Shirley Porter, responsible for the ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal in the 1980s – what the Law Lords called ‘a deliberate, blatant, and dishonest use of public powers’ that amounted to ‘political corruption’ – would never have been brought to book if new Audit proposals by the Tory government had been in place during her reign in Westminster in the 1980s.
Some people think that the Tory Party has never forgiven the Audit Commission for the tenacity they showed in bringing their brightest council star Porter to justice and causing huge embarrassment to the Thatcher/Major governments. The Tories nationally never apologised for what was done in their Party’s name.
Now Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps have proposed ending the right of electors to raise ‘objections’ to the local authority’s accounts with the council’s official Auditor. They say it is ‘outdated’ and ‘over-burdensome’ on council tax payers – well, not in Westminster, where £12m was recouped from Porter (and it should have been £40m, the amount set by the Law Lords in their judgement). Removing the right to object is contradictory to both their localism policy and their repeated statements that they wish to devolve power not just to local government but to the people.
Porter’s gerrymander in Westminster would not have been exposed if it had not been for outstanding work by opposition councillors and others in the community who were concerned about the council’s housing policy as described here and here and here. But it was the process by which local electors could raise a formal objection to the council’s accounts that ensured that an initially sceptical Auditor was required to look into the matter; investigations that led to the most damning report ever issued about a local authority. Moreover, it was the independence of the Audit Commission standing behind the Auditor that ensured that the case was brought to a conclusion – and it took more than a decade. There was a lot to withstand – political pressure to have the matter dropped, a personally offensive campaign against the Auditor, and criticism of the high cost of the forensic enquiry (dawn raids on city hall, tens of thousands of documents and dozens of interviews) and the court cases.
Pickles’ and Shapps’ proposals are contained in a CLG consultation document on the ‘Future of local public audit’. It sounds dull but there is a lot in this consultation of concern to anyone with an interest in local government and its probity.
The consultation paper says that “The right to object to the accounts was first introduced more than 150 years ago, at a time when the auditor was the only individual to whom an elector could raise issues of concern.”
But in Westminster, less than 25 years ago, the council wouldn’t listen to the accusations that there was gerrymandering going on, the government wouldn’t listen, and the Tory party certainly wouldn’t listen. The only route that worked for local people was to raise an objection to the District Auditor, who took a serious and independent view of his role in tackling improper behaviour. This right should be retained.