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8.9 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell), who has a distinguished record both in local government and as a member of the Audit Commission. It is entirely typical of the hon. Gentleman that he managed to cut through much of the froth surrounding the debate and get to the central problem. He asked why Conservative Members were reluctant to condemn the people named in the report, and why there may seem to be some inconsistency between our position now and our attitude to the former Liverpool councillors.

The exchange between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) went to the heart of the problem: the difference is that the Westminster councillors say that they are not guilty. They do not believe or accept that they have broken the law, whereas the former Liverpool councillors accepted that they were deliberately breaking the law. They did so on principle, because they did not believe in the law or support it. That is the difference.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) seemed bemused, and asked about our reluctance, but I have given her the answer, although I cannot put it in quite such elegant terms as did the hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South. We are unhappy about Opposition Members' determination to nail those six people to the tumbrils, and even more unhappy because they seem to want to throw in some extra bodies for good measure.

We prefer to wait until the court system is exhausted before we attribute guilt. The exchange between the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) also went to the heart

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of that problem, because when the hon. Member for Newbury said that the people concerned were guilty, my hon. Friend rightly asked, "Where does it say guilty?" The hon. Member for Newbury could not tell him.

At that point I thought that I heard the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), who was on the Opposition Front Bench, say that that did not matter. He said something like "So what?" But guilt does matter; it is important, and it is only right that we should condemn people only when the legal system has been exhausted.

It is a shame that great works of literature are sometimes over-quoted in the Chamber. People so often refer to an "Alice in Wonderland" situation that when that description is precisely applicable to something, one sounds a little coy when one uses it. But it describes exactly what is happening now. In the great trial scene in "Alice in Wonderland", with the Red Queen, we read words to the effect of "We don't want to hear the evidence or the judgment; we want the sentence first. Let's have the sentence before we look at the evidence." And that is what we hear now: "Never mind about the trial, the evidence or peoples' civil rights. Let's have the verdict."

We have heard how upset Opposition Members were when my hon. Friend the Member for Dover named Labour members of Westminster council. We have the same feeling about naming the people in the report. They are entitled to a fair hearing at a fair trial.

Mr. Brooke: I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is not in the Chamber now, but he did not give way to me during his fairly vicious attack on Ministers. Does my hon. Friend recall the debate in the Liberal Cabinet over the Marconi scandal, when it was said that the Tories were too stupid to take advantage of it? Winston, who of course had previously sat on the Conservative Benches, said, "Yes, some of them are too stupid"--then he paused for a moment and thought, and added, "But all of them are too nice."

Mr. Pickles: My right hon. Friend's knowledge of contemporary history far exceeds mine, but that story has the ring of truth about it. I certainly thought that the hon. Member for Newbury brought some light to fairly dark proceedings when he suggested that the whole procedure could have been avoided if only there had been proportional representation. My mind went back to an old sketch from "Not the Nine O'Clock News", in which a "Question Time" audience was told that the world was about to end. The Liberal spokesman said that the real tragedy of Armageddon was that millions of people would die without ever having had the opportunity to enjoy a fair voting system.

The added ingredient in the story has been Lady Porter. After all, she was the nemesis of the Labour party in London. She did not suffer fools gladly, and was not a quiet retiring leader; she was prepared to take the Labour party on. Ratepayers in London benefited to the tune of millions of pounds because of Lady Porter's willingness to stop the Greater London council spending large sums in its last few days of existence--the so-called "tombstone funding".

It seems distasteful that people should be judged and convicted without a hearing, and without an opportunity to defend themselves.

Mr. Livingstone: May I put the record straight? Lady Porter took the GLC to court to object to the fact that we

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intended to give £100 million to voluntary organisations. She won the case, so we gave the money to housing associations.

Mr. Pickles: I think that the hon. Gentleman's recollection is wrong, because Lady Porter lost the case, but still stopped the council giving the money away.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes: I was in court when the injunction was obtained, and although the case was not won, the point was, because by the time the injunction had been cleared the GLC had been abolished, the law had gone through, and the council could not and did not give the funding out, so the ratepayers got the money back.

Mr. Pickles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

What I find distasteful is the way in which the Labour party is using the system to crush six individuals. What adds the extra spice is no doubt the fact that we are talking about the Tesco heiress, whom the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) described as a fat cat.

The law should apply equally both to the Tesco heiress and to the person on the checkout at Tesco. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras quoted the words written over the door of the Old Bailey, but the last time I looked at the Old Bailey there was a lady standing on top of it--the symbol of justice. She carries the symbols of justice in both hands, and her eyes are blindfolded. It is important that everybody has the right to justice, regardless of his or her means.

During proceedings on the private notice question last week, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras pledged that a future Labour Government would hold a public inquiry, although he did not repeat that pledge today. I think that he is nodding, acknowledging that to be true. However, what I thought he was offering was a political show trial. It was clear to me that he was not interested in the evidence or in justice, but simply in seeing the individuals concerned twist in the wind.

Mr. Dobson: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening last Thursday, when the private notice question was asked, he would know that I was concerned not about the six individuals--they should be dealt with under the law passed by the Government in 1982 to apply to anybody, whether a person has a lot of money or none--but about the relations between central Government and Westminster, which have been corrupt throughout.

Mr. Pickles: I refer the hon. Gentleman to column 368 of Hansard for 9 May, in which the context of what he suggested is clear. He might not have intended to do so, but he advocated a political show trial.

If those six people are ultimately found guilty by a court, I make it absolutely clear that I will condemn them, the Conservative party will condemn them and, I have no doubt, the Secretary of State will condemn them. But I am totally certain that we will not have any business about trying to change the law retrospectively--such as we had in 1975 with the housing finance special provisions, when an attempt was made not only to remove the

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disqualification of councillors but to remove some of the financial burdens placed on them. The Conservative party will not do that if the appeals fail.

We are told that the right of appeal is unusual. We are told that, because it is unusual, we have a right to comment. But it is unusual for people to appeal in civil cases and it is unusual for people to go for judicial reviews against decisions of the Secretary of State, but they still do it. One cannot pray in aid the judicial service when it suits and dismiss it when it is inconvenient.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the purpose of the judicial appeal mechanism in this case is that the auditor is not legally qualified and it is not a judicial process? It is, therefore, necessary to confirm that through the judiciary when it is not agreed.

Mr. Pickles: My hon. and learned Friend, who is a distinguished lawyer, is quite right on that point.

I support the points made about Mr. Magill by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke). But just because one has doubts about the way in which he proceeded does not in any way strike at his professional competence. I have the mildest of criticisms of Mr. Magill. I think that it was a mistake to hold that press conference during the preliminary hearing. I think that it was an error of judgment and that it tainted his impartiality. I was very pleased that he did not repeat the same mistake at the full hearing. We all learn from our mistakes, but I am not sure that that undid the damage. On matters of investigation, form is just as important as substance.

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