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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 April, 2004, 19:02 GMT 20:02 UK
Q&A: Dame Shirley's downfall
Former Conservative leader of Westminster Council Dame Shirley Porter has provisionally agreed to pay 12.3m to the council over the "homes-for-votes" scandal.

BBC News Online considers the long drawn-out battle to recover the millions squandered by Westminster Council in the 1980s.

Q: What did Dame Shirley Porter do wrong?

Westminster Council's housing committee voted to sell 500 council homes a year to designated tenants in a policy called "building stable communities" in July 1987.

A year earlier the Conservative majority in the council had been reduced from 26 to four and the Conservative council leader, Shirley Porter, was determined to improve her party's standing at the 1990 local elections.

Photo of the exterior of Westminster City Council
On the trail of Westminster Council's missing millions

Between 1987 and 1989 Dame Shirley focused the housing policy on eight marginal wards in the borough and properties were only offered for sale - at a fraction of their market value - to tenants likely to vote Conservative.

Owner-occupiers were deemed more likely to vote Conservative and homes were left vacant to encourage their purchase.

Homeless families were prevented from moving into the targeted properties and Labour tenants were moved out into less critical areas.

Q: How was Dame Shirley brought to justice?

After a lengthy investigation the former magistrate was found guilty of "wilful misconduct" and "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" in May 1996.

District Auditor John Magill found Dame Shirley, her deputy David Weeks, one other councillor and three council officials "jointly and severally" liable for repaying 36.1m, lost in the attempts to fix the election.

Q: Why is the issue still being settled?

One of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's favourite politicians - of whom she shared a mutual appreciation - Dame Shirley refused to accept she had done anything wrong.

Acting on legal advice, Dame Shirley maintained her policy would be "judge proof" as long as it was implemented across the city.

She was, she believed, simply implementing a key tranche of Thatcher's policy of privatisation and began a convoluted process of appeals.

Q: What were the stages of appeals?

Dame Shirley's initial appeal to the High Court was overturned in December 1997, but four of the co-accused were cleared of wrongdoing.

She and deputy leader David Weeks remained liable for the surcharge, which was reduced to just over 27m.

But in May 1999 Appeal Court judges ruled that politicians were entitled to pursue policies and make "voter-pleasing decisions" to their party's advantage and Dame Shirley and Mr Meeks were cleared.

The District Auditor, John Magill, took the case to the Law Lords, who unanimously found in his favour in December 2001.

One of the five judges, Lord Bingham said: "The passage of time...should not obscure the unpalatable truth that this was a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power...for electoral advantage."

Dame Shirley attempted to fight the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, with a letter to the court in April 2002 arguing she had not been given a fair and impartial hearing.

Q: What about the money?

Admitting a personal worth of just 300,000 Dame Shirley claimed she could not afford to pay the surcharge, in spite of being heiress to her deceased father's fortune from the Tesco supermarket chain, estimated at 70m.

She missed the deadline for payment in September 2002 and the following July the government began the process of stripping her of her title - awarded in 1991 for her successes in the 1990 local elections.

Westminster Council had only managed to seize assets worth 7,000, including a portrait and a gold-plated lavatory seat.

In November 2003 the council secured court orders to freeze 30m of assets in Guernsey - which Dame Porter denied any connection with - and in several other jurisdictions.

The money she owes in interest, costs and surcharges stands at 37m.

David Meeks remains jointly liable, but is being pursued for a small fraction of the sum.

SEE ALSO:
Dame Shirley agrees 12.3m deal
24 Apr 04  |  Politics
'Homes for votes' inquiry halted
03 Feb 04  |  London
Dame Shirley's 'assets frozen'
05 Nov 03  |  Politics


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