'Homes for votes' claim derided

James Cusick reports from the final day of a three-month hearing into W estminster council's designated sales policy
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The Independent Online
The auditor whose report last year accused leading members and officials of a flagship Tory council of "gerrymandering" by operating a "homes for votes" scheme, was yesterday said to be "up a gumtree without a paddle."

John Magill, district auditor of Westminster Council, was also accused of "misunderstanding the law" when he published his provisional report into Westminster's "designated sales:" policy last year.

The criticisms of Mr Magill were made by Anthony Scrivener QC who was speaking on behalf of Dame Shirley Porter the former leader of Westminster Council's controlling Tory group.

Mr Scrivener's defence of Dame Shirley ended three months of public hearings responding to Mr Magill's findings.

In January the auditors report said that ten officials and councillors had operated the homes for votes policy designed to socially engineer the voting patterns of eight key council wards in Westminster. By selling off council owned property the scheme was said to have encouraged the likelihood that potential Tory voters would move in.

Mr Magill's provisional report in effect recommended that the cost of the designated sales scheme - put at £21 million - be recovered by surcharging the 10 identified councillors and officials.

Yesterday Mr Scrivener ended the hearing, which he called "the most expensive audit in UK history" by stating that Dame Shirley and her colleagues had sought legal advice on the policy. "They followed the advice that "designated sales" was legal - and yet face being surcharged because of it," he said.

Delivering a lengthy list of errors he claimed Mr Magill's team had made in their investigations Mr Scrivener stated : "Those who purchased homes were predominantly Westminster residents , that sales were not confined to key wards; that the designated sales policy was a lawful extension of central government policy; and that the sales had affected Westminster's statutory duty in dealing with the London borough's homeless.

Commenting that it was seven years since Mr Magill began his investigations, Mr Scrivener said: "This has now gone on longer than the Second World War and it has still not reached a conclusion."

He added that the evidence heard during the hearings left Mr Magill "up a gumtree without a paddle. "Although the auditors provisional report in January accused Dame Shirley and others of acting with "wilful misconduct" Mr Scrivener challenged the auditor to identify the evidence that those accused had acted out with the law.

"Here we are seven years on and it has yet to be resolved whether the housing committee or the council took the final decision," said Mr Scrivener.

He added that Mr Magill had taken details from party political meetings and had extended the transcripts as conveying voting intentions.

With the provisional report and now after three months of hearings costing up to £2m, Mr Scrivener submitted that evidence had still not been given that Dame Shirley had acted with a "wicked motive" in adopting the "designated sales" policy.