§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Before I call the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), may I say that it is obvious from the number of hon. Members in the Chamber that there is a great deal of interest in the debate, so I make a plea for brief contributions by hon. Members both on the Back and on the Front Benches.
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
For months now, there have been hints, rumours and press reports showing that something fishy is going on in Labour-controlled Birmingham city council; but until I started to bring all the allegations together and listed and tabulated reports and events, I did not know the half of it.
It is important to say at the outset that Birmingham city council receives some £1.16 billion per annum from taxpayers and business rate payers. That is a considerable sum in any man's language. There is no doubt that substantial sums have been chiselled from that budget and misused. Other sums have disappeared without trace. Furthermore, it now seems that large sums have been misappropriated to gain political advantage for the Labour party in Birmingham, and some money has been used to help extremists against moderate Labour.
I therefore make two separate charges against the Labour controllers of Birmingham city council: first, misuse; and, secondly, misappropriation. I propose to deal with each separately. On the first issue, on 12 January—just over two months ago—I raised at Prime Minister's Question Time the case of Nancy Johnson, who was paid £42,000 per annum to be head of the women's unit in Birmingham. At that time, an investigation had apparently gone on into Ms Johnson's conduct in that office, and I naturally assumed that she had been suspended pending the outcome of the inquiry. After all, if a doctor, or anyone else in any public office, is accused of misbehaviour, he or she is removed to prevent that person from doing further damage while an inquiry is pending—
§ Dame Jill Knight
I shall not take ridiculous interventions, especially from a Front-Bench Member. If that is the best that the hon. Gentleman can do, I shall challenge him on that one.
Although anyone else would have been suspended because of allegations of continued misconduct, Ms Johnson was allowed to continue in post at £42,000 per annum. However, the investigation into her conduct must have found that something was wrong, for the council paid her £11,000 to shut up and go away. We do not know what the inquiry found, because all its findings were kept totally secret and, although the Conservative leader of the council and the Conservative group on the council asked for details of the investigation, none was given.
What we do know is that that woman was also chairman of the Harambee housing association, which I dare say she looked on as another nice little earner because it lost £250,000 of ratepayers' money—[Interruption.] It is certainly public money. There is no question about that.
§ Dame Jill Knight
No, I will not. [HoN. MEMBERS: "The hon. Lady is wrong."] I am most certainly not wrong to say that the Harambee housing association lost £250,000 of ratepayers' money. [Interruption.] If the Opposition seriously suggest that it does not matter if someone wastes public money but matters only if someone wastes council money, that is an extraordinary allegation to make.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject of this debate is clearly listed as "Local government in Birmingham". May I therefore have a ruling from you on whether the hon. Lady or, for that matter, other hon. Members, can raise issues that are in no way related to local government spending, as was the point which she just raised?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Had the right hon. Gentleman listened attentively, he would have recognised that, so far, the hon. Lady has been entirely in order.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman might reflect that I spent a great many years in local government.
§ Dame Jill Knight
Ms Johnson appears to be a friendly soul, and she got her friends in on the act, including one who already worked full time as head of a council-run children's home in the city. That woman claimed—she was paid without a murmur—that she was working 416 hours a month, or 104 hours a week. I presume that that was 52 hours a week for the Harambee housing association and 52 hours a week for the city council-run home. She was paid without a murmur out of the public purse for working 416 hours a month when she could not possibly have been working anything like that.
Another Harambee worker under Ms Johnson's chairmanship asked for and received £500 from the council for "black women's therapy and social action". Normally, when one receives money from the council for such causes, one must fill in a grant application form, which must be sanctioned by responsible persons. No grant application form was ever filled in or sanctioned. The money was apparently paid over with no inquiries. Precisely how it was spent is a mystery.
Apart from all that money disappearing without visible trace, I maintain that setting up a women's unit is a misuse of ratepayers' money. After all, why not have a men's unit as well? Otherwise, is that not in contravention of sex discrimination legislation? Birmingham women's unit is currently putting on an international women's festival, and I have the programme before me. Even the Birmingham Evening Mail, which is certainly not anti-Labour—[Interruption.] It is certainly not—[HON. MEMBERS: "But Fowler is its chairman."] Now who is raising matters outside the subject of the debate? My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)is more than capable of answering for himself, if he is given the opportunity to do so.
Last week, the local paper had a headline saying that it is "hard not to knock" the women's festival. It can say that again. The unit spent some £500,000 per annum of 839 Government grant, which should go to the people of Birmingham. Let us look at the festival programme and see what can be done under such a great effort subsidised by ratepayers. People can go to a tea dance—that would be fun. I have nothing against tea dances, except when they are subsidised by the city council. I am sure that, if my hon. Friends attended such an event, they would be happy to pay the full price, and would not ask the ratepayers to foot the bill.
Alternatively, senior citizens can attend a nostalgia afternoon at the Grand hotel with tea and cakes. That will cost £2 as part of the subsidised women's festival; otherwise, it will cost double that amount. One can go sequence dancing for £1.50. There are still more goodies to come. People can join a domestic violence residents club. I do not know whether that means that one can go along and learn how to commit domestic violence; the programme does not explain what it is about. [Interruption.] You are scared to death—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not think that the Chair is prepared to hear comments like the one that came from the Opposition Front Bench just then. I would be grateful if Front Benchers would remain quiet, or else ask to intervene in the proper way.
§ Dame Jill Knight
One can learn Egyptian dancing or—this is a good one—explore escape through the use of soundbeam. Does that not sound intriguing? One can investigate lesbianism, undergo assertiveness training—I bet Ms Johnson did not need any assertiveness training—or listen to dialogues with seven mad women. All those activities are in the women's festival programme.
The festival does investigate a few—but not many—useful subjects. However, if one wants to learn how to succeed in business or about self-defence or Japanese porcelain, one should not expect to do so using ratepayers' money, thus depriving others of much-needed council services. Many of my constituents live in houses and flats where water runs down the walls, the doors do not fit and the windows let in the rain.
