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FRONT LINE FIRST - LAW

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In his Cautionary tales for children Hilaire Belloc warned of the dire consequences of straying from the straight a...
In his Cautionary tales for children Hilaire Belloc warned of the dire consequences of straying from the straight and narrow.

A slightly less poetic, but more cautionary tale is the homes-for-votes affair, about which Mr Belloc may have written a story called Shirley who put politics above public interest and paid dearly.

On 13 December 2001 the House of Lords delivered its decision in Magill v Porter; Magill v Weeks that began in July 1989 when objections were lodged with the auditor. The House of Lords restored the High Court's decision (overturned by majority on appeal) that Dame Shirley Porter (then Conservative leader of Westminster City Council) and David Weeks (deputy leader) were guilty of 'wilful misconduct' and were jointly and severally liable for the loss to the council in the sum of£26,462,621.

The law in question - s17 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, which will have its surcharge provisions removed by the Local Government Act 2000 - was Local Government Finance Act 1982.

This, subject to appeal rights, enabled recovery from those responsible for any loss or deficiency as certified by the auditor and caused by wilful misconduct. Essentially, the Lords found Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks were responsible for implementing a policy designed to increase the number of Conservative voters in certain key wards.

They sanctioned the sale of vacant dwellings to owner-occupiers who were considered more likely to vote Conservative. Lord Bingham said the 'passage of time and the familiarity of the accusations made against Dame Shirley and Mr Weeks cannot and should not obscure the unpalatable truth that this was a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power'. This was 'not for financial gain, but for that of electoral advantage. In that sense it was corrupt'.

On the need for realpolitik Lord Scott said there was 'all the difference in the world between a policy adopted for naked political advantage but spuriously justified by reference to a purpose which - had it been the true purpose - would have been legitimate, and a policy adopted for a legitimate purpose and seen to carry with it significant political advantage'.

The fact counsel's opinion had been taken did not remedy matters. Counsel had not been given access to all the relevant information and there had been 'a history of pretence, obfuscation and prevarication'.

The moral of this tale for councillors is that democratic power is granted for public and not private or political purposes. For officers the message is that their advice must always have professional soundness and integrity. For, as Shakespeare and Belloc might have said: 'Golden members and officers must/Act with integrity or bite the dust.'

Nicholas Dobson

Partner, head of local government law,

Pinsent Curtis Biddle

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