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Mr. Brooke: The hon. Lady is perfectly correct about the subject of the press conference and perfectly correct to say that I was responsible for acting as its host. It was a debate about what risk councillors would be under as a result of taking decisions that they had been advised were legal. Indeed, many journalists who attended agreed in private conversation afterwards that it was a reasonable subject to raise. Again, I am talking about the process. Her warning that she might say what she said did not reach me until after the debate, and I do not remotely criticise her for that. I was not present to challenge her at the time and mention it now only to set the record straight.

On the process, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said in answer to my supplementary question on Thursday that it was not right during such a process to comment on the nature of the process or to suggest that perhaps a different process would be better. I do not dissent from that, but shall remind my right hon. Friend when he returns to the Chamber that he said when we visited these matters after the provisional report:


Mr. McWilliam: Since I led for the Opposition in Committee on part III of the 1982 Act, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he was definitely not the Whip. Does he accept that that Committee had plenty of opportunity to explore those areas of the process about which Lady Porter and others are now complaining? We tabled amendments on those areas, and they were all defeated by the Government.

Mr. Brooke: I am perfectly happy to agree that one can, from time to time, make mistakes in legislation. I do not dissent from that for a moment. On Thursday, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) alluded to the exoneration of our hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) and the costs that our hon. Friend had incurred to secure that exoneration. To make the

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point that the issue is bipartisan, I should say that it is a commonplace in Westminster that the objectors, too, feel that the necessary costs to pursue the process have been excessive.

Far from criticising the district auditor, and having read the narrative element of his report, I think that he has been meticulous. I come to such a judgment with high family standards, for my brother was one of the inspectors on the Department of Trade and Industry report on Harrods, thus earning en serie the hostility, first, of Mr. Rowland and then of Mr. Al-Fayed.

Mr. Magill's meticulousness has compared favourably in these matters with that of some of the press. I shall not go into the legal conclusions--not least because I am not a lawyer and they will be tested in the courts--but the Opposition's apparent dismissal of the stage in the High Court has rung oddly given that background briefing by the press has shown that, in the past, a district auditor's judgment has been overturned in the High Court.

No one in the House is more conscious than myself of the cruelty that television can inflict, but I found myself subject to a pang of distaste on Thursday night, when the cameras of the BBC's "Question Time" fastened on the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when she was clapping enthusiastically a young man who said that Dame Shirley should go to prison. It would be a mistake for the Opposition, in presuming as they have that Dame Shirley has behaved illegally, to be too careless of the niceties of the law themselves.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was good enough to omit me from his speech today, just as he said that he was sad to include me in his questions on Thursday. I thank him for both. The Evening Standard had forewarned me of what the hon. Gentleman had said about me at his press conference, and on Friday, The Independent said that Labour sources had been playing the same card on Thursday evening--presumably in the Lobby.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is my parliamentary next-door neighbour, and we get on every bit as well as most neighbours do. Thursday was real-time stuff. Had it been played at a more relaxed pace, I would have leaned over the fence and asked him what on earth he was on about.

In fact the issue had arisen earlier, at the time of the provisional report in January 1994. As is recorded in column 349 of Hansard for 13 January 1994, the then shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), had alluded to the fact that "Panorama" had claimed that I attended a meeting in 1989. I had never concealed the fact that I attended that meeting, although I corrected the hon. Gentleman the next day and pointed out that it actually took place on 3 March 1988. I remark in passing that no reference to that meeting occurs in the Magill narrative.

On 21 January 1994 The Observer asked me what other party meetings I had attended. Although I was visiting Manchester that day on Department of National Heritage business, I furnished the paper with a full account. Of a meeting on 13 December 1986, I said that I had no recollection of the agenda, but remembered that its raison d'etre was to look back at the council elections of 1986 and forward to those of 1990.

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The Observer said that the meeting on 13 December 1986 was highlighted in the district auditor's inquiry as one of a series in which the alleged gerrymandering was developed. In fact, now that the district auditor's report has been published it contains no reference to that meeting. In the absence of such a reference, I cannot tell who placed the spin on the significance of the meeting for The Observer.

As for the meeting on 3 March 1988, although The Guardian of 15 January 1994 said that the document, "Keeping Westminster Conservative", which underlay the meeting, included details of what it called the £21 million "homes for votes" strategy, in fact, as I said in 1994, the document made only a passing reference to designated sales--half a sentence in a 15-page, closely typed document--and contained no indication that the policy was not city wide, as indeed in overall terms it was. The Guardian also said that I was the chairman of my party when Westminster city council set its housing policy. That, too, was not so.

Two days after the article in The Observer, when he had seen my statement in that article, on which he had in turn commented to The Observer, the hon. Member for Blackburn wrote to me. He reiterated the same questions as The Observer had asked me about meetings--questions that I had already answered. The following day, 26 January, as is recorded in column 302 of Hansard, the hon. Gentleman referred in the House to an intention to change the electoral base in 18 wards, rather than in the eight to which the Magill report referred. I have long regarded all as being fair in love and war, but there is also some obligation to be attentive to detail.

As for "Panorama", I have twice been interviewed about Northern Ireland by John Ware, a journalist whom I greatly respect--once at great length and once more briefly. For whatever reason, he did not seek to interview me about Westminster city council on either of those programmes.

I apologise for wearying the House with so much detail, but as a consequence of the statement by the shadow Secretary of State to the Evening Standard at the press conference, and of his subsequent allusions in the House last Thursday, constituents have been ringing me up to inquire after my welfare or otherwise. Given where the issue arose, the simplest method of response has been to answer those allusions likewise, in the House.

In seeking to widen their net, the Opposition have demonstrated how long they have been out of power. Throughout the relevant period of Mr. Magill's narrative, give or take a few weeks, I was serving in the Treasury. I also spent part of the time as chairman of my party. There is no way in which someone who holds such offices can also keep track of a local authority as complex as Westminster, and of a narrative as dense as that which Mr. Magill unfolded.

It is perhaps an index of that fact that the only references to me that I could detect in the report, in paragraphs 771 and 772, refer to a time when I had gone to the Northern Ireland Office, and a letter was being drafted to me as the local Member of Parliament. Of course, throughout such events one continues to be the local Member of Parliament, and to an inner-city Member, "building stable communities" had an immediate attraction.

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At the 1983 general election my constituency had the lowest turnout in the country. In 1987 we moved up eight places, overtaking six seats in or near inner London, and two in Northern Ireland. In 1992 we moved up a further eight seats, overtaking the most inner-city seat in each one of a series of other British cities.

There is something about an inner-city seat that makes for transience--hence the attraction of stable communities. In the High Court the law will take its course on such matters, but the instinct in favour of stable communities was a good place in which to start. Westminster has a disproportionate amount of low-income housing, but also a social cohesion that is immensely worth preserving, which is why people like living here.

Against the housing mix in 1977, when I first became the local Member of Parliament, and that in 1987, when the critical housing committee meeting took place, the logic of designated sales was sensible. If, as the hon. Member for Blackburn said, the policy had a political implication, so did Herbert Morrison's programme, and so did Camden's purchase of private properties between 1965 and 1968 under Labour, under Dr. Ruth Glass's tutelage, which, as vice-chairman of finance, I had to help clear up after my party won in 1968. To neither of those programmes do I attribute illegality.


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