§ Dame Jill Knight
No, I will not give way. Plenty of people wish to speak in the debate, and no doubt they will do so.
Many of my constituents face difficulties in their council homes. I listen to them talk about their troubles and I contact the council. Sometimes the repairs are done and the officials try to be helpful. They explain about the cuts in council funding. It is no wonder that its funding has been cut when the council funds rubbish like the women's festival.
What am I supposed to say to an 80-year-old woman who cannot get a home help to keep her house clean—"Never mind, dear, why don't you let the house go hang and nip across to the Ladywood arts and leisure centre, to hear a talk about Islam in Africa"? That little gem from the festival programme will not help that lady to get her house clean.
Swimming baths are being closed in Birmingham because it is alleged that not enough Government money is allocated to that city. Those baths are being closed while 840 money is being wasted. Library opening hours are being reduced, creating serious problems for many Birmingham people who have always used those library facilities. Worst of all, some homes in Birmingham still do not have indoor lavatories. I think that it is absolutely scandalous that money is being wasted on a women's festival when people still have to go down the garden path to the lavatory at night in the snow and the rain. That is a disgrace.
§ Dame Jill Knight
No, I will not give way to any hon. Members. I have too many questions and answers myself, and I hope that there will be plenty of time for other hon. Members to put their oar in.
There cannot be any excuse for spending money on activities like the women's festival while people still do not have indoor lavatories. I am astonished that any hon. Member would defend that position.
So scandalous is Labour's misuse of grant money that the national papers are now sitting up and taking notice. One reported that a so-called Muslim unemployment project has pocketed £41,000 of ratepayers' money. That project did not provide any jobs, although it has been suggested that it certainly secured Labour votes. No accounts from the project were ever published, despite the fact that a large amount of money was spent. The House should not be surprised about that, because the project treasurer cannot read or write. He is totally illiterate in his own language, which is not English. I think that it is surprising to expect someone who cannot read or write to produce proper treasurer's reports.
One cannot help suspecting that he was put into that position as a patsy. Two Labour councillors, Mohammed Azam and Haider Zaman, seem to have masterminded the project, although they did not issue any treasurer's reports. A third Labour councillor, Ghazanfar Khan, was originally involved. He was forced to resign in a hurry after his planning application for a curry house in a residential area passed through the council on a whipped Labour vote.
The minority resource centre lost £13,000 per annum. Its secretary was Councillor Abdul Malik and the main worker at the centre was the councillor's nephew. I am not sure what that organisation does, but it is linked with the Bangladeshi Workers Association—which receives £24,000 per annum—through Councillor Malik. Neither organisation has any idea where that money has gone. A press report dealing with the matter said that an "unquantifiable amount of money has disappeared". Some of the vanishing thousands may have been spent within the letter of the law, but I would be very surprised if they were spent within the spirit of the law.
How can it be ethical for another Labour councillor, Councillor Rabani, to receive a grant of £52,000 to repair his house? It would cost a lot less than that to deal with damp in the homes of my constituents. Councillor Chauhan has received £11,000 to repair his house. There is nothing like ensuring undying allegiance to the Labour party with a good hefty cheque. It must be wrong to buy votes using taxpayers' money. It is pretty sleazy to buy votes with one's own money; it is very sleazy to buy them with public money.
There have been a number of press reports about the allegations, the latest of which involved a trade union centre in Birmingham which has received £1 million in 841 ratepayers' money since 1986. Chunks of that money were apparently diverted to a hard left campaigning organisation through Councillor Mick Rice, who was able to channel cash from the former organisation to the latter because he was a member of both organisations. All that now remains of that £1 million expenditure is a few worn desks, chairs and filing cabinets—and a few secured Labour votes.
Councillor Mick Rice also seems to be extremely influential. A document which came into my hands only this morning gives chapter and verse of how moderate trade union activity has been sabotaged by a hard left group. According to the document, there has been serious misappropriation of local authority funds in order to aid that effort. It says that work has been commissioned fraudulently.
In fact, the entire document is an appalling catalogue of deceit. I am advised that Councillor Rice strongly opposed calls for any investigation of what had gone on, and claimed that he could ensure that Councillor Theresa Stewart, who is the head of the Labour group on the Birmingham city council, would be amenable to blocking any such inquiry. No such inquiry has taken place. I believe that my charge of misappropriation stands.
Finally, also under that head, I want to touch on the extremely unequal way in which money allocated by the Government to Birmingham is distributed in what certainly appears to be a blatant attempt to buy votes. Out of 841 grants to voluntary bodies, the lion's share goes to those parts of Birmingham that elect Labour councillors and Members of Parliament: Aston, Handsworth, Nechells, Small Heath, Soho, Sparkbrook and Sparkhill with Ladywood at the top of the list, receiving more than 100 grants totalling some £7 million. My constituency is only just across the road from Ladywood.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. The hon. Lady has made it clear that she is not giving way.
§ Dame Jill Knight
The allegations that I make are far too serious to commit to memory. I have chapter and verse for all of them, and none of the barracking and bad behaviour of the Opposition will shut me up.
In Ladywood, more than 100 grants have been made, totalling £7 million. My constituency has received seven in Harborne, which is just across the road from Ladywood and two in Quinton. If anyone thinks that there is no deprivation in parts of my constituency, they are wrong. There are areas of Quinton where there is serious deprivation. There have been only two grants to the areas that need help in my patch. There are more one-parent families in Quinton than in any other part of Birmingham. I hope that all those allegations will be properly investigated by the Nolan committee.
Birmingham is a great city; it is a proud and honourable city. Its citizens deserve better than this.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. 842 Knight) has raised this debate not out of concern for the people of Birmingham but out of concern for the Birmingham Conservative councillors, who were almost wiped out in the last local election.
§ Mr. Hattersley
Does the hon. Lady intend to persist in behaving like this, or will she behave with the dignity appropriate to her years?
