Westminster Tories 'corrupted officers': Council regime accused of deceit and deception as public hearing into 'gerrymandering' claim opens. Stephen Ward reports

DAME SHIRLEY Porter's Conservative regime at Westminster Council corrupted officers and bribed voters, the public hearing into a 'gerrymandering' policy was told yesterday.

Dame Shirley sat behind her lawyers at the council chamber in Marylebone, central London, as Andrew Arden QC, for the Labour councillors and others who complained to the District Auditor over the policies, told the first day of the hearing: 'The party of law and order seems to have become the party of deceit and deception.'

He said that the case was about the arrogance of power. Normally council officials would check the abuse of power, making sure rules were obeyed. In this case the elected council leaders had pushed further, 'far past any defensible conduct'.

As she arrived by taxi, Dame Shirley was jostled by a crowd of about 40 protesters, some with placards reminding her of the cemetries the council had sold for 15p. She paused briefly to speak on the steps: 'Let me say I have been coming to this council house for 20 years and served on the council. I have done nothing wrong. If you listened to all the shouting and screaming, you must ask yourself 'why do the people feel like this'. It is because we have been judged guilty before the inquiry. I ask all people to hear what is said at the hearing.'

She left after less than two hours, and has not yet said whether she intends to give evidence in person and submit to cross-examination later in the hearing.

In January, the District Auditor, John Magill, issued provisional findings that Dame Shirley and the other nine who were councillors or officials between 1986 and 1990 were guilty of unlawful 'gerrymandering' policies costing local taxpayers pounds 21m.

He said that after nearly losing the 1986 local elecion, the ruling group had unlawfully housed the homeless in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, while selling council houses to potential Tory voters in key marginal wards.

One of the ten, Dr Michael Dutt committed suicide soon after the report. The other nine face disqualification from public office or being held personally liable for the alleged loss.

Earlier this week Mr Magill, a partner in the accountants Touche Ross, rejected submissions from Dame Shirley's counsel, Anthony Scrivener QC, that he was not fit to act as judge over the public hearings because his interim report had demonstrated that his mind was already made up. Dame Shirley responded with a statement that she would challenge his ruling in the courts at the end of the complex hearings. They are expected to last at least six weeks, and may continue well into 1995.

Mr Arden said: 'We are talking about gerrymandering. In a nutshell, bribery of the electorate and corruption by officers for political and personal gain.' He accused the council of routine deception, concealment and diversion of assets to an illegal end.

The auditor's costs have already passed pounds 1.2m, to be paid by Westminster taxpayers.

Mr Arden will continue his submissions today.