Scandal: Sorry history of corruption in local government

Alexandra Williams,Nathalie Dal Molin
Saturday 20 December 1997 00:02

Political corruption has been a recurring feature of local government. Alexandra Williams and Nathalie Dal Molin chart scandals from before the Second World War to the Westminster gerrymandering case in the headlines today.

The award of public contracts for gain, nepotism, or political favours by local party bosses has long been the hallmark of corrupt local authority politicians and officials, notably so in the Sixties heyday of the architect John Poulson and the Newcastle council leader T. Dan Smith. The evil of council profligacy flourishes in councils where the opposition is non- existent, or too weak to provide any kind of restraining force.

In spring 1985, Labour-run Liverpool council refused to set a legal budget. Derek Hatton, the deputy leader, was the key player in a game of brinkmanship against the Tory government. He was later charged with conspiring to defraud the council, but was acquitted. The prosecution alleged the council had been defrauded when licences were issued to John Monk, Mr Hatton's co- defendant, for use of two council-owned derelict sites as temporary car parks.

Councillors in Clay Cross, Derbyshire defied the Heath government in the 1970s, refusing to increase council house rents. The battle raged for two years. The rebels were heftily surcharged and declared bankrupt in 1975.

In September 1995, Labour councillors in Monklands, Lanarkshire, were suspended by Tony Blair after they were criticised in a report for nepotism and overspending. There were claims that a Catholic mafia on the council had been giving jobs to relatives.

But few scandals have been as damaging as that revealed by an independent report in May 1995 into Islington council, in north London. An investigation found that policies favouring gays and ethnic minorities had helped paedophiles, pimps and drug dealers to victimise children in council care.

Allegations of racism have also led to sackings in councils such as Hackney and Tower Hamlets, which was accused of ethnically biased housing policies.

In April 1994, a report revealed the massive debts run up by big-spending councils. The 20 deepest in the red owed nearly pounds 13bn between them. Manchester topped the debt-rate table at pounds 1.3bn, followed by Birmingham at pounds 1.2bn.

Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, said: "Nowadays there's not the large-scale systematic corruption of the 1960s because local authorities are not spending so much It's fantastically easy to corrupt in a local authority without doing anything illegal by carrying out the kind of corruption that's impervious to legal inspection like triadic relationships. You have to be pretty stupid to be caught. "The Porter case is a very specific feature of a rancorous political period in the London boroughs."

But homes-for-votes scandals have a long history. Before the last war, Labour's Herbert Morrison ran the London County Council and packed areas with sympathetic voters through his housing policy.

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