Previous SectionIndexHome Page


9.19 pm

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I share the sense of nauseated disgust described by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I also endorse everything that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). I have little doubt that the corruption inherent in the scandal goes much higher

14 May 1996 : Column 857

than Dame Shirley Porter and members of Westminster council. Despite protestations to the contrary by Conservative Members, this must be one of the most shameful performances from a party that is undoubtedly degenerate in supporting those whom it regards as rich and powerful while neglecting those for whom it should speak in the House--the weak and vulnerable.

We have heard much about millions of pounds. We have heard weasel words from Conservative Members. We have observed the Secretary of State attempting to walk a fine line, refusing either to condemn or to support the guilty Westminster council. The voices that we have heard remarkably little of are those of some of the victims to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Barking referred. We all know what started this gross scandal. According to Dame Shirley Porter, it was "building stable communities" or BSC. A more appropriate translation of that acronym would be "bovine spongiform conservatism", given the inordinate damage that such diseased policies have created.

Let me refer to a family in my constituency. The father was a Westminster resident for 16 years; for six years, he, his wife and their two children were tenants of a flat in Westminster. One day, out of the blue, they received a letter from the council enclosing a glossy brochure and asking whether they would like to move to an estate in Staines where there would be a garden and a better quality of life. I understand that the development had been financed partly by Westminster council under the business expansion scheme.

The family went to see the property. They had to make a decision in three days, and they duly moved to the estate. Under the same scheme, more and more families from Westminster moved to it. There were many children, and a large proportion were young teenagers. The estate was entirely inappropriate for young men, as there was virtually nothing for them to do there. It was a comparatively restricted area; there was nowhere for the children to play without causing huge disturbance to the other residents. To cut a fairly long story short, my constituents suffered severe harassment, to such an extent that they had to leave the estate. The wife, who is dark of hair and skin, was subjected to racial harassment, and her children were subjected to verbal abuse.

Having moved away from the estate, my constituents re-presented themselves to Westminster council, which they deemed to be their local authority and to be responsible for rehousing them. Westminster sent them back to Staines, and the same pattern was repeated yet again. By that time, my constituents were unable to live together: the father was living with his mother, and his wife and the children with friends. The marriage has now broken up. The mother and her two children are in a hostel in my constituency, having been placed there by Westminster council. There have been endless hearings and applications to Westminster council, which categorically refuses to take my constituents back although its pressure forced them to move from a home in which they had been happy, contented and a family.

That is the one real scandal--or one tiny part of that real scandal: the destruction of human lives, and the break-up of a family. The two young children are suffering; the daughter is suffering especially severely, because of the break-up of her family and the fact that

14 May 1996 : Column 858

they have no secure home. I have letters from teachers in her school saying that, despite the move to Staines, when the children returned to the school that they had known since nursery age they readapted and were absorbed easily and speedily. That is no longer the case.

It behoves the House to realise that Westminster council's practices and its gerrymandering, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking, for clear political advantage and with no regard whatever for taxpayers or for individuals or their families, were a scandal and a disgrace. Even more disgraceful is the way in which Conservative Members have, in a way, endorsed Westminster council's activities. The speech by the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has twice refused to condemn the council, was scandalous, but his inability to speak for the people of this country pales into insignificance compared with the speech by the Prime Minister more than a week ago on this issue.

This is the House of Commons, and we are sent here to represent people whose basic interests are to live in peace and quiet in a home that they can call their own and in security with their children. Conservative Members significantly failed to speak for those people in a debate about what is surely one of the most outrageous and corrupt scandals in local government that the city of London has had to bear for generations. That is an utter disgrace, and I sincerely hope not only that the people of London will remember what failed to emanate from Conservative Benches, but that every voter in the country will remember it.

9.26 pm

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East): I thank those hon. Members who have helped me to get a couple of minutes to speak. I used to be the Greater London council member for Westminster, North and I had many contacts with Dame Shirley Porter. She is the only person I have ever met in whom I can think of not a single redeeming feature. It is inconceivable that someone can amass such vast personal wealth and still have a chip on her shoulder. I found her one of the most remarkably stupid people I have ever come across in public life.

