21 Jan 1998 : Column 923

House of Commons

Wednesday 21 January 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Westminster City Council

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.34 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issues of local government probity illustrated by the scandals of Westminster city council. The saga stretches back over 12 years and touches every Westminster resident. As Westminster Labour councillors, my hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley) and I experienced the scandal directly and fought against it. It is a scandal of such spectacular scale that it rivals any work of political fiction--except that it is true.

I shall start by reminding the House of some of the key findings of the High Court on 19 December 1997. It found that


That was


    "because they had the ulterior purpose of altering the electorate".

It further found that


    "Targeting marginal wards was central to her political objectives"

and that


    "Their purpose throughout was to achieve unlawful electoral advantage. Knowledge of the unlawfulness and deliberate dressing-up both inevitably point to wilful misconduct."

In so finding, the High Court surcharged Dame Shirley Porter and Councillor Weeks £27 million--the highest amount in local government history--and disqualified them from holding office. Language of such outstanding condemnation is more appropriate to the Old Bailey than to the High Court, but it shows how seriously the court viewed what has been described as the greatest act of corruption in local government history.

In the May 1986 council elections, Labour romped home in 12 marginal seats and came within 108 votes of winning the council. Lady Porter's greatest nightmare was coming true. "Imagine socialists running Buckingham palace!" she exclaimed. From that paranoia was hatched the long dark shadow of the Tory conspiracy that was to subvert democracy in the city of Westminster. From then on, elections were to be fought on a different basis.

As the few remaining decent Tories stood by, officers were bullied and intimidated and city hall was politicised. As Burke pointed out,


21 Jan 1998 : Column 924

    Never was a saying more appropriate than in Westminster council during the Porter years.

As the auditor said in his report on the infamous sale of the cemeteries for 15p, there was "a climate of fear" in city hall. Time and again, officers who refused to toe the line were sidelined, retired or sacked. Some 48 senior officers had left by 1988. The exodus culminated in the departure of the chief executive, Rodney Brooke, a highly thought of local government officer, who, after years of humiliation doing little more than the equivalent of counting paper clips, was given a £1 million pay-off.

The High Court exposed what it called


and


    "The attitude of the majority party to the Westminster council officers, for whom it could not have been pleasant working at this time . . . such pressures may well have had an insidious effect on the officers, making them reluctant to speak out robustly."

The politicisation of city hall was summarised in a nutshell by a margin note written by solicitor Matthew Ives on one of the many secret documents. He wrote:


    "This paper should not have been written by an officer. Much more subtle approach required. This paper shows officers working for a Tory victory."

City hall was infiltrated by a whole dramatis personae of shady right-wing characters advising Lady Porter. One became known throughout city hall as "the man with no name" and "the thing in the goods lift", because of his habit of sneaking in by the tradesman's entrance. We now know that he was Roger Rosewall, erstwhile Socialist Workers party activist, now Porter apologist and Daily Mail leader writer.

Property speculator Richard Loftus was also part of the clandestine city hall plot. While he paid for the Tories' poll tax campaign, he was also seeking permission for highly controversial developments in the west end, involving the partial demolition of some of the finest Georgian buildings in central London. He gained those permissions, leading to the destruction of a large part of London's architectural heritage. We believe that those permissions were obtained only because of his Tory party connections.

Not only was political campaigning conducted on the rates, but, from other sources, donations were illegally channelled through a bogus charity, the Foundation for Business Responsibility, which was run by Michael Ivens, a right-wing extremist and husband of Tory councillor Katy Ivens. There was a panoply of espionage, with Porter telling her associates to


Instructions were given to officers to book meeting rooms for Tories, using undercover names. The Toffler society was a favourite alias--much to the disapproval of the American right winger, Mr. Toffler. There was a complete dispensation with the normal democratic process. Decisions were taken not in committee but by a secret chairmen's group, whose minutes have still not been fully published. The reports that went to committee were misleading and incomplete.

However, activities went far beyond that. A dirty tricks squad was set up to discredit residents' groups that opposed Tory policies. Instructions were given to spy on Labour councillors' backgrounds in efforts to dig up dirt

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on us--unsuccessfully, I am pleased to say. Orders were carried out to lie to us, and to delay and obfuscate replies to Labour councillors' letters. As the High Court found, Mr. England, the director of housing, helped Phillips, the managing director,


    "to provide the minority party with wholly misleading answers to what appeared to us to be understandable and wholly proper questions."

Against that background, it is all too clear how the corruption of Westminster occurred.

In her interview with the auditor, disaffected Tory councillor, Patricia Kirwan, said that soon after the 1986 elections,


who is now the hon. Member for Mole Valley(Sir P. Beresford)--


    "was to sell all Council owned properties in key (marginal) wards as it was thought that owner occupiers were more likely to vote Conservative than Council tenants."

By as early as June 1986, officers were recording that the Tories' objectives included


    "Social engineering including housing",

and


    "Economic justification for G-mander on housing."

From those roots developed the policy that was euphemistically called, "Building Stable Communities", which was anything but that. It was the smokescreen for gerrymandering.

The sale of council homes in the eight key marginal wards for the Conservative party's electoral advantage is now well-documented and recorded fact. The homes-for-votes scandal has left thousands of victims throughout Westminster, whose problems will be described by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, should she catch your eye, Madam Speaker.

"Building Stable Communities" went way beyond homes for votes, affecting every council department, every evolving policy--even affecting electoral registration, which was made virtually impossible for those living in temporary accommodation and much more difficult for council estate tenants in marginal wards. Planning policy was fixed, discriminating against social housing and in favour of owner-occupation. Planning permission for owner-occupied housing in marginal wards was fast-tracked to meet the Tory voter targets. There was a plethora of environmental schemes--from fixing broken pavements to street cleaning, and even hanging flower baskets from lampposts--but they all had one key aim: to divert resources to favour marginal wards. A special task force, the ZIP squad, was set up to see it through.

Press and public relations activities were politicised, with special brochures, leaflets and newsletters for marginal wards. Everything was subject to an overarching policy of regular monitoring, with monthly reports supervised by Councillor Weeks and submitted to the chairmen's group.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Is my hon. Friend aware that, when the scandal developed, Westminster council employed somebody to act as a consultant to try

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to help it with its problems? That man was Geoff Price, who had retired as the chief executive of the London borough of Redbridge in 1993. It subsequently came out that Mr. Price was involved in another local government scandal, in my borough of Redbridge. As chief executive, he and the director of finance, Maurice Tilley, gave enhanced pension payments to 103 council employees, who were predominantly male, white and in the central secretariats of the council. Mr. Price enhanced his own pension by £63,000 in the two years before payments were stopped by the minority Labour administration, which was elected in 1994 and dealt with the scandal created by the Tories while they controlled my borough. Is not it interesting that there is a connection between the Tories in Westminster and the former Tory chief executive of Redbridge council?


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