Westminster Scandal: Vital documents that 'disappeared'

THE OBSTACLES
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Crucial files that were hidden and shredded, deliberate delays in arranging interviews, important files buried in underground archives, evasive answers on the whereabouts of key documents, the mysterious disappearance of council papers and the delivery of documents known to be inaccurate. These tactics were all part of attempts to keep John Magill in the dark during his seven-year investigation of Westminster Council.

The damning accusations of deliberate evasiveness made by Mr Magill, the district auditor, sound as though they may have come from the pages of a detective novel, not Britain's flagship Conservative council.

In reaching the conclusions of his lengthy inquiry, which officially began in July 1989, Mr Magill conducted 135 interviews. The notes and transcripts from the interviews run to 14 lever-arch files containing 10,000 pages. However, the documentation and official files which served as the background to his investigation, were, he reports, not so easy to obtain. There were also continued attempts to have him removed entirely from the inquiry.

"There were attempts to mislead me," says Mr Magill. On 5 December 1989 he sought a formal response from the council. It was sent in May 1990. "The documentation that was prepared for me was, however, far from complete."

Over the next year, progress on interviews was slow. "Interviewees were reluctant to attend". Key personnel were traced by "agents", specially hired for the job. But if Mr Magill found rounding up people difficult, finding pieces of paper was even harder.

Written or oral requests for documents were shelved in favour of direct action. Unannounced visits to offices became the norm. Offices of the Policy Unit, the Managing Director, the Housing Directorate, the Planning and Transportation Directorate, the City Solicitor's Department were "visited" and files taken away.

"An entire underground filing area containing many thousands of archived files" was also found to contain previously undisclosed documentation.

Outside Mr Magill's control, he reveals, was "the contemporaneous shredding of documents." He says that when the managing director, Bill Philips, left the council at the end of 1990, documents were shredded.

As the complexity of the detective work grew, the council, says the report, seemed "unable to locate their own documents". In February 1993, Mr Magillwas seeking a copy of the Dame Shirley Porter's Strategy to 1990 paper which had been referred to in official minutes. Mr Magill was told a copy could not be found, but he discovered one in council files.

Investigating whether key meetings took place was not easy. What the auditor was told, he claims, was "misleading information" and "inaccurate". The authorship and status of documents were also not made clear to him.

As well as attempting to halt his inquiries, individuals in the council also tried to have Mr Magill taken off the case. Allegations from counsel for Dame Shirley, Stuart Cakebread, were made in June 1994 that Mr Magill "had disqualified himself from further participation in the audit".

Not everyone made life difficult. Mr Magill's report says his critical remarks are "not aimed at the council as a corporate entity ... I acknowledge with thanks the assistance given by other council officers in the course of their duties".

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