This verdict is not the end. I will clear my name

Dame Shirley Porter accuses the District Auditor of disregarding evidence that demonstrated her innocence in the Westminster 'homes for votes' affair
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The Independent Online
I'm dismayed, of course, at yesterday's findings by John Magill. But they didn't surprise me. For years he has skated over key facts, muddled the facts, ignored evidence and overturned every precedent in local government. Ever since he went on television two years ago to pronounce me guilty, human nature didn't give him any choice other than to conclude that he had always been right.

The District Auditor has been a one-man investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. He has now become the victim, as well as the cause, of this manifestly unfair system. For having appeared on television two and a half years ago to pronounce us guilty and to boast about the thoroughness of his inquiry, how could he admit he was wrong about the facts, the law, especially his sums? It has always been a case of verdict first, trial later.

But I never gerrymandered, never broke the law, never ran up huge losses and never shipped Tory voters into marginal wards or shipped Labour voters out. I never gave false and misleading evidence to the auditor.

The facts are really quite straightforward. Between 1987 and 1989, Westminster council sold 562 properties under the designated sales scheme: 427 went to existing council tenants, housing association residents and families on the official waiting list. Only 22 homes in the entire city were sold to non-residents.

And for the record, these sales were spread across the city. In the eight so-called marginal wards, there were no sales in two and fewer than 25 apiece in four others. It is ludicrous to call this gerrymandering, especially as the auditor has never interviewed any of the home buyers or found a resident who was persuaded by me or anyone else to switch their votes from Labour to Tory because of designated sales. Eccentrically, he says that, as I was never told that gerrymandering was lawful, therefore I am guilty of misconduct. But as we never gerrymandered, it's not surprising that we didn't receive any advice that we could!

In the 1980s it was government policy to sell council houses. At the same time Westminster had a growing social problem. Population in the central areas was falling. Traditional middle-class families were leaving for the suburbs. Only 21 per cent of homes were owner-occupied, against the UK average of 62 per cent. We decided to increase home ownership and extend council house sales as a way to reverse decline. Mr Magill says this was a smokescreen for gerrymandering. He's talking nonsense.

Naturally, Labour hated our plans. They feared it would encourage former Labour voters to support the Tories. They wanted the homeless to be given vacant flats, even if that meant them queue-jumping local families who had been on the council waiting list for years.

Mr Magill says we failed in our obligations to the homeless. But at the same time as we were selling council houses, we were also housing nearly 2,000 homeless families. The auditor is wrong in law and fact about the homeless. He thinks council houses shouldn't be sold if homeless families want them. But last year the House of Lords said differently.

No one has ever explained how the alleged gerrymandering was actually supposed to work. Did Tory councillors knock on doors, offering tenants cut-price homes for their votes? Did we follow them into the polling booths, checking how they voted? The idea is absurd, yet unless something like that happened, how was the designated sales policy supposed actually to help the Tories?

The auditor says we "thought" it might. But which politician doesn't hope their policies will be popular with the voters? What's more, until yesterday, to plan policies according to how they will be received electorally had never been unlawful. Every week, council groups whip their members to vote, minorities toe the party line, councillors discuss how to win elections. Now the auditor says that party politics must play no part in council decision-making. The repercussions are staggering. No other auditor has taken this view.

We did not break any laws. Like most councils, we took legal advice before reaching decisions and we always followed the advice that we were given. Indeed, Mr Magill concedes that I, and others, always believed we were acting lawfully.

He seems to be saying it is not what we did that was wrong but why we did it. This is bizarre. He says Westminster council acted unlawfully, even though it did so for what it thought were legal reasons, because I had secret motives, deep-down thoughts about electoral advantage. By this chain of thought it is unlawful if, in obeying the law, someone like the auditor believes that you are doing so for an improper reason. It's like being fined for doing 30mph in a built-up area because a policeman thinks you don't want to be caught speeding. At a stroke the auditor has stripped every councillor, not only me, of the vital protection they need if they are to make any controversial decisions.

The auditor, an accountant by profession, also claims that the policy cost many millions of pounds and that I and a few others should repay just over pounds 31m. But more distinguished accountants have looked at the same evidence and concluded that we made a profit for the city, not a loss. What's wrong with their evidence? Why was it dismissed?

Everyone in local government knows that Labour councils have built housing estates in Tory wards; that for decades, council house rents were kept artificially low or even not regularly collected; that Labour politicians bought votes through housing: doing what Herbert Morrison, leader of the pre-war London County Council, always threatened - to build the Conservatives out of London. We didn't do this. We didn't act as they did. Yet we are accused and pilloried as if we had.

Today is, however, only the end of the beginning. We will appeal against this perverse verdict. We will take the case to the High Court as soon as we can in front of a proper judge. We are innocent. I look forward to clearing my name and proving Mr Magill not only wrong, but also unjust.

Dame Shirley Porter was leader of Westminster City Council, 1983-91.

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