City firm to track down £26m owed by Porter

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Indy Politics

A worldwide hunt for Dame Shirley Porter's fortune will begin today when Westminster Council launches debt recovery proceedings for £26.5m owed by its former leader for her role in Britain's worst political corruption scandal.

The Independent has learnt that lawyers acting for the Tory-led London borough were instructed to seek out Dame Shirley's assets at midnight last night after she failed to meet a 14-day deadline to pay up the massive surcharge imposed by the House of Lords in its ruling on the "homes for votes" affair earlier this month.

The Lords ended years of legal wrangling with a damning judgment that concluded that Dame Shirley and her deputy, David Weeks, acted unlawfully in selling off homes in marginal wards to potential Tory voters.

Although Dame Shirley, one of the richest women in the UK, has vowed to fight on in the European courts, the legal process in the UK has been exhausted, and Westminster has told City solicitors Stephenson Harwood to take "all reasonable steps'' to recover the public money wasted on the "gerrymandering'' scheme.

Mr Weeks is unable to pay much of the fine but, as the heiress to the Tesco fortune, Dame Shirley, is worth an estimated £69m. The 71-year-old, who cited Margaret Thatcher as her political inspiration, once owned luxury homes in London, Palm Springs, California and Tel Aviv. She now spends most of her time in Israel.

Many of her assets are believed to have been taken out of the UK and she has disposed of almost all her shares in Tesco, which was founded by her father Jack Cohen.

A spokeswoman for Westminster council said that it was left no alternative because Dame Shirley had failed to offer any positive response to its demands for payment by midnight last night.

Simon Milton, the council's current leader, has written to all of its staff explaining that the decision by the House of Lords is "final" and "brings an end to a matter that has dogged this authority for too long".

Dame Shirley and her colleagues had planned to gerrymander the 1990 local elections by selling off council homes that were earmarked for the homeless. By replacing the homeless, described by one Tory councillor at the time as not "our natural supporters'', the Tory leader aimed to pack marginal wards with Tory voters.

In his New Year message, the clearest attempt by any senior Tory to distance the authority from the Porter years, Mr Milton states that her actions occurred almost 15 years ago and that "circumstances that have long since changed". Mr Milton said that Westminster's reputation today was underlined by its public satisfaction ratings and the Government's decision, earlier this month, to award its housing department special status and extra money.

He said the authority now had a proper code covering the standards of behaviour expected from councillors and officers alike and he added: "The new political arrangements of the council will maintain the highest levels of propriety and integrity."