Westminster auditor is accused of bias: 'Council homes for votes' case defendants say investigator who announced interim guilt cannot be open-minded at public inquiry

THE WESTMINSTER district auditor, James Magill, was accused yesterday of breaching every code and precedent of local government when he announced an interim finding of guilt against 10 councillors and officials accused of spending pounds 21m of council money to gain votes for the Conservatives.

Anthony Scrivener QC, arguing on behalf of the former council leader, Dame Shirley Porter, the current leader, Miles Young, Barry Legg, now a Conservative MP, and the other accused, said that Mr Magill would not be able to appear to be open-minded when he hears the evidence at a public inquiry this month.

Yesterday, at Westminster Town Hall in central London, in an obscure procedure never used before, Mr Magill presided over a hearing to consider whether he should disqualify himself from the inquiry.

One of the councillors committed suicide shortly after Mr Magill's interim findings. If the other people are ultimately found guilty of wilful misconduct by selling council houses to gain votes at the expense of the homeless, they are personally liable to pay the pounds 21m, and may be disqualified from public office.

Mr Magill, a senior partner in accountants Touche Ross, called the controversial press conference on 13 January after an inquiry lasting four and a half years. 'My provisional view is that the council was involved in gerrymandering,' he said. He had used the words 'improper' and 'disgraceful' to describe what had gone on, language more appropriate to an Old Bailey judge passing sentence, Mr Scrivener said.

The summary of his report issued to the media had included a section Mr Scrivener described as 'self-laudatory', describing the work as unprecedentedly thorough. He had piled papers on his desk in front of television cameras to give the impression there was a strong case. He told Mr Magill the press conference and publication of interim findings were 'not only inappropriate, but it makes it difficult ever to withdraw those views. If you attempt to withdraw those views, you will look extremely foolish.

That is why judges and DTI inspectors eschew ever taking public views before the conclusion of a case'.

An audit of a council was a quasi-judicial procedure, Mr Scrivener argued, like a court, and like an inquiry into alleged insider trading by a Department of Trade and Industry inspector. In each case there was a presumption of innocence and the burden of proof lay with the prosecution.

He quoted the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, who had commented after the auditor's press conference that it would be unthinkable for a judge to say after hearing the prosecution in a criminal trial that he was inclined to find the defendant guilty, but he would now hear the defence.

The Code of Auditing Practice stipulated the inquiries should be taken in confidence, and the 1982 Local Government Act said auditors should follow the code.

Mr Scrivener handed in a file of newspaper cuttings and played TV news bulletins to demonstrate that the auditor's report and remarks had been widely interpreted as an indication of guilt.

Mr Magill said he would give his decision next week.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Two christmas trees ,Moonbeam (2L), Moonchester (2R) and Santa Claus outside the Etihad Stadium
footballAll the action from today's games
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas