Dame's demise: Dame Shirley: a disgraced liar

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The Independent Online
Dame Shirley Porter was castigated as a liar yesterday by a panel of High Court judges. They upheld a decision by an auditor who had accused her of `disgraceful and improper gerrymandering' while leader of Westminster City Council. Ian Burrell explains that she and her deputy must now pay the council pounds 27,023,376.

The heiress to the Tesco fortune was not in court to hear Lord Justice Rose deliver a judgment which confirmed the auditor's view that she was guilty of "wilful misconduct" in the "Home for Votes" affair.

The judge said Dame Shirley and David Weeks, her former deputy, had "lied to us, as they had done to the auditor, because they had the ulterior purpose of altering the electorate" by selling council homes in marginal wards to people likely to vote Tory.

The district auditor John Magill had ruled in his final report last year that Dame Shirley, with two fellow councillors and two Westminster council officers, were liable to a surcharge of pounds 31m in revenue lost to the council because of the policy. The judges ruled yesterday that Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks were guilty of wilful misconduct but they revised the surcharge to just over pounds 27m. The pair are also liable for costs estimated at pounds 2m.

But the money may never be recovered. Dame Shirley now lives in Israel and nearly all her assets are overseas. The local government minister Hilary Armstrong admitted it was largely a matter for Dame Shirley and appealed to her "moral decency" to recompense the taxpayers of Westminster.

Karen Buck, Labour MP and former Westminster councillor, urged ministers to issue a statement on the "massive wrongdoing" of Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks. But the Conservative Party would not condemn her and pointed out that there might be an appeal.

During the hearing Anthony Scrivener QC, for Dame Shirley, accused Mr Magill of acting as "investigator, judge, prosecutor and his own expert witness" in an unfair investigation which breached the European Convention on Human Rights. But Lord Justice Rose, sitting with Mr Justice Latham and Mr Justice Keene, said the Home for Votes policy, which operated between 1987 and 1989, was clearly unlawful. "It is, in our judgment, impossible for Dame Shirley Porter to contend that she believed at any stage that targeting marginal wards for electoral advantage was legally permissible."

The judge said Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks had lied to the court in suggesting the policy had been dropped following legal advice.

But Peter Hartley, former housing committee chairman, Bill Phillips, former managing director, and Graham England, Westminster's former housing director, all succeeded in their appeals against the surcharge. Mr Hartley was found guilty of misconduct but there was insufficient evidence to show it was wilful.

After the judgment, a statement from Dame Shirley was read outside the court. "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. We have already been advised in light of the decision regarding the others that we have strong grounds for appeal."

Mr Magill, who carried out a seven-year investigation at what the judges described as the "vast" cost of pounds 3m, was in court for the judgment, which he described as "a terrific decision".

The investigation began after a complaint by a Westminster GP, Richard Stone, who said: "Three High Court judges have confirmed what I wrote in February 1988 when I told the district auditor that [the policy] was financially and morally wrong." The successful appellants were deeply relieved. Mr England said: "It's been 10 years since it started. The implications were frightening - complete bankruptcy and ruin. I'll sleep well tonight. I didn't last night." Mr Hartley said: "I feel elated, delighted that years of worry and stress have been lifted from my shoulders. I hope no one has to go through this procedure again, which I think is totally inappropriate."

A dame's demise, page 7