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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 10:06 GMT


Judgment day for Dame Shirley
image: [ Dame Shirley Porter - claimed the original investigation was a miscarriage of justice ]
Dame Shirley Porter - claimed the original investigation was a miscarriage of justice

Dame Shirley Porter and former colleagues caught up in the Westminster City Council "homes-for-votes" affair will know on Friday whether or not they have won their legal bid to overturn a 31m surcharge for alleged gerrymandering.

They want the High Court in London to rule that district auditor, John Magill, acted unlawfully when he found the former Tory council leader and five others guilty of "wilful misconduct" and "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" between 1987 and 1989.

The judgment will be given by Lord Justice Rose, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Keene.

In May last year, Mr Magill made three councillors and three council officials "jointly and severally" liable to repay the 31.6m that he estimated to have been wrongly spent as they allegedly tried to fix election results in marginal wards by selling council homes cheaply under the right-to-buy scheme to people who were more likely to vote Conservative.

During a recent hearing which ran for nearly five weeks, Dame Shirley's QC, Anthony Scrivener, accused the district auditor of acting as "investigator, judge, prosecutor and his own expert witness", contrary to the rules of fairness and the European Convention on Human Rights.

It was further alleged that Mr Magill had also inspired hostile publicity against Dame Shirley while acting in his judicial role and "misconceived the role of politics in local government".

The Tesco heiress believed, after taking legal advice, that a policy of keeping council homes empty and selling them cheaply in the hope of boosting support for the Conservative party in marginal wards would be lawful and "judge-proof", as long as it was implemented citywide.

The QC said: "There has never been a case of wilful misconduct where members have followed legal advice."

Mr Alun Jones QC, appearing for Mr Magill, accused Dame Shirley of attempting to "railroad through" the designated sales policy.

The appeal against the surcharge was brought by Dame Shirley and four of her surcharged colleagues: former council deputy leader, David Weeks; former housing committee chairman, Peter Hartley; Westminster City Council's former managing director, Bill Phillips; and the former chief housing officer, Graham England.

The former divisional housing director, Paul Hayler, who also faces the surcharge, is ill and not appealing.

One former councillor, Dr Michael Dutt, who was told he too could face the surcharge, committed suicide.

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