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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 16:21 GMT


Surcharge upheld against Dame Shirley Porter
image: [ Dame Shirley Porter: sold council homes cheaply to boost Conservative support ]
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 "wilful 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.

[ image: Former councillor Peter Hartley:
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.

[ image: District auditor John Magill was criticised for taking seven years to complete inquiry]
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 that it was questionable whether Dame Shirley could be forced to pay the money, but urged her to do so.

"Whether she is prepared to pay the penalty is something we are not going to be able to control."

But she added: "I hope she will have the moral decency to recompense the taxpayers of Westminster."

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.

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