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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): It is totally unlike Westminster.

Mr. Prentice: No, it is not. These are figures from the House of Commons Library and from the Department of the Environment. If anyone is ignorant of the facts, it is the Minister. In 1990, Wandsworth council received £1,424 per head in total external support from the Government. In 1990, Westminster council--where the corruption took place--received £1,638 per head in total external support from the Government. That is why Westminster council was able to bring in a poll tax of £195, compared with £300 in my authority, in that crucially important year of 1990.

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It is a sorry tale, and the thing that disappoints me more than anything is that Conservative Members have been steeped in sleaze for so long that they fail to identify it when it is staring them in the face. It is all very well for the Minister to wrinkle his brow and shake his head. I invite him to go to the House of Commons Library and to read the five reports of the district auditor. They describe the guilt of those six people.

8.59 pm

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): I had not intended to speak in the debate until I heard the putrescent piece of politics that emanated from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) when he attacked my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) last week. It was the most disgraceful behaviour that I have seen from any Liberal Democrat since I have been in this place--and I have seen quite a few examples over the years.

When I entered this House I discovered that when the Conservatives took control of Medina borough council the constituency secretary of my predecessor, Stephen Ross--who had a lot to do with housing--had been chairman of the housing committee of the council. When tenancies were allocated to residents of Medina borough council they regularly received a letter which led them to believe that their Member of Parliament had obtained that allocation for them. Councillor Ian Morgan--the leader of the council in those days--took me to see some of the tenants to discuss it with them because they were convinced that their Member of Parliament was allocating the housing tenancies. I did not complain about that. It was a wonderful wheeze actually: catch as catch can.

The hon. Member for Newbury attacked my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West, who has been exonerated by the report. The attack was quite horrific. When we took control of Medina borough council we found that some starter homes had been sold off in a great big rush, so much so that the councillors came to see me and asked whether there should be a district auditor's report.

A number of the people who bought the starter homes already had homes on the Isle of Wight. I knocked on three doors and found that people who had been sold starter homes at a discounted price already had dwellings or tenancies elsewhere on the Isle of Wight. When I asked them why they had taken them on, they said that the price might appreciate and they might make a profit.

As often happens when there is a change of political control, there is an air of "We are in charge now," and it was all forgotten, but it should have been the subject of a district auditor's report. As the hon. Member for Newbury knows perfectly well--because I have written to the leader of the Liberal Democrats--there was a district auditor's report into the council on the Isle of Wight. He sits there smirking smugly, but he made an unpleasantly vicious attack on a colleague in the House. His party had refused to publish the report. He should wash his mouth out because we are fed up with that kind of putrescent politics from the Liberal Democrats.

When I was chairman of the housing committee I bought a large estate from the Greater London council when it was being wrapped up. I have watched this sort of process over the years. I put a lot of effort into getting that housing transferred to the housing association as I

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did not want to allocate the tenancies. I do not want to gerrymander the system. I want for my constituents the best possible housing service, the best repair record and the fewest voids. The person who objected to that was the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Why? It was because he realised that a transfer of responsibility for housing was a transfer of power, and the Liberal Democrats wanted power over people's lives. They like gerrymandering: housing tenancies represented votes in wards that were crucial to them. That is why the Liberal Democrats did not like responsibility for housing being transferred to an independent body that would allocate homes, not on that basis, but on merit, and which would run things properly. Everyone, bar a few really ideologically motivated characters, now agrees that it is a great improvement.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that one thing has really surprised me in the debate that has taken place last week and this week in the House and in the national press. Some of us are old enough to remember when the Greater London council promised that it would build out Conservative majorities using housing around London and with the Greater London council seaside homes policy. The sum involved was not £31 million. If my memory serves me right--I have eaten a lot of beef lately, so it might be failing me--it was about £300 million to £500 million. That was an enormous scam; it was gerrymandering in the crudest sense of the word and it was stated to be so. Such scams are as old as time itself. Remarkably, we have not heard a dicky-bird about that GLC policy in the debate on this issue.

Mr. Livingstone: If this was all a wicked Labour plot by the Greater London council to build houses around the suburbs and in the south-east, why did the Conservatives continue those estate developments when they won control of the council in 1967? They did so for the simple reason that the previous Labour administration had done so. There was a vast waiting list in London, and in those days all political parties were competing to build more council houses because they believed in doing justice for tenants who needed places to live.

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman was wrong once tonight, and he is wrong again. As he well knows from his long experience of local government, a council cannot put the brakes on existing contracts overnight. He also knows how popular our policy on the right to buy has been; and my goodness, if anything will put a stop to all this gerrymandering and nonsense and total waste of taxpayer's money, it is that.

My final point touches--I hope that I shall not be ruled out of order--on the sub judice rule. A new process has occurred in our legal and quasi-legal system in this country. The matter that we are discussing is obviously not fully within the judicial ambit, but it will be when it is brought to court. The Guinness trial dragged on and on. I firmly believe that the individuals involved in it were almost ground down by the system. We have witnessed a similar process in what is happening with the Maxwell brothers. That is why I said I hoped that I would not be ruled out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall not refer to that again.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's hopes have been dashed. Anything to do with the Maxwells is sub judice.

Mr. Field: There you go, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it just goes to show that my crystal ball is not so cloudy after all.

There is a similar situation in the Westminster case. The report was seven years in the making. No one who is not reliant on public funds or legally aided could sustain that, never mind the nervous energy and tension that such things create and the constant pillorying by the press. Look at what my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West has put up with from the press week after week and what it has cost him, and we then hear that Members of Parliament are all supposed to be on the make. It is appalling. If there were any sense of decency left in the media, they would start to blow the whistle at that point, because seven years of such a process is a form of torture that no citizen of this country, whether they be the heiress or the check-out lady, should have to endure.

