Porter accused of bullying Westminster officers

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The Independent Online
Dame Shirley Porter, the former Westminster council leader, was in the High Court yesterday attempting to overturn a pounds 31m surcharge. Ian Burrell watched her in the witness box. Alun Jones QC, representing the district auditor John Magill, told her: "You subverted [council officers] to your will to railroad through your policy of designated sales in marginal wards."

Dame Shirley replied: "I think there is some sort of myth about they couldn't stand up to me ... we seemed to get on perfectly all right."

In a report completed last year, Mr Magill found after a four-year investigation into Westminster City Council that Dame Shirley and five colleagues had been guilty of "wilful misconduct" and "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering".

Dame Shirley, the 66-year-old heiress to the Tesco supermarket fortune, had declined to give evidence before the auditor. Her decision to give evidence at the appeal created intense media interest and there were scuffles between photographers and police as she swept into court.

During the first of two days of cross-examination she argued that council officers were obliged to stand up to councillors and tell them when they were doing something wrong.

"I don't consider the role of the member to be the whistleblower. That is for the officer," she said. "I think that an experienced, strong officer, if he thinks it is wrong, will say."

She added: "Where a councillor is concerned you don't know you are doing something that is actually wrong unless it is blatantly wrong. You have to rely on the officers saying `I can't go into that'."

Wearing a beige two-piece suit with a string of peals, Dame Shirley looked uncomfortable under questioning and repeatedly asked to refer to her affidavits.

She was at pains to play down her dominance at a council she led for 10 years until 1993. "I don't think I was on the bridge at all times," she said.

She was frequently humble, saying she was "not known for a great grasp of detail" and was not an expert in housing issues.

"I'm not interested in housing," she said. "My interest is more in having the council run in a businesslike way."

Mr Jones referred to a succession of documents drawn up between 1986 and 1988 by Westminster Conservatives, outlining the electoral benefit of encouraging the right-to-buy housing policy in "key battle zone wards".

They referred to a policy of gentrification which was defined as "ensuring that the right people live in the right areas".

Local Tories were concerned at concentrations of housing reserved for students and nurses and hostels for the homeless; all groups which were seen as hostile to the Conservatives.

Council officers were asked to provide electoral profiles of marginal wards. One paper referred to the homelessness problem as "the tinted person in the wood pile".

Dame Shirley said that there was a "great divide" between politics and council business. She said: "In a political paper you can write anything provided it's not criminal.

"When it gets into council it would have to be put in a totally different way."

She agreed, however, that it was wrong if council officers had been provided with copies of party political papers. But she said legal opinion had backed the housing policy. "At no time would we have undertaken any policy which was in any way illegal. I have a healthy respect for the law. I was a magistrate for many years," she said.

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