The hon. Lady has shown concern for the councillors of Birmingham, who were virtually wiped out at the last municipal election. What we have seen is a re-run, in an even sillier version, of the party political broadcast that Conservative central office—in its folly—produced before the last municipal elections. The allegations have displayed the same triviality. Indeed, there was a moment when I thought that we were going to hear yet again about the horrendous scandal of the gravedigger discovered to be in possession of a mobile telephone.
I know that the hon. Lady is not in a mood to answer questions, but it would be interesting if she could tell us two things. What percentage of the total budget—the budget which she told us raised more than £1 billion from the electors of Birmingham£do the awful misexpenditures that she has reported represent? How many decimal places are required to discover the percentage of funds about which, in her trivial way, the hon. Lady has chosen to speak today? I am sure that she will not give us the figure, so let me ask her two other questions.
First, the hon. Lady spoke in the most florid language about allegations of misappropriation of funds and related matters. Had it not been a rather feeble political exercise, the most appropriate way for her to proceed as a Member of Parliament for the city would have been to report the allegations one by one to the district auditor. How many has she reported?
§ Dame Jill Knight
I am waiting for Nolan. This is much too serious for anything but a totally independent top-level inquiry.
§ Mr. Hattersley
We shall look forward to seeing whether Nolan actually reports explicitly on the various groups within the City of Birmingham, and we shall look forward to seeing why the hon. Lady does not regard the district auditor as an independent arbiter in these matters.
There is a further series of allegations which the hon. Lady was wise enough not to raise. They appeared on the front page of the Observer, and I shall touch on them for constituency reasons. As soon as the allegations appeared—they contained not the slightest suggestion of illegality or of money being illegally used, but only the suggestion of political rather than any other impropriety—the leader of Birmingham council, on her own initiative, referred the matter to the district auditor.
An interesting comparison can be drawn with the ex-leader of Westminster city council who—as the woman described as intentionally gerrymandering and using public funds to obtain votes for the Tory party—was also involved with the district auditor. The hon. Member for Edgbaston now appears to be concentrating on her correspondence. Which council leader would she prefer to work with—the one who, as soon as there is the faintest whiff of scandal, chooses—
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a general conviction that 843 hon. Members do not throw accusations across the House. If my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) is responding to a note from the Official Report, the right hon. Gentleman should withdraw his last remarks.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman can safely leave the procedure of the Chamber in the hands of the Chair.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I shall wait for the hon. Lady to pass her envelope along and then ask again which council leader would she prefer to work with—the one who, of her own volition, at the faintest whiff of scandal referred the whole matter to the district auditor, or the leader of the Westminster Tory flagship borough, who is herself the subject of a district auditor's inquiry?
§ Dame Jill Knight
My impression is that the debate concerns Birmingham city council and nothing else.
§ Mr. Hattersley
The hon. Lady might at least have the grace to repeat what I have just said—that the behaviour of the leader of Birmingham city council in this particular was admirable in every detail and should be applauded and supported by Members of Parliament who wish to ensure that corruption does not besmirch the city.
I wish to say a few words about the allegations in the Observer newspaper some weeks ago. It suggested that nothing illegal had been done, but it was concerned with how grants for improving derelict property were being obtained. The allegation was that the council—rightly but vaguely, in my view—tried to bring some order out of the chaos which had been caused by the Tory party in two ways: first, by not allocating enough money for improvements and, secondly, by inventing a crazy system for the allocation of the grants. The council failed to do that, and there were arguments about how some people should obtain the full rights to which they were entitled under the law. It was that and no more.
There is a crisis about housing improvement grants in Birmingham, but it is a crisis which has been brought about because there is so much decrepit property and so little Government assistance in putting that decrepit property right. As the hon. Lady knows, the leader of Birmingham council invited all the Conservative councillors—and, indeed, councillors of every political persuasion—to join a delegation to the Department of the Environment to ask for more money to make housing in Birmingham not right but better.
The hon. Lady spoke with what she regards as eloquence about housing conditions in her constituency. I understand that the leader of the council is to invite all the city Members of Parliament to see the Secretary of State for the Environment to see whether more money can be obtained under the housing investment programme. Will the hon. Lady come with us to lobby the Secretary of State for the Environment for more HIP money for Birmingham?
§ Dame Jill Knight
I do not think that it is a particularly good idea to conduct a dialogue across the Floor of the House, as it may take time from other hon. Members who 844 wish to speak. Nevertheless, I will answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. As I have repeatedly made clear today, if large amounts were not wasted on ridiculous nonsense, there would be plenty of money available to meet Birmingham's needs.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I shall continue to give way to the hon. Lady as often as she wishes me to. The more she says, the more she demonstrates that she is interested only in the politics, not in the city. She has not been able to tell us how much money has been wasted, or how many houses could have been improved if there had been a total saving. She has not been able to tell us how many grants would have been extended. All she has managed to do is to produce the usual smears and allegations—generally unsubstantiated, and certainly unquantified.
This has been a year of extraordinary municipal achievement for Birmingham. But for a reduction of nearly £20 million in Government grant, the citizens of Birmingham would probably pay less for their municipal services next year than they paid last year. Despite a year of stringency—forced on the council by an arbitrarily low cap, and by cuts in grants which have always been small—the city has been perhaps uniquely successful in improving its education provision. Three weeks ago, when I last spoke in the House, the Secretary of State for Education preached a sermon to local councils, saying that, even in these desperate days they should find more money for education, fund the teachers' pay increase, extend coverage in the classrooms and preserve education standards. Birmingham has done exactly that.
This morning—purely by coincidence—the Joseph Chamberlain college, which stands between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Edgbaston, wrote to me about some specific problems. The letter began by congratulating Birmingham city council on increasing the number of teachers despite the year's financial problems. This year Birmingham will have more than 500 extra teachers. It is taking precisely the action that the Government have told education authorities that they should take despite the difficulties that they are experiencing.
