DAME SHIRLEY PORTER & WILLFUL MISCONDUCT

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Surcharge upheld against Dame Shirley Porter Friday, December 19, 1997

Dame Shirley Porter: sold council homes cheaply to boost Conservative support

The decision to impose a 31.6m surcharge on Dame Shirley Porter and a former colleague in the Westminster City Council "homes for votes" scandal has been upheld by the High Court - but four others have been cleared of wrongdoing.

Three judges ruled that the district auditor, John Magill, acted lawfully when he demanded the payment from the former Conservative leader of the council and her deputy, David Weeks.  The auditor had found them guilty of "willful misconduct" and "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" between 1987 and 1989.

Lord Justice Rose, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Keene, said the Tesco heiress and Mr Weeks "lied to us as they have done to the auditor because they had the ulterior purpose of altering the electorate" in eight marginal wards by selling council homes cheaply to people more likely to vote Conservative.

"I am surprised by judgment"

There was a crumb of comfort for Dame Shirley, 66, who was not in court, when the judges ruled the original surcharge imposed by Mr Magill of 31.6m was too high and reduced it to just over 27m.  The judges cleared three others surcharged of any misconduct.

They are former housing committee chairman Peter Hartley, Westminster's former managing director, Bill Phillips and former chief housing officer, Graham England.

Former councillor Peter Hartley: "I feel elated that years of worry have been lifted from my shoulders"

The court is still considering the case of Paul Hayler, whose appeal was stayed because of illness. Dame Shirley said in a statement: "I am delighted the officers and Mr Hartley have been cleared of any wrongdoing. "I am therefore surprised by today's judgment regarding myself and David Weeks.

"Strong grounds for appeal"

She added: "I will be consulting my lawyers about matters arising from this judgment."  "We have been advised in light of the decision regarding the others that we have strong grounds for appeal."  The judges had refused Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks, who now face a bill for legal costs estimated at 2m, leave to appeal against the decision. But it is still open to them to ask the Court of Appeal to hear their case.

Afterwards, Mr England said: "We are very pleased. The implications were frightening - bankruptcy and ruin.  "I'll sleep well tonight. I didn't last night."  Anthony Scrivener QC, for Dame Shirley, said she believed, after taking legal advice, that a policy of keeping council homes empty and selling them cheaply to boost Tory support in marginal wards would be lawful if implemented citywide.

The QC said: "There has never been a case of wilful misconduct where members have followed legal advice."  He accused Mr Magill of conducting an "unfair and inappropriate" Watergate-style inquiry - acting as "investigator, judge, prosecutor and his own expert witness," contrary to the rules of fairness and the European Convention on Human Rights.

District auditor John Magill was criticised for taking seven years to complete inquiry

But Lord Justice Rose dismissed the appeal, saying that both Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks had lied to the court when they said the designation of sales in marginal wards had been abandoned.  He described Dame Shirley as a "formidable personality with single-minded determination."  District Auditor John Magill later hailed the outcome as a "terrific decision".

"I hope she has decency to recompense taxpayers"

Local government minister Hilary Armstrong told BBC Radio 4's The World at One:  Ms Armstrong said the Government may consider introducing a criminal offence called the Misuse of Public Office, to apply at both central and local government level.

Sorry end for headline-grabbing Dame Shirley

Law lords ruling marks official conclusion to longest running and biggest local government scandal

THE GUARDIAN  -  Friday December 14, 2001

The unanimous ruling against Dame Shirley Porter by the law lords yesterday marks the official end of the longest running and biggest local government corruption scandal in Britain.  It also marks an ignominious conclusion for the public career of one of the country's most flamboyant politicians who was ordered to pay a 27m surcharge for "wilful misconduct".

The headline-grabbing millionaire Tesco heiress dominated the political scene in London in the 80s just as Mrs Thatcher dominated national politics. Dame Shirley was determined to make Westminster council a Tory byword for efficiency and low cost government.

She was wealthy (named by Vogue as the 20th richest woman in Europe), ruthless, vain and never shy of using any gimmick - including posing as a council litter collector in St James's Park.  But her rule of iron in Westminster came within a whisker of collapse in the late 80s when the then unreformed Labour party was within four votes of capturing the council.

A lobbying company was appointed to advise her how to stop socialists - now many of them New Labour MPs - getting control of a borough that included Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Belgravia and Mayfair.

