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Mr. Jacques Arnold rose--[Interruption.]

Ms Armstrong: It is all right. I am not bothered by the hon. Gentleman. He can stand there all night.

We are sent here to fulfil that trust, and we have shown that some people have taken that trust and abused it dreadfully. As I say, it is a question not of what is legally right or wrong, but what is right or wrong.

Mr. Arnold: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman has not been in the debate, and I need to respond to several hon. Members who have.

I do not include the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) in that criticism. He was trying hard to say that the report contained things that he was uncomfortable with and that he did not like. I understand his difficult position, but he was prepared at least not to exonerate all the things in the report.

The district auditor's report does find that Tory councillors on Westminster council were responsible for using £31.6 million-worth of taxpayers' money for party political gain. The report states quite clearly that councillors deliberately set about a course of action that not only wasted public money, but denied desperate homeless families permanent homes while decent housing was left empty until it could be sold. All that was done for party political advantage. Despite the shredding and all the other things that were done to try to prevent the auditor from gaining access to the facts, that evidence was carefully and painfully uncovered, and has been clearly outlined by several of my hon. Friends.

I think that today will go down in the House's history. Hon. Members have refused to face up to the problems in the report, and have questioned the legality of the process. The Opposition are bound to have a little difficulty with that, because the process does not come from us; we did not create it. It did not come from on high. It came from the Government. They worked out the process and put it into legislation. They then defended it when the Widdicombe report recommended that the process should have some semblance of appeal within it. As I said earlier, in their response to Widdicombe, the Government said that that would undermine the authority of the auditor.

Today we have heard Conservative Members--not all of them--seeking to undermine the authority of the auditor. That is sad, because it is our job to ensure that the integrity of people such as auditors is not undermined, and that they are trusted. We have asked them to work on our behalf. We have given them the job and outlined the process. It is our duty to trust them to get on with that job. The auditor has cleared that with the Audit Commission, made incredible attempts to ensure that natural justice was followed, and bent over backwards to ensure that justice in its smallest degree was offered to those involved in the report.

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It is strange that some hon. Members say that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) has been exonerated by the report. I have read what the final report says about the hon. Gentleman. If that is exoneration, I would hate to see what condemnation and wrongdoing would look like. I would not want any of that written about me and the way I have conducted my public affairs.

I am quite happy to concede that the hon. Gentleman has been taken off the surcharge list, but that does not mean that it is not clear in the report that he did things that he should not have done and that he was let off because he did not understand that it was his duty to inform others about what was happening. I do not think that that is exoneration. It is not exoneration in the language and values that I understand. It is surprising and disappointing that the hon. Gentleman is not here. I should have thought that he would want to defend himself before the House, but apparently he is not able to do that.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is no longer in the Chamber, and I am not surprised. I came across the hon. Gentleman on many occasions when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the right hon. and learned John Smith. At that time, I thought that he was the one person in the House who was prepared to say anything knowing that he could not back it up. He was prepared to see the worst in anybody and to say the worst about anybody. He was always prepared to find the worst in anybody. [Interruption.] I am trying to deal with the facts and the hon. Member for Dover's smears. He smeared and libelled people under the guise of privilege. We were lectured by the Secretary of State for the Environment about privilege, but then we heard the most disgraceful abuse of it.

The hon. Member for Dover smeared the name of Peter Bradley. He told us that he had done all the research himself, yet, strangely, it all coincided exactly with the smears levelled by Lady Porter's henchmen in The Times. Peter Bradley was mentioned in an article in The Times in January 1995 written by Andrew Pierce, in which allegations were made about gerrymandering in Camden and Peter Bradley's so-called involvement.

It is strange that the hon. Member for Dover failed to remember and tell the House that an apology and a retraction were printed in The Times, and that all the expenses of my friend, who I think will be the Member for The Wrekin one day, were reimbursed by the paper, which accepted that all the allegations were untrue.

Lady Porter's henchmen tried again. They went to the Director of Public Prosecutions saying that Mr. Bradley had been involved in corruption with regard to Waitrose. The fraud squad told Lady Porter and those who had levelled accusations that it was outraged by the obvious smear, there was no case to argue, and would they please not repeat the accusations elsewhere.

I invite the hon. Member for Dover, who, as I have said, is not here--he really understands the courtesies of the House--to say such things outside the House. If he does, Peter Bradley will more easily be able to pay for his election campaign. That would be putting the hon. Member for Dover to good use.

Many things need to be said in this winding-up speech, but I do not have time. I wanted to ensure that my hon. Friends were able to speak. I find it very strange that

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Conservative Members have sought to undermine the role of the district auditor, and not tried to uphold the auditor's words. They have also sought deliberately to misunderstand the legal process. Of course a member has the right to appeal; anyone has the right to appeal--if they have the money--against any judgment that is made of them at any stage in our legal process, whether through audit or in the courts.

It seems that it does not matter what happens in Westminster, no matter how low the council sinks--we do not hear a word of condemnation from Tory Members of Parliament. It is little wonder that politicians have sunk so low in the public's esteem. The failure to put public duty before party interest undermines not only the standing of the Conservative party but politicians in general. I resent that, and I hope that the Minister puts another gloss on matters.

We are waiting for the Government to express some sorrow for the victims of the scandal in Westminster. That is what I cannot understand. Yes, they may want to defend their friends, but surely they recognise that, when wrong has been done, whoever has done it, we in the House ought to express some feeling for those who have suffered because of it.

We have had a remarkable debate, but a sad one. The Secretary of State ran away from the issues and tried to blame other people. It is never an answer to try to blame other people for one's own sins, or to say that one wrong can be outdone by another. No one here has sought to defend wrongdoing in any council--[Interruption.] I am being asked who the Secretary of State has blamed. In the past week, he has blamed the Labour party and the press--[Hon. Members: "No."] Oh yes, he has. In his statement last week, he blamed the Labour party and said that it was scandalous of us to raise such matters.

Mr. Gummer: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Armstrong: No, I will not.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady may remember that I have blamed nobody. I have merely said that decent people wait for the due process of law before they condemn. I always hoped that the hon. Lady would be a decent person, but this evening she has shown herself unable to do that.

Ms Armstrong: I am delighted that I gave way--because decent people recognise wrongdoing and say, "We shall not tolerate it; we are going to deal with it."

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the individuals in the case before us, the council and its policy were wrong. Whether that policy was legal or not, it was wrong. Anyone who has read the Magill report cannot help being disturbed by it. I know that the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South was disturbed by it; indeed, we all were. I even think that the Minister who is about to reply was disturbed by it.

This is the time for the House to say, enough is enough. It is in all our interests to clean up the Government and to recognise the responsibilities of public representatives. Perhaps the Tory party should meditate on the words of a former Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli:

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I hope that the Tory party will return to that sentiment, and that we shall all be able to hold our heads high because we know that we are determined to insist on the utmost probity. But I do not believe that the Tories are capable of that--and if they are not, they must go.

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