Why, when talking about Birmingham, does the peripatetic hon. Member for Edgbaston—she is now moving gaily from seat to seat—choose to concentrate on matters attracting trivial criticism rather than on matters which merit legitimate and major congratulation?
I see that the chairman of the group which owns the Birmingham Evening Mail is with us today. The last time he was invited to join a parliamentary delegation, he failed to do so—even though his own paper had organised the event, the purpose of which was to raise the issues of press freedom and the levying of value added tax on newspapers. He was too busy to go to Downing street with the other Birmingham Members of Parliament. I hope that in one of its editorials his paper will consider the following proposition: is increasing education spending in a year of unique stringency, and increasing the number of schoolteachers by more than 500, a virtue which more than outweighs the creation of a class in which elderly ladies can be taught to dance?
I believe that the people of Birmingham will know what is important in their city's municipal government, and I think that they will realise that the council has done a good 845 job this year. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edgbaston, who—in her lack of wisdom—has enabled my hon. Friends and me to put some of the real facts on record.
§ 11.3 am
§ Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
The defence advanced by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) was very unconvincing, and at times entered the realms of indescribable pomposity. When he addressed the issue at all, he seemed to be saying that only a small amount of public money was at stake, that the whole issue was trivial and that we should therefore consider other factors. The House should not accept that argument.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) on raising this issue. It should be made clear that the issue is the misuse of public funds.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
The alleged misuse of public funds—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
There are other occasions on which we can debate the issues of government and local government, and wider issues. This morning we are discussing a much more specific question: whether funds provided by the public—the taxpayer—have been properly used. I intend to concentrate on the events of the past few weeks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston has provided a long list relating to a long period. I shall deal in particular with charges that have been made about the misuse of housing renewal grants, for a specific reason.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook accused us of seeking to make party political capital. The unique feature of the cases that have been raised is that they were not raised by Tory Members of Parliament or by the so-called Tory press, and they certainly were not manufactured by Midland Independent Newspapers. I declare an interest as non-executive chairman of the group—when we last debated matters of this kind, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made something of that.
The charges relating to renewal grants were made by a Labour Member of Parliament, supported by at least some Labour councillors, and have been reported in the national press by a newspaper which supports the Labour party. They were made by Labour against Labour. Let us be clear about this: it is not a Tory conspiracy—the whistle was blown by Labour supporters.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, who used to be deputy leader of the Labour party, did not dwell on an even more extraordinary fact: as a direct result of those charges, no fewer than four Labour constituency parties have been suspended. A party investigation is taking place and Labour's public relations machine has stressed at every stage how seriously it takes the affair.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
One can imagine the outcry that would have resulted if a single Conservative association in Birmingham—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about Westminster?"] I shall deal with Westminster shortly. In this instance, four Labour 846 associations have been suspended. As Opposition Members well know, they would be expressing outrage if Conservative associations were involved, and their Front Bench would already be apportioning blame. Let me tell the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is my next-door neighbour in the area, that I certainly do not intend to apportion blame, for reasons that I shall come to. Suffice it to say that I can think of no other recent occasion on which four associations have been suspended as a result of such charges.
Let us consider the history of those charges. On 9 February, in an Adjournment debate, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)—who is present in the Chamber—raised the issue of housing renewal in Birmingham. He criticised the operation of the grants, and went on to say specifically:Regrettably, the operation of the mandatory grant system of the renovation grants allows it to be used for the purposes of political patronage in Birmingham."—[Official Report, 9 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 558.]I respect the hon. Member for Perry Barr for setting out his views in that way.
A couple of weeks later, on Sunday 26 February, the Observer took up the story. Whatever Opposition Members may feel about other papers, I do not believe that they would regard that as a Conservative supporting newspaper—[Interruption] Some Opposition Members appear to have a persecution complex. That paper said:Inquiries by The Observer have revealed that, in some key inner-city wards, half of all Treasury-funded slum housing renovation grants are being directed to Labour Party members whose votes could help ambitious politicians to secure their local power base.That report was carried under the headline:Labour in £2 million sleaze enquiry".Once again, the hon. Member for Perry Barr was asked for his comments. According to the Observer, he said that there appeared to be a prima facie breach of local government corruption laws and that the matter should be referred to the police. I remind the House that those were the words of a respected Labour Member of Parliament who represents Birmingham. A few days later, The Guardian reported that the four constituency associations involved—Small Heath, Ladywood, Sparkbrook and Perry Barr—were being suspended. The inquiry by Peter Coleman, the Labour organisation director, wouldexamine allegations that rival candidates for the Sparkbrook seat, to be vacatedby the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook,have been soliciting support by giving advice on how to jump the council queue for housing".I emphasis that all these allegations were made in the past few weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston dealt with allegations going back much further than that. I do not intend to try to apportion guilt at this stage. Those who have been accused are entitled to put the case for their defence, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Erdington for raising that issue. I hope that when allegations are made against Conservative councils the Labour party will adopt the same attitude, although I fear that it has not always done so.
I have a constituency point to make in this regard. As the hon. Member for Perry Barr knows, I thought that he was wrong to name my constituent, Mr. John 847 Woodcock, in this affair, and I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has now withdrawn the charges against him.
§ Mr. Rooker
I welcome the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has begun to set out his arguments. The hon. Member for Edgbaston raised many issues from the past, three of which affected my constituency and all three of which I reported to the appropriate authorities some years ago.
In my speech of 9 February I was unfair to Mr. Woodcock. I apologise to him here and now. I believe that he operated as a professional person, wholly innocent of any of the alleged scams. He is involved in the sense that he is a professional agent carrying out the work, but it was wrong of me to say that he touted for business. I have met him since and he has told me that he agreed with 97 per cent. of my speech—he agrees with the idea of urban renewal carried out on an area basis and not pepper-potted.
The Observer contacted me on the Saturday before it published the two articles and read them out to me. The paper confirmed that it, too, had named Woodcock, two firms of solicitors and two agents in the articles. Having heard what was read out to me, I told the newspaper that I did not think it fair or right to include Woodcock's name and that it was not relevant. The newspaper did not include it, and I wrote to Mr. Woodcock explaining that the articles had been read to me on the Saturday, that that was when I gave out the comment about the police, and that I had said that I did not think that his name should be used.
