Dame Shirley's lost neighbours

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The Independent Online
SECURITY men peer warily through the glass foyer of the London address of Dame Shirley Porter. The block in which she keeps a penthouse apartment - she has not lived there since fire damaged it last November - is in an undistinguished building in Gloucester Square, just north of Hyde Park.

Here, when she was leader of Westminster council, a dame could step from the tranquillity of home to the sanctity of chauffeured car in perfect safety. A Tesco heiress's money can buy, if not love, at least reassurance. For this is not a salubrious area, and money buys other things on the dark streets near Paddington station when night falls.

A few hundred yards away is Bayswater, one of the wards in which the District Auditor believes that Dame Shirley's council sold off council homes in a vote-rigging exercise. In Bayswater, where housing for the needy has been sold to the richer, lives Michelle. Or rather, she exists. 'I'm frightened to go out at night,' she says. 'Twice I've been stopped by the police. They say, 'Do you realise you're living in a red-light area?' But I don't have a choice where I live.'

Michelle, 35, is one of Westminster council's bed-and-breakfast residents. She has lived in central London for 18 years. To escape from her violent husband - for which reason she wishes to remain anonymous - she left the marital flat and her job as a supermarket cashpoint supervisor. For three months, she says, she was homeless, sleeping on friends' floors. For the past two years she has been living on housing benefit in sleazy rooms in Bayswater, so close to Shirley Porter, DBE.

'I've been suicidal from September,' she says. 'I'm having counselling at St Mary's, and that's what keeps me going. I go to the Jobcentre. I've not been an idler. I've worked all my life. I feel gutted. I've been so close to the edge . . .'

She leads the way up the back stairs of an hotel given over to housing benefit residents. It certainly could not be used for tourists: paper is peeling from the stairway walls and damp's bruise-coloured swirls have run riot on the upper floor. There is a broken window in the passage; the lift is broken, too.

Michelle's room is pleasant enough, with a colour television and good light. She goes into her bathroom and turns the hot water tap: there is none. 'Often,' she says, 'there is no hot water for days at a time.' And for this the taxpayer is paying pounds 130 a week. The only work around, she says, pays pounds 3 an hour, which is not enough to pay for housing and food. So Michelle has been forced to go back to basics. 'I've made an appointment for a small operation to unblock my Fallopian tubes,' she says. 'It's the only way to get a roof over my head.' She screws up her face. 'You hear of young girls doing that. But for a big woman like me - you've got to be desperate . . .' Is conceiving an out-of-wedlock child in despair - however unwise, however frightening an act - morally worse than a conception, say, in passion in the luxury of a Conservative Party conference hotel?

In the small businesses in Bayswater they were talking of double standards. Shrugging, an Italian shopkeeper says that the District Auditor's finding that the Conservatives in Westminster had been gerrymandering would come to nothing in the High Court. They would get off. That was how such affairs ended. 'This country is corrupt,' says Mr Wordsworth of the local launderette. 'If you're three weeks late with the VAT, they send a squad round . . . and now this] The hypocrisy is diabolical.'

Rain poured from the heavens and thunder raged above the sound roof of Dame Shirley's home in Gloucester Square, and into the very walls of Michelle's hotel. Close pent-up guilts, rive your concealing continents, and cry these dreadful summoners grace . . . . Dame Shirley and her fellow councillors accused by the auditor's report deny that there are any guilts, and say they have behaved with perfect propriety.

At the top of a bed-and-breakfast hotel in Sussex Gardens, with the deluge hammering on the roof above them, two refugees from Kurdistan and their five children live in homeless poverty. They have two rooms without cooking facilities and a lavatory that they share with other residents. The father, Essa Ridha, 36, explains that they are Kurds, thrown out of Kuwait after the Gulf war for being Iraqi citizens, and unable to go to Iraq for fear of Saddam Hussein.

'They thought we were enemies,' says Mr Ridha, a civil engineer, pointing to burn marks on his ankle, caused, he says, by Kuwaiti torture. 'I organised a demonstration in Kuwait against what was happening in Kurdistan. If I go to Iraq, I will be hanged.'

Now he is baffled about his next step. He wants to get work, but first the family must somehow be housed, and there is no cash left for a deposit on a flat. 'We are on DSS for Westminster council,' he says. 'I have no people here. I don't know what to do.'

I show him the District Auditor's report. Mr Ridha looks at the newspaper headline and struggles to understand. 'But this lady, Porter, is already rich?' he says. No, the intention was, it seems, to buy votes. Essa Ridha, sitting in that small room, with the disposable nappies stacked on the wardrobe, and a storm outside, suddenly smiles with complete comprehension. 'Ah,' he says, 'small world.'

(Photograph omitted)