Homes for votes scandal
|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (May 2015)|
The Conservatives were narrowly re-elected to Westminster City Council in the 1986 local council elections, with their majority reduced from 26 to 4. The Conservatives in total only held onto control of the council by 106 votes after Labour failed to gain the marginal Cavendish Ward which was needed to give Labour the majority to take control of the council. Following the election and fearing that they would eventually lose control unless there was a permanent change in the social composition of the borough, council leader Shirley Porter instituted a secret policy known as 'Building Stable Communities', focusing on eight marginal wards where the Conservatives wished to gain votes at the 1990 local council elections.
Implementation of the policy
Eight wards were selected as 'key wards' - in public it was claimed that these wards were subject to particular 'stress factors' leading to a decline in the population of Westminster. In reality, secret documents showed that the wards most subject to these stress factors were rather different, and that the eight wards chosen had been the most marginal in the City Council elections of 1986. Three—Bayswater, Maida Vale and Millbank—had been narrowly won by Labour. A further three, St. James's, Victoria and Cavendish had been narrowly won by the Conservatives, in West End ward an Independent had split the two seats with the Conservatives while in Hamilton Terrace the Conservatives were threatened by the SDP.
An important part of this policy was the designation of much of Westminster's council housing for commercial sale, rather than re-letting when the properties became vacant. The designated housing was concentrated in those wards most likely to change hands to Labour in the elections. Much of this designated housing lay vacant for months or even years before it could be sold. To prevent its occupation by squatters or drug dealers, these flats were fitted with security doors provided by the company Sitex at a cost to local taxpayers of £50 per week per door.
Other council services were subverted to ensure the re-election of the majority party in the 1990 elections. In services as disparate as street cleaning, pavement repair and environmental improvements, marginal wards were given priority while safely Labour and safely Conservative parts of the city were neglected.
Another vital part of 'Building Stable Communities' was the removal of homeless voters and others who lived in hostels and were perceived less likely to vote Conservative, such as students and nurses, from Westminster. While this initially proved successful, other councils in London and the Home Counties soon became aware of homeless individuals and families from Westminster, many with complex mental health and addiction problems, being dumped in their area.
As Westminster City Council found it more difficult to move homeless people outside Westminster, increasingly the logic of the 'Building Stable Communities' programme required the concentration of homeless people within safe wards in Westminster. In 1989 over 100 homeless families were removed from hostels in marginal wards and placed in the Hermes and Chantry Point tower blocks in the safe Labour ward of Harrow Road. These blocks were "riddled" with asbestos, and should have either been cleaned up or demolished a decade before, but had somehow remained in place due to funding disputes between Westminster City Council and the former Greater London Council. The heating and sanitation systems in many of the flats had been destroyed by the council to deter their use as drug dens and others had pigeons making nests out of exposed asbestos fibres. Some flats had been taken over by heroin users despite the preventative measures.
|“||Both the decision to increase the number of designated sales and the selection of the properties designated for sale were influenced by an irrelevant consideration, namely the electoral advantage of the majority party. I have found that the electoral advantage of the majority party was the driving force behind the policy of increased designated sales and that that consideration was the predominant consideration which influenced both the decision to increase designated sales by 500 per annum and the selection of properties designated for sale. My view is that the Council was engaged in gerrymandering, which I have found is a disgraceful and improper purpose, and not a purpose for which a local authority may act.||”|
|— John Magill, District Auditor in his 1996 report, |
Labour councillors and members of the public referred this policy to John Magill (the Audit Commission's District Auditor) to check on its legality, and as a result it was ordered to be halted in 1989 whilst investigations continued.
In 1990, the Conservatives were re-elected by a landslide victory in Westminster, increasing their majority from 4 to 38. They won all but one of the wards targeted by Building Stable Communities policy. Porter stood down as Leader of the Council in 1991, and served as Lord Mayor of Westminster in 1991-2. She resigned from the council in 1993, and retired to live in Israel with her husband.
On 26 January 1994 Dr. Michael Dutt, joint chairman of Westminster's housing committee between 1988-1990 and one of ten councillors facing the surcharge, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his St Albans home, with papers from the investigation by his side.
In May 1996, after much complicated legal investigation work, the District Auditor finally concluded that the 'Building Stable Communities' policy had been illegal, finding Council leader Dame Shirley Porter guilty of "wilful misconduct" and "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering", He ordered Porter, her deputy David Weeks, one other councillor and three council officials "jointly and severally" liable for repaying £36.1m, lost in the attempts to fix the election.
The District Auditor's judgement was upheld by the High Court in 1997 with liability reduced solely to Porter and Weeks. The Court of Appeal overturned the judgement in 1999, but the House of Lords reinstated it in 2001 (see Porter v Magill  UKHL 67,  2 AC 357). In Israel, Porter transferred substantial parts of her great wealth to other members of her family and into secret trusts in an effort to avoid the charge, and subsequently claimed to have only £300,000 of assets.
On 24 April 2004, the (still Conservative controlled) Westminster City Council and the Audit Commission announced that an agreement had been reached for a payment of £12.3 million in settlement of the debt. The council declared that the cost of legal action would be far greater than the amount to be recovered, while Porter still maintained her innocence. The decision was appealed by Labour members on the Council and the District Auditor began another investigation. The ensuing report, issued on 15 March 2007, accepted the position of the council that further action would not be cost effective. The Auditor further stated that Westminster had recovered substantially all of Dame Shirley's personal wealth and had acted at all times in the best interests of the taxpayers of the City.
