Dame Shirley moves pounds 70m out of Britain

BARONESS PORTER has moved a personal fortune estimated at pounds 70m from Britain into offshore accounts to avoid paying a pounds 26.5m court surcharge for "wilful misconduct" in the "homes for votes" scandal at Westminster City Council.

Shirley Porter, the former council leader, has sold all her personal shares in the family business, Tesco, worth an estimated pounds 5.5m along with homes in Bayswater and Oxfordshire, and resigned from six British directorships.

The assets have been moved into offshore accounts in Jersey, Guernsey, Panama and the Virgin Islands, with investments in Switzerland, Israel and the United States.

Lady Porter, who now lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, is being pursued by Westminster council for the money to pay the surcharge imposed after her gerrymandering policy of selling council homes to influence voting patterns was declared unlawful.

The council has spent pounds 3.5m in legal fees to recover the money but its chief executive, Bill Roots, confirmed that a deal may be reached with Lady Porter to save taxpayers from further expenditure.

Her few remaining shares in Tesco, the source of her inherited fortune, are no longer held in her sole name and she has resigned virtually all of her directorships of UK companies in the last four years, since being found guilty of illegal action in seeking to obtain Tory votes in return for homes in Westminster council wards. She sold off two plots of forest land in Scotland in June for pounds 335,000, a month after it was discovered by the council that she owned 1,700 acres of forestry.

The trail of Lady Porter's assets will be exposed in a BBC2 First Sight documentary tomorrow called "Looking for Shirley". It shows a search at Companies House discovering that in March this year she sold her 20 per cent stake in one company, Chelverton Investments.

She is contesting the ruling by the district auditor and the High Court in the Court of Appeal next year. And she could still appeal to the House of Lords and the European Court, if that case goes against her.

Mr Roots told the programme that a deal was "something that may be appropriate in the fullness of time". He added: "The council has spent pounds 3.5m in auditors' and legal fees to get to the point we're at now and we're still in the courts."

If Lady Porter loses her appeal, there could be a long battle with the authorities in Israel and America - where the Porter family own other properties - before any assets could be seized.

Lady Porter issued a statement to the programme protesting her innocence of any financial wrongdoing. "The Westminster case is political from start to finish. This case is not about anything criminal or about any financial wrongdoing or gain. I've done nothing wrong and I intend to fight this case every step of the way."

The BBC programme producers said: "The legacy of her `wilful misconduct' lives on for local residents in Westminster where people who bought homes under her `designated sales' scheme, as the homes for votes scheme was officially called, find they are worthless."