Dame Shirley show set to run and run

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The Independent Online
AFTER four and a half years of investigation and now after a further three months of public hearings , the final report on Westminster Council's alleged "homes for votes" scandal should be delivered this summer.

However for John Magill, the district auditor, the work is not coming to an end, but is about to start in earnest.

The complexity of examining every facet of how Westminster Council was run in the mid 1980s and into the 1990s emerged last week. It was revealed that the council had issued no repair bills to leaseholders who had bought former council property between 1987 and 1991. The deals, known to key officials and councillors to be legally questionable, may have cost £30m in lost revenue.

The deals are being regarded as part of the "homes for votes" process by opposition politicians. As with designated sales the policy was designed to increase home ownership. They were openly described in a confidential internal audit as part of a processdesigned to encourage home-ownership. The success of the "amnesty" from repairs was regarded as crucial to keep the new leaseholders from being influenced by opposition parties.

The alleged loss of £30m is the latest potential headache for Mr Magill. In January last year his provisional report - examining the council's "designated sales" policy - accused six councillors and four officials of gerrymandering and "wilful misconduct"

Its conclusion that social engineering was attempted - based on 12,000 pages of documentary evidence - was regarded as the most damning criticism ever made against an English local authority.

The public hearings an opportunity for those accused of gerrymandering to challenge Mr Magill. Although judicial review was initially considered and rejected by the Tory group, its spectre remains.

Did Mr Magill learn anything new from the hearing? At the hearings housing director Graham England - also named in secret memos in the "no repair bills" row - pleaded his innocence stating that Mr Magill was acting beyond his statutory powers. His counsel, Jeremy McMullen QC, said the district auditor was criticising policy issues instead of concentrating on spending and council administration.

The hearings heard that Dame Shirley had effectively set up her own "personal policy unit" to circumvent the existing power hierarchy.

Mr England's "aides-memoires" which included notes mentioning "social engineering" and "trying to ship out" the homeless from neighbouring boroughs, were described to the hearings as "innocent" notes..

Should Mr Magill's final report repeat the harsh accusations made in the earlier report, he will have to go to the High Court and seek power to apply the surcharges.

The Labour opposition also maintain that other outstanding objections yet to be addressed (including environmental policies, propaganda, and other property disposals) could take alleged unlawful expenditure past £21m to £97.5m.

The High Court could be the next battlefield between Dame Shirley and Mr Magill. And beyond that, the Court of Appeal, and if necessary, the Lords beyond that. The option of a direct appeal to the European Courts has also not been ruled out. According toone barrister who has followed the Westminster saga : "Mr Magill seems to have a job for life if he takes this as far as it will go. As they say in the West End, this one will run and run." .

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