Inside Parliament: Escape for men of property: Tory MPs still opposed to leasehold Bill - Lords told war crimes inquiries cost pounds 3.2m - Appeal to arts minister to save ballet group

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Indy Politics
The Duke of Westminster may have acted over-hastily when he quit the Conservative Party if Labour's description yesterday of the leasehold reform legislation he so dislikes holds anything like true.

According to John Battle, a Labour housing spokesman, the Bill which so exercised the duke and other noble landlords has been reduced 'to a damp squib'. The Government had 'offered a banner bright and then whittled it away'.

Mr Battle levelled his accusations as MPs dealt with amendments made in the Lords to the Housing and Urban Development Bill, the most controversial section of which gives private leaseholders the right to buy their flats or houses.

Labour claimed the Government was betraying manifesto commitments by not reversing changes forced through by peers imposing a residential qualification and a rent threshold, and exempting properties on many stately homes and in cathedral closes.

'What the Government is doing bit by bit is narrowing the range of eligibility,' Mr Battle said. Many of the 750,000 leaseholders whose expectations had been raised by the Bill would find they had been 'short- changed'. The 'Duke of Westminster and his merry men' were holding on to their entrenched interests.

The duke left the party and his post as president of Chester Conservative Association in February as the Bill arrived in the Lords. Believed to be Britain's richest man, he owns 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia worth an estimated pounds 3.5bn. It was, the duke said at the time, 'distressing from a personal point of view to have heritage over 300 years taken away.'

Mr Battle's assessment of the Bill's effectiveness was not shared by its Tory critics. To Michael Jopling, a former Cabinet minister, it remained 'totally lamentable'. Not an owner of any property at stake, he said: 'In the 28 years I have been in this House, I can recall no piece of legislation which makes me more ashamed of what my party proposes in this wretched, miserable Bill.'

It was contrary to Conservative Party philosophy to introduce a Bill which permitted agreements freely entered into to be torn up, Mr Jopling said.

Defending the Government's acceptance of the residency qualification, Sir George Young, Minister of State for Housing, observed that 'politics is the art of the possible'. It was only a 12-month hurdle rather than the three-years pressed by some peers. 'My own view is that the new residency test will not substantially disenfranchise a large number of people,' Sir George said.

Only half the participating tenants in a block would have to satisfy the test. 'These amendments are a sensible compromise between two conflicting points of view.'

Welsh MPs had earlier raised the plight of property owners and householders in more immediate difficulty as John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, made a statement on flooding in the Llandudno and Cardigan areas, promising help for councils which have to overspend on their budgets for emergencies.

The new Cabinet minister also revealed a welcome distaste for the word 'infrastructure', substituting 'services' and 'utilities' on the two occasions it reared its ugly head in his prepared text.

Peers were meanwhile checking on another piece of law many of them had vigorously opposed - the 1991 War Crimes Act, which only reached the statute book after the Government used the Parliament Act to over-ride the Lords' rejection of the Nazi-hunting measure.

Lord Astor, for the Government, said at Question Time that more than pounds 3.2m had been spent investigating 343 cases of alleged war crimes, of which 72 were still under investigation. He could not anticipate 'when, or if, sufficient evidence will be available for a prosecution to be brought'.

Some peers renewed calls to end the pursuit of former Nazis, while others criticised the failure to bring prosecutions. Lord Mayhew, a Liberal Democrat and post-war Foreign Office minister, said ministers had now 'done enough' to satisfy the Commons' insistence on passing the Act. The Earl of Lauderdale, a Conservative, described it as 'an appalling waste of money'.

Lord Astor told them: 'When Parliament passes an Act, it is the duty of the police to investigate.' But Lord Mason, a former Labour Cabinet minister, wanted to know why progress was so slow.

An appeal for Government intervention to save the London City Ballet was made at Question Time in the Commons by Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for Southwark and Bermondsey. Unless extra funding was secured, the company would have gone into liquidation by the next time arts ministers answered questions, he said. Allowing such a popular company to go out of production would be 'economic madness', he said.

Iain Sproat, the new junior National Heritage minister, said he was well aware of the company's deadline of 3 July and would be pleased to meet a delegation to see what might be done. But he went on: 'I would not wish to raise expectations too high given that the Arts Council does operate at arms length and it was they who decided they do not want to continue supporting the company.'

Mention of taxpayer support for ballet brought an inevitable intervention from Terry Dicks, Conservative MP for Hayes and Harlington. 'Many thousands of people are sick and tired of all this nonsense being funded from the public purse.'

Mr Dicks urged the minister to 'take this opportunity in a time of financial stringency to recommend to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury the doing away with his department altogether.'

Mr Sproat observed that Mr Dicks' views were 'well known', then surprised MPs by saying he took them 'extremely seriously. There are many people, perhaps more outside this chamber than inside, who look at the pounds 225m which the Arts Council gets every year and say that's three brand new hospitals we've spent.'

Mr Sproat, reshuffled into a job a year after getting back into Parliament as a retread from pre-1983 years, was not about to support doing away with his new-found department. 'We have to look after the spiritual health of the nation as well as the physical state of the nation. Both have their proper place in our accounting.'