The Labour Party in London continued its pursuit of Porter and following the settlement, Porter returned to Westminster to live, buying a £1.5m flat with family money (her husband and son are independently wealthy). The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, subsequently requested that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, commence an investigation as to whether or not Porter committed perjury or other offences, during the conduct of the 'homes for votes' case.
Reaction from Westminster City Council
|“||What she did was wrong, illegal, and we are unreservedly sorry. I personally want to make it absolutely clear I believe Shirley Porter and her policies did significant damage and it is a legacy I want to bury once and for all. Our policies today bear no relation to her regime. These are not just words, we are acting on this and I want people to judge us by our deeds, not history.||”|
|— Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, 27 November 2009, |
After publication of the District Auditor's final report in 2004, the then leader of Westminster City Council, Simon Milton, apologised for the council's past mistakes. Whilst council chief executive Peter Rogers said it "draws a line under the past".
In 2009, then council leader Colin Barrow apologised unreservedly to all those affected by the gerrymandering policy. He criticised Shirley Porter by name for the first time and added that her actions were "the opposite of the council's policies today".
BBC Panorama investigations
The scandal was the subject of two separate "major investigations" by BBC current affairs programme Panorama, broadcast on BBC One on 19 July 1989 and 16 May 1994. The second programme was originally scheduled for transmission on 25 April 1994 - ahead of the local elections which took place on 5 May 1994. Conservative Central Office complained to the BBC and the programme was delayed until after the elections. A Conservative party spokesman denied that they were attempting to censor the BBC and said: "We did point out to the BBC that it seemed curious to us that a programme about a particular London borough is put out 10 days before polling day when London only votes once every four years. We understood it looked into a Conservative borough and not any Labour or Liberal Democrat boroughs."
Peter Bradley, the deputy Leader of the Labour opposition on Westminster council, said: "It is extraordinary that the BBC is pulling the programme as a result of pressure from the Conservative party. If there are fresh revelations, the people of Westminster deserve to know about them before they go to the polls." Jack Straw, the Labour party's shadow environment secretary, said: "This decision smacks of great cowardice by the BBC and of improper pressure by... ministers and Conservative Central Office."
- "Q&A: Dame Shirley's downfall". BBC News. BBC Online. 24 April 2004. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
- All facts below are taken from the description of facts as printed in the decision of the Judicial Appealate Committee of the House of Lords of the Westminster Parliament in Porter v Magill  2 AC 357, and are repeated here under absolute privilege
- Blackhurst, Chris (30 November 1995). "Tory group 'risked lives of tenants'". The Independent. London.
- Blackhurst, Chris (26 March 1996). "Council criticised over 'asbestos' flats". The Independent. London. Retrieved 2011-09-29.
- Rosenberg, Jonathan (1998). Against the odds. London: WECH. ISBN 0-9533073-0-1.
- Magill v. Porter  UKHL 67, [2002 HRLR 16,  2 AC 357,  BLGR 51,  UKHL 67,  NPC 184,  2 WLR 37,  1 All ER 465,  HLR 16] (House of Lords 13 December 2001).
- Linton, Martin (28 January 1994). "Councillor in gerrymandering affair found dead". The Guardian. Manchester.
- "Magill v. Weeks  UKHL 67 (13th December, 2001)". Bailii.org. Retrieved 2011-01-29.
- Mathiason, Nick (18 February 2007). "Porter's son in US loan row". The Observer. London: Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
To escape the fine, she signed over assets to her son. She then claimed her wealth extended to just £300,000, though estimates put her fortune at £69m.
- "Dame Shirley agrees £12.3m deal". BBC News. 24 April 2004. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- Evening Standard, 7 August 2006.
- Matthew Weaver (7 August 2006). "Guardian August 7, 2006". London: Politics.guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-01-29.
- Letter from Mayor Livingstone to Lord Goldsmith, 18 August 2006
- Bar-Hillel, Mira (27 November 2009). "Westminster chief: We're sorry for Dame Shirley and 'homes for votes'". London: Evening Standard. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
- "'Homes for votes' inquiry halted". BBC News. BBC Online. 3 February 2004. Retrieved 10 October 2010.
The current leader of Westminster, Simon Milton, welcomed the report. Report welcomed "As leader of today's council, I apologise for the mistakes of some of my predecessors," he said. "As a group we are determined those mistakes will never be repeated." Council chief executive Peter Rogers said: "The city council welcomes the fact that the appointed auditor's report contains no recommendations for the council and draws a line under the past, as no further consideration or action by the auditor is justified. "We have changed substantially since the late 1980s. "Our arrangements are robust and our processes are open and transparent."
- "Panorama cited in Lords judgement". BBC News. 14 December 2001. Retrieved 9 November 2013.
- "DAME SHIRLEY 'USED' MINISTER IN WESTMINSTER VOTES SCANDAL". Local Government Chronicle. London. 16 May 1994. Retrieved 9 November 2013. (subscription required)
- Midgley, Simon (25 April 1994). "BBC accused of suppressing programme". The Independent. London. Retrieved 9 November 2013.
- Grice, Andrew (24 April 1994). "Tories accused of forcing BBC to shelve scandal film". The Times. London.
- "Friday Play, Shirleymander". BBC.
- Dimoldenberg, Paul (2006). The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain's Rottenest Borough. Politico's Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84275-179-4.
- Magill, John (3 February 2004). "WESTMINSTER CITY COUNCIL BUILDING STABLE COMMUNITIES REPORT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST". The Guardian. London.