Lady Porter was deliberately leaving council houses empty, putting council tenants into unfit properties and shifting council tenants into other boroughs for party political purposes? Those are things no judge could challenge because the auditor has produced the evidence of that under the duty laid upon him. Does my hon. Friend think that the correct response from the Government should be a condemnation of corruption in local authorities, regardless of political complexion?

Mr. Wareing: If they were an honourable Government, that is what they would be doing. They would be saying that they want to clean up local government without any view to party political advantage.

I suspect that there has been some collusion between the Secretary of State and the Government and Westminster city council because some of the actions of the council required the sanction of central Government. Certainly, the Government have shown sympathy today for the actions of that recalcitrant local authority.

There is a big difference between the actions of Westminster city council and those of Labour local authorities such as Liverpool which have fallen foul of the auditor. It is the difference between somebody pulled up for speeding and a serial killer. That is the difference between Lady Porter and the local authorities in Liverpool, Lambeth and Clay Cross.

Mr. David Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman repeat the comment about the serial killer for the media?

Mr. Wareing: Perhaps I should repeat it now because the hon. Gentleman will not be here after the next election, that is for sure.

In the flagship authority of Westminster, the so-called designated sales of property involved no less than 40 per cent. of the total stock--9,360 properties were to be sold off to what Lady Porter believed to be potential Tory voters.

Some Tory Members have said in interventions that whenever council housing was built, that was some form of gerrymandering too. In Liverpool, in the days when the Tory party was at least honourable, even though one might have disagreed with its politics, it built council estates throughout the city. Was that gerrymandering? I was brought up in one such estate. In fact, that policy was good for beer sales because the chairman of the Tory party in Liverpool in those days was also the chairman of Bents brewery. If one wanted to know where a council estate was to be built, one had only to look over the fields and suburbs of the city to see where a public house appeared and one would know that a council estate would soon follow. That is a bit different from the gerrymandering we have seen.

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How can the Tories defend this? We had a lengthy speech from the Secretary of State in which he hid behind the idea of sub judice. We were told by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this case is not sub judice. These people have been found guilty of a heinous crime against those whom they were elected to represent. When people come to see us in our surgeries, we do not say, "Did you vote for me? Did you vote Labour or Conservative?" When we are elected, we are elected to represent all the people in our constituency. When Tory councillors were elected in the marginal wards in London, they were elected to represent all the people in those wards. They were the councillors to whom people could go, but what was the reward for going? Their reward was to be put into asbestos-ridden flats. Their reward was to have their needs ignored. Their reward was councillors who were guilty of being crooked and have been found to be so by the auditor.

Mr. David Shaw: Serial killers!

Mr. Wareing: I said that there was a difference between what had happened in Liverpool, Clay Cross and Lambeth, and what happened in Westminster: the difference between a serial killer and somebody who drives over the speed limit.

I think back to the arguments in the Chamber 10 years ago, when Tory Members were attacking Labour councils such as Liverpool and Lambeth, and I say to those Tories that the chickens have come home to roost. A Tory council has been found out, and in a very big way. I have as much sympathy with Lady Porter today as Lady Porter had with Liverpool 10 years ago: none.

5.41 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): Once upon a time, my school headmaster told me that in an essay paper on gases that he was reading, one of the candidates had said of a gas that it had the unique capacity for seeking out the crooks and the nannies. It is a pretty conceit, and I am impressed that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has the same quality--although if I possessed it, I think that I would keep it to myself.

The trigger to this debate was the publication on Thursday of the district auditor's report on Westminster city council, on which I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment a private notice question, although the ostensible grounds for the Opposition changing today's business were the replies given in the House on Thursday by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. Conservative Members had been looking forward to an Opposition debate on standards in education, and we shall continue to look forward to it--when the Opposition have sorted themselves out on child benefit, which, incidentally, they will clearly have to do by Friday.

My experience of preparing for this debate afforded me some sympathy for the Opposition's preparation for the Scott debate, although they had twice the amount of time. The pagination of the Magill report was already more extensive than that of Scott, but one's reading needed to be extended to the 642 pages of the Barratt report, given the Leader of the Opposition's somewhat gratuitous reference to asbestos on Thursday, to which I have been unable to detect any reference in Magill.

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The Opposition have been accurate in describing the procedure that the district auditor has followed as being the product of a Conservative Act. One Westminster Labour councillor inquired whether I had been the Whip on the Bill, to which I incorrectly assented, confusing the local government Bill in 1980 with the one in 1982. I repeat what I said on Thursday in the House. Although I have been critical of the process, I have not been critical of the district auditor himself.

I mention that because the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) said on 6 December 1995 on Second Reading of the Audit (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that the stories heard about local Members of Parliament vilifying the district auditor and the Audit Commission were a disgrace.

Ms Armstrong: I said that it was a disgrace that Members of Parliament were supporting councillors who were saying that. That statement arose from knowledge that the right hon. Gentleman attended a press conference arranged by a group of Westminster city councillors on 22 February 1995, entitled, "Westminster Conservatives Accuse Auditor of Paralysing Council".

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