Why do we have this great scandal? It is because, as the GLC was drawing to its end, those of us in Westminster Labour party looked at the electoral map and saw that in a normal year, which is what 1986 was likely to be, if not a good year, Labour could win 27 of the 60 seats. We decided to concentrate on three Conservative wards, which in a normal year we would never have a chance of winning. Instead of putting our best candidates into safe Labour wards, we put them into those three Tory marginals and worked them as we had never worked them before.

We thought that by putting much effort into the election and getting people out who had not been out before in those wards, we might have just one chance of snatching a couple of them and taking control of the council. We said among ourselves, "We shall get only four years. We shall catch the Tories only once because they will canvass afterwards and rebuild those neglected wards." We failed to take the wards, but we came within a few hundred votes.

After the election, we thought, "That is it. They will never let us creep up like that on them again." In our wildest dreams, it never occurred to us that Dame Shirley

14 May 1996 : Column 859

Porter would assume that the election result was an indication of some vast permanent shift to the Labour party. We had just had a damned good election campaign and it never occurred to us that she would set aside £31 million of public money, rig the entire local government system and browbeat and harass every local government officer who dared to say, "I think that this might be illegal, ma'am."

Such happenings seem inconceivable. Any local government leader with an ounce of sense--I see many such people in all parts of the Chamber--would have looked at the result and said, "They will not catch us in that way again." All that Dame Shirley Porter had to do in 1990 was to get out, do a bit of canvassing and conduct a few ward surgeries. She did not need to rig the entire system but, as I say, she is not very bright.

I do not join my colleagues in condemning the whole Tory party for supporting Dame Shirley Porter. Many Conservative Members approached me today and said, "They wanted me to speak in the debate, but I told them that I would not." A few people have been put up to bang the drum and they will live with the shame of that for the rest of their political careers. I am sure that their Labour opponents will make good use of it in the general election. By their absence tonight and by their refusal, when asked by their Whips, to justify this, many Conservative Members have shown that they are as disgusted as we are.

Corruption is not a matter simply of Westminster. We have had corrupt Labour councils and Labour figures; we have just had Robert Maxwell, for God's sake. Let no one say that all the bad apples are in one barrel, but when he realised that the game was up, at least Robert Maxwell topped himself and saved the public a trial. Dame Shirley Porter has dragged it out for 10 years and burnt the documents, and when has a district auditor ever had to do a dawn raid on the leader of the council's office? The woman is a disgrace.

My only worry is this. Dame Shirley Porter has bunked off to Israel, so I hope that we have an extradition treaty with it. If not, I know the enthusiasm of the Secretary of State for Defence. He could give the Special Air Services the job of going in and bringing her out.

9.30 pm

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): I was about to start by saying that this is one of the saddest debates in which I have taken part in the House, but I enjoyed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). In his normal way, he has reiterated what Labour Members have said many times. It is not up to us to condone or to tolerate corruption and malpractice in any council, wherever it happens. In event after event, we have sought democratically to tackle, both through our party machinery and in the House, corruption and malpractice, wherever it has arisen.

I have been horrified today to listen to Conservative Member after Conservative Member move around trying to avoid saying, "Whether this was legal or not, it was wrong." That is what we are here to do. We are not here as lawyers, even those of us who are lawyers. We are here as the public's representatives. Because of that, more is expected of us than is expected of accountants, lawyers, doctors or anyone else.

We have a trust that is so precious, it is granted only through the ballot box and occasionally. In many countries, people are fighting and dying because they are

14 May 1996 : Column 860

not given that trust. Hon. Members are now abusing that trust. The debate is about how public representatives maintain the trust of the folk they seek to represent.

I am happy to admit that I am not an expert in legal matters, but I have a sense of what is right and of what is wrong and of how we, as public servants, are duty bound to behave. In that regard, the House has had one of its saddest days.


Next Section

IndexHome Page