At the same time Dame Shirley started what the law lords described yesterday as the unlawful and corrupt policy of gerrymandering the poor - and thought to be Labour voting - and homeless out of the borough. Officially it was called "building stable communities" but it became known as the homes-for-votes scandal.

Dame Shirley and David Weeks - her successor as leader - organised a series of secret meetings to draw up "battle zones" of council property in marginal wards to ensure that these were sold off to prosperous and hopefully Tory voting professionals to prevent what Dame Shirley described as the Trotskyists taking over. The poor were to be housed outside the borough or in expensive bed and breakfast accommodation.

The house sale policy was described yesterday by Lord Bingham as surrounded by "pretence, obfuscation and prevarication". If it was genuinely believed to be lawful, albeit controversial, there was no need for such "intensive camouflage", he said.  The ploy worked - although in hindsight it may not have been needed - and the Tories were returned with an increased majority in the 1990 elections.

Electors backed by Labour councillors, Peter Bradley and Andrew Dismore, who are now MPs, went to court and secured a full scale investigation by the district auditor. The unsung work was done by Neale Coleman, a councillor, who has now left Labour to be one of the advisers to Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

There followed a most extraordinary 10-year battle between Dame Shirley and John Magill, the shy and quietly spoken auditor, in Deloitte and Touche. He doggedly pursued her while she prevaricated and delayed.  Three times she failed to get him dismissed.  The scandal was also the subject of a BBC Panorama investigation and included damning evidence of gerry mandering from Patricia Kirwan, a Tory councillor now retired to France.

The report from Mr Magill was damning. Not only her and Mr Weeks but eight other councillors and officials were found guilty of "disgraceful gerrymandering".  Mr Magill's description of life under Dame Shirley's council was outlined in extraordinary detail in 235 pages showing how top Conservatives deceived fellow councillors, lawyers and voters and deprived homeless people of help in an attempt to alter the electoral composition of the borough to party advantage.

At that time he said the surcharge should be 21.25m shared between the 10. The inquiry had cost 3m, the most expensive council audit investigation in history.  One councillor, Michael Dutt, who owed 2m, committed suicide. But over a series of appeals by the officials and other councillors, the decision was reversed. This left Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks who faced an even higher bill of 31m surcharge.

Dame Shirley controversially engaged Lord Neill, then the independent chairman of the committee on standards in public life, to give her advice on local government practice. He had however to pull out, since Britain's top sleazebuster might be accused of a conflict of interest if he was helping someone accused of being mired in sleaze and gerrymandering.

However the advice proved timely and in 1999 the court of appeal overturned the case against Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks . Dame Shirley said that should be the end of it and was furious when the audit commission, well advised (as it turned out yesterday) by lawyer Tony Childs, was determined to take the case to the House of Lords.

She warned this would be a waste of taxpayers' money and was helped by the fact that a government review recommended scrapping the surcharge system for local government.  Yesterday however the audit commission was amply vindicated when all five law lords found for the district auditor and also said that the commission should recover its costs. The law lords could not contain their praise of the work of the shy auditor behind the whole process.

Lord Scott said: "Detection and exposure is, however, often difficult and, where it happens, is usually attributable to determined efforts by political opponents or investigative journalists or by both in tandem."  But, where local government was concerned, there was an additional very important bulwark against misconduct - the independent district auditor.

Dame Shirley was still fighting back last night by saying she would go to the European court of human rights.  As for the money, will anyone see it?  Dame Shirley is already effectively a political exile in the UK - dividing her time between Israel and California.  If she ever does hand over the cash, the main beneficiary ironically will be Westminster council which is even more under the control of the Tories today than it was in 1990.

Related articles
13.12.2001: Dame Shirley ordered to repay 26.5m for homes scandal
14.12.2001: Analysis: fallout from a struggle of wills
18.06.2001: Tory borough set to cash in on new housing grants

Useful sites
Westminster city council

Around the Guardian Unlimited network
01.05.1999: Court clears Dame Shirley
05.11.1999: 62 a week for one of London's best addresses. 90 for a council flat
22.07.1999: MP with the taste for a scrap
10.05.1999: New audit condemns Porter over repairs
30.04.1999: Liar Porter must pay 27m
01.05.1999: The dame who never lets go
23.03.1999: Lady Porter 'victim of mud-slinging'
30.04.1999: Dame Shirley wins home-for-votes appeal  Dame Shirley of Tel Aviv
14.12.1998: Main players: scandal-hit council's secret plan for pay-offs
10.12.1998: Westminster back in the dock

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