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has made a fair statement, for_ which my constituent will also be grateful.
Only one issue is at stake in this debate: is there a case to answer in respect of the allegations that I have set out? If there is, how should it be investigated? By setting up their own inquiries the Labour party and the city council have provided their own reply. Self-evidently, they believe that there is a case to be answered and a case which needs investigation.
My fundamental point for the Secretary of State is that the public will not be satisfied with a Labour party investigation or an internal council investigation: they must know that the charges will be thoroughly, independently and fiercely investigated. There must be no cover-up and no smokescreen—
§ Sir Norman Fowler
I am just finishing.
That is why I want an assurance from the Secretary of State today that when the district auditor investigates this case—as he surely will, because it has been referred to him—he will be given all the necessary powers and resources to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of what are, after all, very serious allegations involving the misuse of public money.
Above all, the investigation must be carried out speedily. That is the message that should go out—dare I say it—from both sides of the House. We must get to the bottom of this affair at the earliest opportunity. Until we do, I am not prepared to talk about guilt. I only hope that when the 848 Conservative party is the subject of similar allegations the Labour party will adopt the same policy. A year or two from now the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook will no longer be with us, but nothing that I have heard him say in recent years leads me to the conclusion that he would ever support such a policy himself.
§ Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Small Heath)
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) for dealing at some length with the article in The Observer of 26 February. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for raising the issue.
Before I respond to the fabrications in that article, I should like to make one further point. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield called for an independent inquiry. Two days after the article about Labour being involved in a £2 million sleaze inquiry appeared, I referred the whole matter to the chief constable. I also took the trouble to write to the Home Secretary, in the following terms:I am sure you will conclude that the allegations have some similarity to those relating to the highly publicised case involving Westminster city council, and it is obviously of the utmost importance that these matters are properly investigated. If it is found that any form of corruption has occurred, then those responsible should face the law.The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Home Secretary has not even bothered to reply.
However, the chief constable did reply. He said, "Thank you, Mr. Godsiff, but from a preliminary look I cannot see that there are any allegations that need to be investigated." I regret that the chief constable did not undertake an investigation, and particularly regret the fact that the Home Secretary was not prepared to use his good offices with the chief constable to encourage an investigation. I believe that the Home Secretary was not particularly interested.
The article that appeared in The Observer on 26 February was written by Mr. Dean Nelson—to whom I shall return later—using racy terminology. It began:Party members accused of using taxpayers' cash to 'buy' safe Labour House of Commons seat.It continued:Inquiries by The Observer have revealed that in some key inner city wards, half of all Treasury-funded slum housing renovation grants are being directed to Labour Party members … It was privately disclosed that between a third and a half of all applicants in some wards were Labour Party members.One has to read the article a second and third time, because it is difficult to nail down the allegations. There are many references to "an informed source"—a senior city councillor who does not wish to be namedand "a spokesperson" but no one making the allegations is named.
The article continues:The area of greatest concern is the Small Heath ward where more than 50 per cent of those awarded grants are party members. The majority of these applicants were presented by Roger Godsiff … and his local membership secretary and agent, Gulbahar Khan, one of the city council's most influential members.When I read that on Monday, I wrote to Dr. Alan Elkin, assistant director of the city's urban renewal programme. He knows all the facts and figures—he provides them to the politicians. I asked Dr. Elkin how many valid housing 849 renovation grant applications received by the council related to properties in the Small Heath constituency. He answered quickly: one. He added that five other applications had been approved and that four more were valid. The Observer article stated that the area of greatest concern was Small Heath, where more than 50 per cent. of grants awarded had gone to Labour party members.
I pressed Dr. Elkin for further information. I asked whether one particular application had been made by the householder or by someone on his behalf, and whether any of the other nine applications had come through myself or my personal assistant, Councillor Khan. Again, Dr Elkin replied quickly:The owner of the property where works have been completed and grants paid made an application privately without professional assistance. However, I am not able to divulge the address without the owner's approval. The file and records have been checked and I can confirm that no applications have been submitted via yourself or Councillor Khan.The article said that the area of greatest concern was Small Heath, where more than 50 per cent. of grants given related to Labour party members.
The Observer article further stated:Charles Road, Small Heath, Birmingham. This is the power base of Labour MP Roger Godsiff. It is also the home of his right-hand man, Gulbahar Khan.That is absolutely right: it is my power base, but every hon. Member has a power base. The residents of Charles road have been extremely supportive of me, for which I am most grateful. It is one of the longest residential roads in Birmingham, containing 322 houses. Of those, 39 are occupied by members of the Labour party. I thought the figure would be much higher, and it should be.
The Observer stated:An internal Labour Party inquiry has led to allegations that Charles Road is at the heart of the scandal.I checked with my party's regional secretary only this week, and she confirmed that no investigation has been authorised or undertaken. More to the point, the chairman of the party's organisation committee has never authorised an investigation. One begins to see that Mr. Dean Nelson's article is based not on fact but fabrications.
I will not read the whole article to the House, but it also implied that another councillor, Raghib Ahsan, had done something improper. That councillor is no friend of mine, but he was doing what he thought was in the best interests of his electorate. He is entitled not to be smeared over the front page of The Observer, as I was.
§ Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)
The hon. Gentleman knows that a number of people in Birmingham are concerned about queue jumping and potential abuse of section 82 procedures. Does he, from his experience of Small Heath ward, know whether section 82 has been used in a partial manner, with the result that people who have been in the queue for a long time have been leapfrogged by people who have not?
§ Mr. Godsiff
Section 82 relates to council housing, but the majority of Small Heath residents live in owner-occupied properties, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman. I am not aware of the figures for the Nechells or Aston wards.
