The Westminster Scandal: Saga that looks certain to run and run: The Road Ahead

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THE District Auditor's report, damning though it appears to be initially, is just the first step in a process that some estimate could take more than two years to complete, writes Ian MacKinnon.

The level of condemnation in the report is exceptional, but there are factors which mark out this case from others where councillors have eventually found themselves on the receiving end of a surcharge.

Ordinarily, the auditor has declared that the councillors have authorised expenditure contrary to the Local Government Finance Act 1982, followed by an application to the High Court where the judge levies the necessary surcharge.

Unlawful expenditure of more than pounds 2,000 automatically led to the councillors involved being banned from local authority office for the next five years.

But John Magill, the District Auditor in the Westminster City Council case, has gone further.

His provisional finding that the conduct of councillors and officials amounted to 'wilful misconduct', puts an entirely different complexion on the process.

The definition of 'wilful misconduct' he selected was that used in a 1981 court case where councillors were 'deliberately doing something which is wrong knowing it to be wrong, or with reckless indifference as to whether it is wrong or not'.

But having chosen that line - and accusing the council, in the most emotive language, of engaging in gerrymandering - Mr Magill emphasised that his findings were provisional, and that those concerned who wished to contradict them at an oral hearing should inform him by 28 February, while written representations should arrive by 29 July.

At any hearing the onus is on those making the allegations to prove them, while those accused must be given the opportunity to refute them, the whole process being analagous to a court hearing.

Mr Magill will give consideration to the representations and make judgements in fact before reaching his final views, and deciding on the consequences of those views, which could ultimately mean levying surcharges.

Even then, those surcharged could still appeal to the High Court against the findings, rehearsing the whole saga once more.

As George Jones, Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, put it yesterday: 'This one is going to run and run.'