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Miss Widdecombe: Further to that point of order,Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for agreeing with such speed to the requests that were made earlier. I hope that the documents now published will shed light, not only on matters that I raised today, but on that other issue which was of such concern to the House in October, and before that in January--exactly who insisted on the insertion of the word "Today"?

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8.54 pm

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): I am grateful for the chance to make my maiden speech today--just in time, by the sound of it.

I regard it as a great honour to represent Battersea in the House. The constituency has many claims to fame. In 1892, it was one of the first constituencies to elect a Labour Member of Parliament, although he was not a member of the Labour party, which had not been created, but of a home-grown organisation, the Battersea Labour League. In 1922, Battersea became the first constituency to elect an Asian Labour Member of Parliament, Shapurji Saklatvala. In more recent years, it has been represented by Douglas Jay, who was its Member of Parliament for 37 years and was followed by Lord Dubs, whom I am sure many Members would wish to congratulate on his recent appointment.

In the past two Parliaments, Battersea was represented by John Bowis, whom I knew long before he was a Member of Parliament, when we worked on opposite sides of Smith square and sometimes had a drink in the Marquess of Granby. Although we are from different parties, I am glad to say that there were never any personal differences between us and I am glad to pay my respects to him and to the work that he did for his constituents during his 10 years as their Member of Parliament.

Sadly, I cannot claim to have the same respect for some of Mr. Bowis's colleagues in Wandsworth borough council, who did their best to gerrymander Battersea into Conservative hands, as a few of them had the honesty to admit, by selling entire estates to private developers and, more insidiously, by selling vacant flats on the open market instead of renting them to people who they knew to be in acute housing need--unlawfully, as the district auditor has since found.

It is traditional to say a few words about the constituency that one represents. Battersea, and Balham and central Wandsworth, which are also in the constituency, have been changing rapidly. Traditionally, they made up a tight-knit community where one could often find three generations of the same family in neighbouring streets, but, as a result of Wandsworth's housing policies, many sons and daughters have been unable to find anywhere to rent in the area and have had to move out. Families have been dispersed and communities broken up by the policies of a party that called itself the party of the family. Strangely, although the council has been found to have been acting unlawfully and although the motive was obviously political, no action has been taken.

In the few minutes that remain, I shall talk about what the Conservatives have done, not only in Wandsworth, but nationally, which has been far worse. In that regard, I welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to restore confidence in the integrity of the political system. Before the general election, the Prime Minister warned his predecessor that he risked leaving a stain on his reputation by his failure to act decisively on the cash for questions affair.

The money involved in cash for questions was only ever counted in thousands. What will stand to the discredit of the outgoing Government for far longer was their failure to stop the corruption of our political system through the growth of large secret donations to the Tory party, often from overseas. That is why we should all

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welcome the commitment in the Gracious Speech to regulate and reform the funding of political parties. The unpalatable truth is that the past two Tory election campaigns were financed to an alarming extent either by British business men who believed they were buying honours or by overseas business men who believed they were buying favours.

When the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield(Sir N. Fowler) gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, he said that no honours could have been sold because that would have been illegal under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. Such blind faith is not apparently shared by Scotland Yard, which recently investigated the alleged case of cash for knighthoods involving the former Conservative candidate, Derek Laud.

Scotland Yard could also look at the case of Sir Graham Kirkham, who received his knighthood soon after making a donation of £4 million to the Conservative party. It could also investigate the entire honours system over the past 18 years; it will be found that more than 50 per cent. of the honours given for services to industry or to exports went to the 5 per cent. of firms that make donations to the Conservative party.

Indeed, if Scotland Yard could investigate undeclared private donations as well, I am sure that it would find an even closer correlation between donors and honours. The Conservative party could certainly assist by opening its books for inspection. That, I am sure, would reveal that the systematic sale of honours has always been a significant source of Conservative party funds. Indeed, the system might have continued indefinitely--

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the hon. Gentleman allowed to make such a controversial maiden speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is the custom of the House not to interrupt a maiden speaker. I have discretion over the matter, and I see no difficulty here.

Mr. Linton: I am not trying to be controversial; I see that the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) has now come out in favour of a ban on overseas donations--so I am making a cross-party point, although the right hon. Gentleman's conversion is somewhat Pauline, given that his party fought two elections with tainted money. To make the point, I need only mention Asil Nadir, Octav Botnar, Nazmuddin Virani of BCCI, John Latsis, Mohammed Al-Fayed and Slobodan Milosevic--and I could go on.

The Conservative party has always maintained that the money is given with no strings attached and for purely idealistic motives. Common sense should tell Conservative Members that if they raise money from business men, especially overseas business men who have no hope of honours, there must be the expectation of a favour. All their troubles can be traced back to this basic failure to understand human nature: the Hamilton affair and the Aitken case both sprang from a single disillusioned donor. The best thing the Conservatives can do now is make a clean breast of it and open their books to public inspection.

There is a cancer in our political system: it is called undisclosed income. If Conservative Members want to help to clean up sleaze, I suggest that they take action

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quickly to ban overseas donations and to declare all donations over £5,000, as our party has done--before they are forced to do so by law. Every other European country has introduced at least these two restrictions in the past 20 years. It is to the eternal discredit of the outgoing Government that they held out so long against sanity.

9.1 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): I begin by congratulating the Government on their election victory and the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), on his appointment. The right hon. Gentleman and I have had many jousts across the Dispatch Box over the past three years. I wish him well in his office.

I also join in the right hon. Gentleman's tribute to Sir Michael Shersby. He was a true friend to me; like the Home Secretary, I benefited considerably from his experience and detailed knowledge of the police and our criminal justice system.

I congratulate all who have made their maiden speeches in the debate. I was able to hear only the last two of them, both of them good in their own way. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears); I thought her speech was a model of what a maiden speech should be. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from her and from the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton)--and from all who made maiden speeches today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) has made a number of allegations about my conduct as Home Secretary. The most serious was that I misled the House. Let me state categorically that I did not. I shall deal with each of her allegations in turn.

At the heart of our disagreement is the decision that I took to dismiss Derek Lewis as director general of the Prison Service. My right hon. Friend disagreed with it. She is entitled to her opinion, but I believe that she is wrong. In September 1994, six prisoners, five of them IRA terrorists, broke out of Whitemoor prison. Just four months later, after I had been given repeated assurances about improvements in security by the then director general, three dangerous prisoners escaped from Parkhurst.

The independent report into prison security, which I commissioned, severely criticised the management and leadership of the Prison Service. It concluded that

the director general--

    "nor his board recognised the signs and symptoms of failure and inefficiency that were so obvious and so dramatically illustrated by the escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor".

The report made no such criticism of me. As I told the House at the time, if it had, I would have resigned.

I believed then, as I believe now, that the conclusion of that report made Mr. Lewis's position untenable. My right hon. Friend has questioned the adequacy of that report. I reject that criticism. The report's author, General Sir John Learmont, is a distinguished and respected soldier, and former quartermaster general of the Army. One of his fellow assessors was an experienced prison governor and

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regional director of Her Majesty's Prison Service. They reached their conclusion after taking evidence from Derek Lewis, and after taking account of his response to their criticisms.

It is true that the picture of the Prison Service presented in that report was different from that presented to me by Mr. Lewis. It is true that I had to choose between them. I did. I believed then, and I believe now, that it was my public duty to take that decision. On that matter, I had to overrule my right hon. Friend. That is at the heart of her grievance and her disagreement.

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