Lady Porter faces inquiry decision

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FIVE YEARS of official investigations into alleged unlawful gerrymandering by Conservatives in Westminster will probably have to start again from scratch, wasting pounds 1.5m, if the Westminster district auditor accepts today that he has prejudiced the public hearings due to start this week.

John Magill, a senior partner in the accountants Touche Ross, is to rule today on an application by the former council leader, Dame Shirley Porter, backed by other councillors and officials threatened with being held personally liable for the pounds 21m the policies lost the council or disqualified from office. They say the auditor was wrong to give his preliminary findings of guilt in January ahead of the hearings, and cannot be seen as unbiased.

If Mr Magill accepts the application, completed yesterday by Anthony Scrivener QC, he will stand down. He said yesterday that if he went ahead the hearings would begin tomorrow. He said if the decision went the other way, there would be no public hearings.

The official supervisory body for local government finances, the Audit Commission, said yesterday that if Mr Magill stood down a replacement district auditor would have to be appointed. 'It would be for any new district auditor to decide whether to begin the investigation again.'

If Mr Magill decides to go ahead, the proceedings may still face lengthy delays. The nine councillors and officials may today seek leave to apply for judicial review of whether Mr Magill's conduct was correct under the 1982 Local Government Act. The procedures have never been tested. If the nine are given leave, a judge may grant an injunction delaying the hearing until the review is complete.

In January, Mr Magill issued provisional findings that Dame Shirley, who stood down as leader in 1991, and the other nine who were councillors or officials between 1986 and 1990 were guilty of unlawful policies costing pounds 21m to the local taxpayers. One of the 10, Dr Michael Dutt, committed suicide soon after the report was made public. The councillors and officials all dispute liability and deny any wrongdoing.