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Mr. Tracey: My right hon. Friend has mentioned the approach in several other cities. Does he share with me some disquiet at the fact that the district auditor investigating Westminster has taken a view completely different from that of the district auditor investigating Birmingham, where similar events happened?

Mr. Brooke: My hon. Friend is right in that observation, but I understand that, according to the process under which such matters are run, district auditors are not subject to precedents set by the behaviour of other district auditors. We still have to ask ourselves, however--

Ms Armstrong: Perhaps I can help the right hon. Gentleman. Allegations were made in the press about Birmingham, and the leader of the council, Councillor Theresa Stewart, invited the auditor in to examine the policy, which no one had said was gerrymandering. In his report the auditor concluded that


and that


Mr. Brooke: I understand that the treatment in certain wards was not necessarily paralleled elsewhere in the city. But we do not want to have a long argument about such matters; the point that has been established is that the pattern of district auditors' thinking does not have to match on a precedent basis throughout the country.

When I was serving at the Department of National Heritage, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who is an Etonian, once called me a patrician. One of my grandfathers was a clergyman and the other a professional illustrator, and my father was a politician in the House. Pace the Register of Members' Interests, there is no money in any of those callings. However, I would not regard being called a paternalist as an insult, so, the law apart, I have to ask myself whether I regret anything about Mr. Magill's narrative.

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Contrary to what the late John Smith said on "Channel 4 News" on the night of 13 January 1994--the date of the provisional report--designated sales were not a method for flooding Westminster with votes from outside Westminster, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras half suggested. Nor does the Magill narrative say that that was in fact a consequence of the policy.

Given the inherent stability of parts of Westminster, it would be silly if I had had no reservations about selling off quite so much of the stock, when I wanted the next generation to be able to live here in Westminster, for reasons implicit in Peter Townsend's seminal work on the lives of old people. As I said on Second Reading of the Housing Bill, I had similar concerns about the policies that the Peabody trust was pursuing at the same time.

When eventually I learnt of the human cost in prolonging the time that homeless people spent in short-term accommodation, I was not at ease about that cost. The Leader of the Opposition raised that subject during Prime Minister's questions last Thursday, but the right hon. Gentleman must allow me to say that I hear the distant grinding of double standards.

According to paragraph 60 of the Magill report, in September 1986, Westminster city council had 330 homeless in hotels in Westminster, while other boroughs were using hotels in Westminster for 1,000 homeless--or three times as many people.

In paragraph 383 of the report, there is a moving passage, prior to the critical housing committee meeting in July 1987, in which Shelagh Laslett O'Brien of the Bayswater Coordinating Group addressed the committee. She stated that she wished to respond to the committee's apparent change of policy in transporting homeless families outside the borough--in other words, as an initial act. She stated that one of the positive aspects of the city council's practice had been that families who became homeless in Westminster had not been placed in accommodation outside the borough. It is an irony that other authorities had been placing their homeless in Westminster for years. But it was not simply a matter of location.

Given the Leader of the Opposition's strictures last Thursday about putting the homeless in what he described as


it is worth recalling that, according to paragraph 825 of the Magill report, on 31 March 1989, six out of the 10 inner London boroughs--Camden, Hammersmith, Islington, Lambeth, Southwark and Tower Hamlets--had more than 1,000 homeless households, ranging in number from 1,164 to 1,690, in temporary accommodation. That is the process that the Leader of the Opposition condemned last Thursday.

On that same day, Westminster had 709 homeless families in the same condition. It was an era in which the Department of Social Security office, now the Benefits Agency--[Interruption.] That was a period in which those who were statutorily homeless were being kept in short-term accommodation. I am saying that a great many more people were being kept in such accommodation by the six boroughs I mentioned than by Westminster.

That was an era in which the Benefits Agency office in Lisson Grove told me that an Irish family had only to arrive at Euston and call the Ealing housing department

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to be accepted as homeless and then deposited in Westminster. Such use of Westminster's facilities, while of course legal, may have affected events in Westminster, including the pattern of voting.

I conclude my speech by considering the observations about Westminster's finances made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, although I suspect that even he would not argue that designated sales had been responsible for the Conservative victory in Westminster in 1990--with an increase in the majority from four to 30 on a day when Conservatives were otherwise being defeated.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has to fall back on Westminster's community charge--indeed, he has done so--but he has done so by reference back to Government assistance. I noted that, in his quotations of GJW lobbying, he did not allude to their lobbying of me as a Treasury Minister. What I recall more vividly is that, prior to my voting against the Government on St. Bartholomew's hospital, the only time that I have not voted for my party was when the Labour Government gave Westminster its rate support grant settlement in 1978.

As for services, Westminster continues to vote Conservative not only because of the level of the council tax but because of the quality of services. I cannot recall whether it was the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras or the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) who claimed that Camden's efficiency was characterised by its low cleaning charge as compared with Westminster's higher one. But one has only to visit the boundary between Camden and Westminster the day after a snowfall, when Westminster's streets are clean before the start of the working day and Camden's are still snow ridden at the close of the working day, to see where the differences lie.

Attention to one's public does pay dividends. Westminster has been voted the cleanest borough in London despite a scenario in which, if I shake the hand of someone on the street during a general election, I have only a one in 20 chance of shaking the hand of someone who has the right to vote for me. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has listed similar comparative performance in other fields.

Finally, on asbestos, the Opposition have given me two separate references for their quotation from the 642-page report. Tomorrow I shall compare the quotation of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras with the text. I agree that Mr. Barratt concluded that the council failed to exercise proper standards of management of the asbestos, but he also provided a coda to his report--in a letter to the Westminster chief executive, on 3 May--in which he confirmed that he had found no evidence of any intent whatsoever by any person deliberately to endanger the health of the flats' occupants.

6.4 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The Conservatives on Westminster city council have cheated. They have cheated their electorate, they have cheated the people of Britain and, above all, they have cheated the homeless. To pick on someone weaker than oneself is the mark of a bully, but to pick on the homeless is despicable.

There have been many efforts in this debate to claim that no one has yet been found guilty. But the six people concerned have now, we have been told, gone to appeal. One cannot appeal against a finding of guilt until there has

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been a finding of guilt. Moreover, the six have been sentenced--the surcharge certificate has been sent to them. One cannot be sentenced until one has been found guilty.

So let us be clear about it. The proudest symbols of British conservatism have been found guilty of gross misuse of public funds, of sacrificing the homeless and, worst of all, of seeking to subvert the democratic process.

This country's system of local government, sadly, has cracks that leave it open to abuse. Westminster's Tories have hammered wedges into those cracks. They have exploited the system to the full, and they have turned the abuse of power into an art form.

What has been the response of senior members of the Conservative party in the House? They have sought simply to sling so much mud around that the general public have been left with the impression that those who have been found guilty are no worse than everyone else.

Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State could and should have done. They could have denounced what has happened in Westminster, declared that such outrageous misconduct was entirely unacceptable and thrown those who have been found guilty out of their party. By their failure to do so, they have brought their whole party into disrepute.


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