Before reading The Observer article, I had never heard of Dean Nelson. Frankly, having read it, I do not want to hear of him again. However, this was not the first time that Mr. Nelson had written scandal articles. In 1990 and 850 1991, he wrote in The Independent about matters relating to local authorities in north Wales. In another article, Mr. Nelson made allegations about a former police officer, who sued The Independent, The Observer, Harlech Television and Private Eye, and was awarded £350,000 damages. At the end of that case, and after giving the matter serious study, Mr. Justice Drake—who is not given to using flowery language—referred to Mr. Nelson's journalistic methods as "plain crookery".
Birmingham has a problem with preserving its housing stock. Many properties in the city are unfit for habitation, and the money available to deal with the stock has been cut dramatically, from £60 million 10 years ago to less than £20 million. That problem of resources should concern all hon. Members representing Birmingham constituencies. Rightly or wrongly, the council decided, not illegally, to base its grants system on queuing and inquiry forms.
The forms had been completed by 9,500 people, but they have no legal standing whatever and if the system ended tomorrow those people would not have a legal leg to stand on. The queuing system is based on a cut-off date of July 1991, which is nearly four years ago. More to the point, the queuing system takes no account whatever of prioritisation. Those who applied after July 1991 and had minor problems of dampness in their properties went on the queuing list, as did those who applied after July 1991 and had no roof, dampness rising from the floor to the ceiling, every piece of wood riddled with woodworm and no hot water. As I have said, there is no prioritisation.
Some 18 months ago, I decided that I was no longer prepared to operate that system. I explained to the leader of the council that, in future when people came to see me, I would tell them the council's policy and its problems. I said that I would explain about the cut-off date and the queuing system. However, I said that, if any constituent said, "Please Mr. Godsiff, help me to get my urban renewal work carried out", I did not intend to deny that person his legal entitlement to know his rights. That is what I did, that is what I shall continue to do, and I make no apology for doing it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for mentioning John Woodcock. Since I spoke to the leader of the council, I took care to ensure that anybody I passed on went to Mr. John Woodcock, a person of integrity and competence, who would deal properly with applications and would not rip people off. I took the trouble to interview him, not on my own but with another Birmingham Member, to ascertain that he was a person of integrity and competence. Everybody I have referred to him has spoken highly of the way in which he dealt with these matters.
I hold 11 advice bureau surgeries a month in my constituency and I have a full-time advice centre which is open five days a week. A huge number of people come to see me, many of them with urban renewal problems. My constituents are among the most disadvantaged in the country. I say with great respect that they are not middle-class people who know the law. They do not know the law, and they certainly do not know their entitlements. When they come to me as their Member of Parliament, they come to seek help, and many of them do not even have English as their first language.
I do not make the slightest apology in the House or anywhere else for helping my constituents to get their legal entitlements, because that is their right. I am sorry 851 if, by doing that, I offend some people on the city council because it causes problems with their system. I will join those people in making representations to the Government for more resources, because that is what it is all about.
I suggested to the leader of the council that the 9,500 inquiry forms should be placed in front of the Secretary of State, and that he should be asked what to do with them. The 1989 Act is his legislation, and it is up to him to make sure that resources are available. I say again that my constituents are entitled to advice, and that I shall continue to give it when they come to see me. That advice will be given freely by me, irrespective of race, religion or colour.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
The Labour party believes that wrongdoing in local or central Government or anywhere else should be rooted out without fear or favour. In local government, it should be rooted out whether it occurs in Labour, Tory or Liberal councils. We condemn wrongdoing wherever it occurs, but, unlike the Tory party, we also take action.
In Birmingham, charges of wrongdoing have arisen in connection with renovation grants. The immediate response to that from the Labour leader of the council was to call for a report from the district auditor. In an immediate response to the first article in The Observer, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) referred the matter to the police, as he has explained. He also referred it to the Home Secretary. In so far as there were charges relating to what might be wrongful actions within the Labour party, the party immediately announced a thorough investigation and closed four of the local branches to make sure that, if anything wrong had been done, it did not affect any selection or election that might be proceeding. That was right.
As a result of Labour action—not action by anyone else—there is an investigation by the district auditor, some sort of investigation by the police and an investigation by the Labour party. That is all at the instigation of the Labour party, and it was done without fear of favour. That is similar to the approach that we have adopted in Lambeth, Liverpool and other places. I contrast that with the record of the Tories when wrongdoing has occurred in Tory councils. When Wandsworth council was found guilty by the district auditor of breaking the law in relation to the homeless and carrying on headlong with its policy of selling council houses when people had nowhere to live, a vice-chairman of the Tory party, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), said on television that he was proud of that council's record—its law-breaking record!
In Westminster, the district auditor has made it clear that he thinks that the homes-for-votes scandal has cost £21 million and that the failure to collect service and repair charges from leaseholders may have cost £31 million. No investigation was instigated by the Tories who were in charge at Westminster: the Tory party in that council has been obstructive at every turn.
No Tory Minister and, to the best of my knowledge, no Tory Member has ever uttered one word of condemnation about Westminster council in relation to these scandals. Far from it: they have continued to defend the council. As 852 I have said, that is in marked contrast to Labour's attitude to wrongdoing everywhere. Labour does something about it, but the Tories never utter a harsh word against their friends.
I do not know, nor do I think that any hon. Member knows, whether there has been wrongdoing in Birmingham. If there has been, it will be rooted out by Labour; but the issue is used as an excuse to attack the great city of Birmingham and its people. That great city and its ingenious and hard-working people, whose reputation for building and making is legendary throughout the world, have been hard hit by the recession, and the city council has done its desperate best not to take things lying down but to protect the people of that great city, maintain its economic status and give it an economic future.
The council has not always got it right—none of us ever does—but it has tried, and its partnership approach with local businesses and communities has been a substantial success, promoting job retention and creation. It has been criticised by the Tories in Birmingham and nationally at every turn. When the council built the international convention centre, it was described as a waste of money by local Tories—although not by all of them, because some supported it. It was certainly described as such by Tory Ministers, who accused Birmingham city council of squandering money on the centre.