As the Parliament which represents the people and defends their rights, we must ensure that those matters are dealt with far more swiftly and reasonably in future.

9.9 pm

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): I, too, will be swift. I know that other colleagues wish to speak.

In preparing last night for the debate, I referred to the words that I thought would be used most. The first was gerrymander. Gerrymandering was a word that came about in 1812 in Massachusetts, when Elbridge Gerry redrew the boundaries in that area to look like a salamander, hence gerrymander. There was party political advantage for his party. Secondly came Tammany hall, which has not been referred to as often as I expected. The term arrived a little later than gerrymandering, in the 1870s. It was a reference to the headquarters of the Democratic party in New York city, which had become a rather corrupt and powerful influence on that city. Ironically, Tammany, for the interest of right hon. and hon. Members, stems from societies that sprang up at the time of the American revolution as patriotic anti-British organisations. St. Tammany became the patron of the sons of liberty clubs.

Dame Shirley Porter can claim a unique achievement. She has managed to bring together gerrymandering and Tammany hall. She has in so doing probably created a new word for the political lexicon, which is portmander. I wonder what a political lexicographer would make of that departure in public administration. Will it be said that to portmander is a verb pertaining to the movement of electors, using taxpayers' money to influence the outcome of elections, frequently done without regard to the public health implications of a planned move--for example, into unsafe housing--and acting in pursuit of such advantage for a political party in a manner that is recklessly indifferent as to whether it is right or wrong?

We have heard much tonight about the procedure that has been used to find members and officers of Westminster city council guilty. I agree that the procedure needs reform. I look forward to the Government--or to us, the Labour party, when we come into government--reforming the procedure. To pretend, however, that the procedure has not been fair and has not ended in a finding is at best naive and at worst rather obscurantist with the truth.

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The procedure is semi-judicial. We know that many Queen's counsel and a great deal of money have been involved in implementing it over a long period. Tony Child, the Audit Commission's solicitor--I am not greatly fond of the man, given the trouble that he has caused many of us in local government over the years--is an expert lawyer. He advised the auditor in the Westminster case throughout the proceedings.

It is worth referring to the summary of the report, because much nonsense has been said about there not being a guilty finding. There is such a finding. One passage reads:


Later, the report states:


Lord Justice Lawton said:


I believe that Mr. Magill has acted with absolute diligence and total meticulousness in a semi-judicial manner. He conducted 135 interviews. The hearing lasted 32 days. His final report--I have read only the summary--covers 2,000 pages. He had information comprising 10,000 pages. It is absurd for Conservative Members to suggest that it is anything but a proper finding.

It is worrying that Conservative Members will not accept the finding. Their attitude adds to the indictment that what is happening among the Tories in Westminster city council is in too many ways uncomfortably like what is happening among the Tories in the Palace of Westminster. Both are no longer able to distinguish between the public interest, the national interest and the Tory interest. For both, the end truly justifies the means--any means--and if it helps to keep the Tories in power, it must be right.

As time is short, I should like to make two or three points that have not been mentioned. I condemn the council members involved. Dame Shirley Porter acted disgracefully throughout. She demonstrated her own guilt in an article in The Independent last Friday, in which she claimed to be completely innocent. She wrote:


In saying that, she gave the game away. She was pursuing a policy to ensure that she could gerrymander that borough and retain it for the Conservatives. If she was so convinced of her innocence, why did she cancel appointments? Why did she not exercise the right to give evidence in public? Why did she shred evidence and why did the district auditor have to employ agents to find people to interview? Why did they have to look for evidence in the basement of Westminster city hall? Why did she not provide the documents on which the policy was based?

One of the most disgraceful aspects of the whole affair is the role of the officers of Westminster city council. We have to consider why such a scandal could have occurred. Had information been made freely available to all members of the council, it would not have happened and

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we would not be talking about the biggest scandal of political corruption for almost 30 years--since the Poulson affair.

I find it particularly disgraceful that the director of housing, whom the district auditor has found guilty of misconduct, is still employed by Westminster council in a different job. We have to consider carefully the role of officers. They have a duty to ensure that all members of the council act in the public interest and that there is no illegality.

I am extremely concerned about the implications that others outside Westminster council in the political parties knew what was happening. Let me quote briefly from a letter to the Prime Minister. I believe that the scandal and corruption probably went higher and further than Westminster, as that would explain the reluctance among Conservative Members to discuss the matter. The note to the Prime Minister from Shirley Porter on 19 December 1986 said:


Of course, politics plays a part in local government. On the whole, if local councillors get their policies right, they are re-elected. The district auditor accepts that in his report. What went wrong in Westminster was that the political advantage was not a by-product of the policies; it was their primary purpose. Unless Conservative Members understand and address that point, we shall have bad democracy.

We owe the objectors an enormous debt, and the speech by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) was outrageous. If the objectors had not pursued the case with such diligence, it would not have been thrown into the open, and we would not have the evidence that is now before us and from which we should learn.

We hear much from Conservative Members about the victims of crime. In this case, the victims were the homeless, who were either put into asbestos-ridden flats or came to places such as Barking courtesy of the Peabody housing trust. Barking is an hour's journey from Westminster. Those people were miles from their roots, their children's schools and their jobs and they became a financial burden on my local council in terms of social services.

The Conservatives have got their politics wrong. If they wanted a proper debate allowing understanding of the issues at stake, it would not drag on. By refusing to comment now, they are allowing this ghastly political corruption to drag on, and failing--as representatives of a nation, and as a democracy--to learn the real lessons of a dreadful experience.


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