Westminster City Council

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 10:10 am on 21st January 1998.

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Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 10:10 am, 21st January 1998

The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) mentioned balance. The critical fact is that the Labour party acts when there is wrongdoing or substantial allegations: we suspend the members under investigation. We have not hesitated to condemn and criticise those who are found guilty. The difference is that Conservative Members have not uttered one word of condemnation or criticism of the behaviour of Dame Shirley Porter and her colleagues, who have been found guilty by the courts. How dare Conservative Members talk about balance, when they have not begun to address the issue? Dame Shirley Porter is guilty of the worst offence possible for someone in public office—betraying the very people whom it was her duty to serve. Housing is one of local government's most important responsibilities, and for it to be abused is morally and politically squalid. Those are not my words, but those of the London Evening Standard on 9 May 1997, following the publication of the district auditor's final report. They are important words, because they demonstrate the fact that the wider world understood the nature of the breach of probity in local government that occurred in Westminster.

Sadly, some of the Westminster Conservatives' apologists, from some of whom we have heard this morning, have done their best to promote what happened as a victimless crime, saying that it may have been arrogance or wrongheadedness but that no one got hurt and, in any case, everyone does it. In fact, it was the single greatest act of electoral corruption in British political history, and thousands of ordinary people suffered and continue to suffer.

The council tax payers of Westminster have lost £27 million, regardless of whether that money has gone into someone's pocket, which is not in dispute. This spring alone, the council will cut £500,000 from the classroom budget for our schools. Over the years since the investigations began, millions of pounds have been removed from the budgets of the social services and education departments, hitting services for the elderly and the chronically sick and disabled.

That £27 million is worth £130 a year on everyone's council tax, and the interest forgone alone is worth £30. The absolute and overriding priority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said, must be the return of the money. The council must seek to have the money paid into court, pending an appeal, and work with the district auditor to pursue what is rightfully due to the people of Westminster.

Where did the money go? It went on capital grants to induce tenants to vacate council buildings and to purchase non-council property. No doubt that was a success in some cases, but the inducement contributed to the 1,000 repossessions a week that were happening at the height of the housing crisis in the early 1990s.

Millions of pounds were spent on keeping buildings empty, with expenses ranging from security and the Sitex doors that went up on properties throughout the borough to the cost of rent forgone. The largest expense was the additional cost of homelessness, condemning hundreds, if not thousands, to the misery of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

In March 1988, 9,000 properties were included in the designated list and, by March 1989, 702 dwellings had been set aside for sale. One of the most appalling aspects of the story is the fact that, when those properties had been set aside, they were allowed to remain empty for long periods. The total number of weeks empty in the period investigated by Mr. Magill was 27,567.

Think of what that meant to families in bed and breakfast, and indeed for sons and daughters—the very people of whom the hon. Member for Guildford spoke earlier—who were trapped in grossly overcrowded accommodation in their home borough while a metal door was fixed to the neighbouring property, which was being held for sale.