Then what did we find? The most famous use that the centre has had to date on a serious matter was when the Prime Minister took the European summit to Birmingham because that great centre was worth showing off. The centre is smart and modern and has all the necessary facilities to host such an important conference. Not a penny of Government money went into it, and the Prime Minister preened himself and pranced around trying to take credit for it. I think that the centre was used last year for the CBI conference, and it will be used by the CBI again this year.
Lo and behold, among the Tory hypocrites the Tory party central council is to meet there at the end of this month. I wonder whether it will put up on one of those screens which it is so good at using a notice stating, "We condemned this place and the staff, and now we are proud to make use of it."
There have been complaints—they have been made time and again—about the city's efforts to renew the city centre and to make it a smart place of which the people of Birmingham and, indeed, Britain can be proud. It has succeeded. There has been a massive improvement in the city centre. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department of Employment visited the city centre this week and said:No one visiting the City of Birmingham can fail to be impressed by the change and developments in the city centre—surely one of the urban regeneration success stories of recent years.The hon. Lady was merely following on from what the President of the Board of Trade had said last week, when he endorsed the city's regeneration efforts and held them up as a model of civic activity to promote regeneration.
However, all that the Government do is talk about renovation grants. It is absolutely typical of them—they will the end but do not will the means. They have given people a statutory right to renovation grants, but they have not provided the money to meet that right. The spending on renovation grants in the whole of Britain in 1984 was £1.5 billion; it was down to less than £500 million when 853 the last annual figures were produced. In 1984., some 214,000 grants were made, but in the last year for which the full figures are available the number had been reduced to just 34,000. Councils have been forced to institute queuing systems. That may not be lawful, but it is the only thing that they can do when they are faced by people with a statutory right but have not been provided with the Government funds to meet that.
In the very last Budget, the Government lopped a further £57 million off the private sector renovation grant scheme. Birmingham was caught in a dilemma not of its or Labour's making but of the Tory Government's making. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the chairman of the local newspaper group, asked who jumped the queue. The people of Birmingham are not really concerned about who jumped the queue; they are bothered about the people who created the queue in the first place. That needs to be sorted out.
If the city of Birmingham is to discharge its tasks, it faces massive problems in trying to serve almost 1 million people. It needs Government help to provide services. In the Government's list of deprived places in Britain, Birmingham comes 21st. Hon. Members might think that is fair and reasonable, but it should be compared with places that are higher up the list. For example, Westminster is fourth on the list; Kensington and Chelsea is 11th; the City of London—Barings notwithstanding, God help us—is 19th, before the great city of Birmingham. As a result, Birmingham's grant has been cut this year and it has been forced to increase its council tax and cut services. Consequently, the council tax payers of Birmingham, like the council tax payers in most other parts of the country, will he paying more and getting less because of the unfair distribution of grants.
If Birmingham city council had received as much financial help from the Government this year as Westminster received, it would not have had to collect any council tax. Indeed, if it had received the same level of grant as Westminster, it would have paid out an average rebate of £230 to every householder in Birmingham. That shows the unfairness of the system that the Government operate. It is a racket, and the system is rigged in favour of the Government's friends. Of course, the Tories do not regard the people of Birmingham as their friends.
I do not know whether the Secretary of State will roll it out again in his speech, but we are bound to hear the Tories say during the local government elections that Birmingham has a bigger debt than Albania. So it has. Let us compare Birmingham with Albania. Birmingham has better houses than Albania. Birmingham has better schools than Albania. Birmingham has better roads than Albania. Birmingham has better libraries than Albania. The reason for that is that Birmingham has invested in houses, schools, roads and libraries. To do that, and like anyone else, it had to take out a mortgage and then pay it back. That is why Birmingham has debt. The point is that people were prepared to lend money to Birmingham, while no one in his right mind would lend money to Albania. That is what Birmingham has done, and it has done it with the support of the people of Birmingham. Year in, year out, the Labour council has won election after election.
The council previously has been accused of neglecting education. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) spelled out, there have been massive improvements in education in Birmingham, giving priority to educating the children and 854 young people of that great city to give them a chance in life and to give the city in 10, 15 or 20 years' time a chance in Britain and in the world.
I want again to emphasise the unfairness of the distribution system. If Birmingham's education grant had been as big as Westminster's in relation to the population, next year every primary school in Birmingham could have had two extra teachers and every 11-to-18 school could have had 20 extra teachers, without raising a penny on the council tax. That is a further illustration of the unfairness of the system.
I do not have time to spell out all the achievements of the city council. It has its faults—don't we all? However, it is trying hard in difficult circumstances. We have to ask, why are we having this debate? It is part of a concerted attack by the Tories on Birmingham. As I am sure the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield can confirm, there was a meeting last week, to which he was invited by the chairman of the Tory party, to discuss what the Tories could do in their campaign against Birmingham—[Interruption.] The Chief Whip was there. We could quote from conversations in the Corridors; people sometimes talk too loudly, and other people listen.
The Tories are launching their local government campaign today and they are starting it, as they did last year, by suggesting that Birmingham and the people of Birmingham are sleazy and are stupid for voting Labour. The fact is that the people of Birmingham know who is good for their city. They have solidly voted Labour for many years, and I am confident that they will do so again. The Tories' attempt to do down the city of Birmingham and its people will backfire. I am convinced that it will rebound on them, just as it did at this time last year.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) again revealed his ignorance of how the local government system works, so I shall remind him. The arrangements for grant are worked out by the Government and the Labour-controlled Association of District Councils, the Labour-controlled Association of County Councils, the Labour-controlled association covering the inner-London area and the outer-London area and the Labour-controlled Association of Metropolitan Councils—none of which says that the system is rigged and none of which agrees with the hon. Gentleman. All of them know the facts; the hon. Gentleman does not. That is the position from which we should start.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) set an example to the House in the way in which he responded to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) in his comments about his constituent. Throughout the current situation, the hon. Gentleman has been extremely careful to make it clear that when he is talking about grave allegations, he means allegations. He has not sought, in any circumstances, to suggest that anyone is guilty until he is so proven.
