Sometimes an innocuous news story grabs your attention and triggers a strong emotional reaction. Well this time it was the seemingly unremarkable story of a former Head teacher who was made a Dame in 2000 for her services to education, then was sacked for misconduct to do with staff appointments. But yesterday she had her Dame Commander of the British Empire honour cancelled and annulled by the Queen.
My problem is that I can’t hear the word ‘Dame’ without a shiver going down my spine because of its association in my mind with the name of Dame Shirley Porter. In the late 1980s I became one of the ‘objectors’ to Westminster Council’s accounts over the policy that became known as the ‘Homes for Votes’ gerrymandering scandal. Over many years the case was investigated by the Auditor and then meandered through the Courts, ending conclusively in a House of Lords judgement against her for “wilful misconduct” and “disgraceful and improper gerrymandering”. Those with a keen interest can read the Lords’ judgement . The case concerned the unlawful sale of council houses for electoral purposes, which was illegal, but Westminster’s other noteworthy policies including closing homeless hostels, being ‘nasty to the homeless’, and rehousing people in temporary accommodation in tower blocks known to be riddled with asbestos.
Karen Buck MP, who was involved in exposing and pursuing Porter, has recently pointed out that the number of people displaced under Porter’s plans was tiny compared to the clearances that will shortly happen with the changes to local housing allowance. That is the battle to come. But for those interested in the history, Andrew Hosken’s book ‘Nothing Like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter’ tells the whole story and Paul Dimoldenberg’s book ‘The Westminster Whistleblowers: Shirley Porter, Homes for Votes and Scandal in Britain’s Rottenest Borough’ looks at events from the point of view of local campaigners. Both are excellent reads. There was also a BBC radio 4 play broadcast in 2009 called ‘Shirleymander’.
Since the case was finalised – Porter eventually paid back £12m of the losses – Westminster Labour councillors, MPs and Ken Livingstone have raised a number of related issues. One is that there should have been a serious investigation by the Met into allegations of perjury against Porter. And another was that it was improper for a person found guilty of such acts to remain as a Dame given the endorsement that implies. Neither of these points have been satisfactorily answered.
No Tory Leader has ever apologised for what Porter did. That would be good to hear. It probably will never happen. But it is reasonable to ask – why is she still a Dame?