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Mr. Gummer: I say to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that he is never in the position of having to accept the words of someone outside on which he cannot speak for himself. I have no intention of removing from people the right to make their cases and put their positions in whatever legal way they can. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would not fall into his party's usual trap of condemning anybody whether the proof is there or not.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): While I understand my right hon. Friend's reluctance to revisit the process by which this judgment has been made, does he agree that it is a matter for grave concern for one person to act as investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and hangman, and to have the power to exact an unlimited fine in penalty? Will my right hon. Friend, when this case is finished, revisit this process and consider introducing a much fairer process, which would be in accordance with natural law?

Mr. Gummer: In the origination of this law, which was indeed passed by the House and proposed by the Government, it was clearly envisaged that those affected had the right of appeal to a court. That is what the law expected, and the very nature of the structure and the system must lead any fair-minded person to accept that people should be able to appeal to the courts, and that--until that appeal has been heard and the courts have judged--it is not proper, right or decent to condemn them. [Interruption.] The seated interventions of the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) show, as usual, an atavistic desire to condemn those with whom she disagrees and a refusal to uphold the principle that people are innocent until proved, in a court, guilty.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Secretary of State aware that, 24 years ago, a Labour council--as opposed to a Tory flagship council--refused as a matter of principle to put up council house rents in line with the Housing Finance Act 1972? The Clay Cross councillors were incessantly condemned for their actions, day in and day out, by Tory Members of Parliament and Ministers in the House.

The councillors appealed against surcharge and--contrary to the way in which the present matter has been handled, with help from the Government for the Westminster councillors--the Clay Cross councillors were put on a fast track. Within two years, the court procedures had been finished and the councillors were condemned and kicked out of government, not because they took any money or did any gerrymandering, but because they acted on principle.

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The truth is that there are double standards. There is one set of standards for Labour councillors and another for Tory councillors. Will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw his statements about not coming to judgment? Labour councillors were attacked day in and day out. The right hon. Gentleman is defending Westminster councillors because the Government have connived with them throughout eight years, a period longer than the second world war. The Government are as guilty as the six over at Westminster.

Mr. Gummer: I would condemn anyone of any party, tendency or attitude who broke the law. I condemn the Clay Cross councillors, who were found in a court of law to be guilty. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, who has excused those councillors throughout--he has said that, as they acted on principle, it did not matter if they broke the law, just as the deputy leader of the Labour party says that the Labour party has not made up its mind whether councils should or should not keep the law in such circumstances--I have made up my mind: all councils in all circumstances should obey the law. If they are found guilty, whatever their political views, they should earn the condemnation of the House, and specifically and particularly the condemnation of those who share their political views.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford): Does my right hon. Friend note that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) has been exonerated by the inquiry, contrary to some of the disgraceful remarks of Opposition Members? Will he accept that there is something fundamentally unjust and immoral in requiring someone to pay enormous costs without means of redress when he has been exonerated by such a tribunal? Will my right hon. Friend congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that he has been exonerated?

Mr. Gummer: It is to rush to judgment to say that our hon. Friend does not have recourse in the courts. That will be a matter for him to consider and decide upon. It behoves everyone to be extremely careful in using the privileges of Parliament to pursue party political attacks. There are many people who have been innocent and who have, on both sides of the House, been accused under the privileges of Parliament. They have not been able to answer.

That is why I say to the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) that I can think of a prominent Liberal who was, under the privileges of Parliament, attacked by Labour Members. In many ways, he was destroyed, because he had no way of responding to what others were able to do under parliamentary privilege. It ill behoves the Labour party, which I understood was created in part to defend those who could not defend themselves, to condemn before others have been found guilty.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The privileges of the House were used to condemn Clay Cross councillors, who had not reached a final position within the courts. They were attacked viciously within the House. The second lot of Clay Cross councillors, after the first lot was debarred, was surcharged severally for £2,000. For that £2,000, the councillors were then debarred from

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office. They were kept out of office for five years before they could return. I am talking about school caretakers and other such people, not the sort of person who is involved in the Westminster case. It is not unreasonable that we should be interested--

Madam Speaker: Order. I must have a question. I have not heard one yet.

Mr. Barnes: Is it not therefore reasonable that constituents in Clay Cross, people who were hit in that way, should be looking with interest at what has occurred here? If it is said that they are after a pound of flesh, they are not; they are after £31 million-worth of flesh.

Mr. Gummer: The House will have noticed that the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest--although I hope that he did not--that we should have more concern for the rights of a school caretaker than of someone who happens to be better off. I happen to take the view that the business of equality means that everyone--everyone--is equal before the law, and that we should behave in that way.

I also say to the hon. Gentleman very simply this.I have been prepared to condemn wrongdoing by anyone in any circumstances. I merely remind the House that the Labour party is still claiming that the Clay Cross councillors, who were found guilty in a court, were in fact not guilty, but were acting under the pressure of principle. I hope that the country outside recognises that the Labour party believes that Tories who have not been found guilty must be condemned, but that socialists who have been found guilty must be excused.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): Does my right hon. Friend recall the practice of municipalisation whereby the Labour-controlled Greater London council used millions of pounds of ratepayers' money to purchase houses for Labour voters in marginal Tory wards?

Mr. Gummer: What I may or may not recall is not a matter for today. What is a matter for today is for the House to live up to its reputation of the one place above all others where people can expect to be upheld until they are found guilty.

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South): As a former member of the Audit Commission, appointed by the present Deputy Prime Minister, I was present when section 15 reports about Liverpool city council and Lambeth council were read. Those reports were acted on. The people paid the surcharge that was due.

Why should that not happen in this case, where a far greater sum is involved, where gerrymandering is involved, which the district auditor, a private sector auditor from Touche Ross, described as disgraceful, and when the district auditor has given an account of how various people on the council thwarted his investigation?

That is why the proceedings have taken so long: people destroyed the papers. Can we not condemn the fact that the people involved delayed the proceedings by destroying the evidence? Is that not a matter that we can condemn, without having to come to a judgment about the judgment that the district auditor has reached?

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Mr. Gummer: There is no doubt that, if the courts find that what the district auditor has said is true, those people will be condemned, and they will have to pay the money which is charged. But I say to the hon. Gentleman simply this. I have been in the position, as I am sure he has, of hearing one side of a case and thinking how clearly it points to the innocence or guilt of a particular party. It is only in the next day's newspaper that I read the alternative, and I say to myself, "That's interesting."A final decision can be made only by the court, and I have no doubt that the court will make that decision.

Again, I shall only take lessons from the Opposition when they say unreservedly that, in all circumstances, including the case of the Clay Cross councillors--including the case of a surcharged councillor who sits on their Benches today, including the case of an Opposition Treasury spokesman who asked people not to pay their poll tax, including the case of a deputy leader of the Labour party who said that the Labour party was ambivalent about whether councils should obey the law--they condemn breaking the law. When they do that, they will have some reason to speak.

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