The House will recognise the distinction between the hon. Gentleman's approach, which throughout has been honourable, and the approach exemplified by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who, I am afraid, fell below even his usual standard in dealing with such a serious issue. The fact is that serious allegations have been made, against a 855 background in which large sums of money have been put into Birmingham by the Government. On the Stockfield estate, tenants now live in houses owned by their own community association—not run in the appalling way in which Birmingham council had run the estate. The Birmingham Heartlands development corporation is spending £40 million in the inner-city area—the money comes directly from the taxpayer, through Government money, and matched by private money.
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not have time to give way.
In Birmingham, Castle Vale housing action trust—HATs were opposed tooth and nail by Labour councils up and down the country—received £100 million in Government money. Altogether, that makes about £400 million. That money is going towards the development of Birmingham, a proud city that is doing a great deal, most of it through partnership and direct Government and taxpayers' money.
I am pleased that, only last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) congratulated Birmingham on that partnership during a visit. The partnership has been made possible by the Government. It was set up in the teeth of opposition from the politically and historically neanderthal Birmingham council, which is supported by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who is more neanderthal than many.
Increasingly, Birmingham is an improved city where developments are being funded by the taxpayer. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook says that it has done better on education. That happened because the in-coming Labour authority attacked the outgoing Labour authority for not spending any money on education. In the past year and a bit, it has managed to start to make up for Birmingham city council's appalling education policy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that well. Instead of making pompous little remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The Opposition spokesman was given a hearing and the Secretary of State should be given the same.
§ Mr. Gummer
The Opposition spokesman finds it difficult to take any subject seriously because, if he did so, he would have to do some work to find out the facts. He does not like doing that. He does not know that £400 million has gone into Birmingham, or the facts about Birmingham. His knowledge is merely the anecdotal knowledge that leads him to throw allegations at anyone who does not support the Labour party.
I notice that the Labour party's approach to the Birmingham problem is different from its approach to other problems. If I were to speak about Birmingham as the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) did when he was doing the job of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, what would I say? I would say that this wasa case of political corruption and gerrymandering on a scale unknown in modern Britain … There is no parallel … for corruption on this scale.I would also say that the Labour party in Birmingham
856is rotten and amoral to the core, and has abandoned the most basic principles of public morality."—[Official Report, 13 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 348.]That is what I would have said if I were the sort of person who takes an allegation and then makes statements as if a court case had been held and a decision made.
The Labour party is entirely selective in the way in which it deals with these matters. I shall treat the allegations in precisely the same way as I have treated allegations against Lambeth, Westminster, Birmingham and the like. Until the district auditor's case has been proved, any Englishman is innocent until he is proved guilty. [Interruption.] That is not an unimportant matter. The fact that the Labour party can laugh at the basic principle of British justice shows clearly why the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras does not understand that the House is let down by the sort of speeches that he and the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook have made today.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did not think that it mattered if funds had been misappropriated because not a lot of money was involved. In his view, it is only a small baby—that is all—and it does not matter because it is not very much. Conservative Members believe that it does matter, however small it is, and whichever party is guilty. If people are guilty, they should be punished; if they are not guilty, they should be presumed innocent. The House's privileges should not be abused by hon. Members, who could be sued if they made some of their comments outside the House.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall not give way.
The problem is that Birmingham city council has much to be modest about, whereas Birmingham has a great deal to be proud of. After all, the council must explain the £2.5 million spent on women's workshops; not many jobs were created with that money. It must explain the £700,000 spent on the council's newspaper, the £3 million wasted on the social services department's computer system and the £1 million given to a trade union resource centre. It must explain that when it complains that there is not enough money for renovation grants, when it says that it does not have the money that it thinks is necessary for a range of goods, and when Opposition Front-Bench spokesman are giggling away. No doubt it does not matter that £1 million went to the trade union resource centre because, in the words of the right hon. Gentleman for Sparkbrook, it is not very much.
The issue is how we should deal with the allegations. I suggest to right hon. and hon. Opposition Members that they would have done their cause more good by taking a large leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Perry Barr. That would have involved making a clear statement, and then allowing the district auditor to investigate it.
When the district auditor issues his report, I hope that Opposition Members will not assume that what he says means that someone is guilty until the due process of law has been completed. Interestingly, the statement of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras about what the auditor had said about Wandsworth implied that the auditor had said that something illegal had occurred. But the auditor said that the matter may be illegal and may have to be considered in the courts. If the hon. Gentleman cannot distinguish between one and the other when flinging his allegations across the House, he should not 857 be here. He should recognise the damage that he does to the reputation not only of the House, but of the country for fair play and honesty.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman overran his time, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff).
The hon. Member for Small Heath is at the centre of the allegations. It would be wrong for anyone to make allegations about the hon. Gentleman, any of his hon. Friends or the people with whom he works without having extremely good evidence. It is much better to put that evidence in front of the suitable authorities rather than the public arena. He might just feel that his attempt to prove his position point by point would have been more successful if he had looked at the matter differently.
In these circumstances, we should do for ourselves precisely what we have done for other people. If the Labour party had approached this matter in the same way as it has approached other matters when it has attacked Conservative-controlled authorities, it would have gone to town today. We would never have seen the like of it before. What is wrong about the approach of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, apart from the consistent smirk, is that he has appalling double standards. In his view, people who have not been proved guilty are guilty if they are Conservatives and entirely innocent if they are socialists; people must not be smeared if they are socialists, but must he accepted as being absolutely guilty if they are Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have let down the House by applying a double standard to an incompetent and useless council about which a number of allegations have been made.
The district auditor will investigate those allegations. I hope that, in the meantime, hon. Members of all parties will continue to adopt an even-handed approach and that we shall hear no more unsubstantiated allegations from Opposition Members about a Conservative council. We stand for the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty.