Local authority legal advice may be 'worthless' say Westminster Tories

ADVICE from local authority lawyers could prove worthless in future if the District Auditor in the Westminster homes-for-votes case sticks to his original view, it is claimed.

Councillors across the country will run the risk of surcharge even if they follow legal officers' instructions, according to Westminster's Conservatives.

But solicitor Graham French, who represents the Westminster objectors, says the nightmare scenario outlined by the council's Conservative group is a “travesty of the facts”.

Auditor John Magill has accused councillors and officers of being involved in a plot to increase the Tory vote in the flagship borough by selling off homes in marginal wards.

But the defence denies the claims and argues that the controversial designated sales policy was given the green light by lawyers.

Now the authority's Conservative group has written to District Auditor Magill accusing him of trying to establish a new principle which threatens “to paralyse the operation of local government in England and Wales”.

Council leader Miles Young says: “Councillors up and down the country are uncertain about taking legal advice from their own officers.”

The Tories are calling on Magill to clarify the position on legal advice which has traditionally been a defence against wilful misconduct. It claims that decision-making across the country is being “seriously impeded” by the confusion.

But French, of London-based firm Alan Edwards & Co, says this view is based on a complete distortion of the objectors' case.

The objectors claim that the true motivations for the policy were kept secret when legal advice was sought, says French.

“If members put the full facts before their lawyers and then take advice they are still protected. That principle is not being challenged and any suggestion that it is needs to be corrected.

“The objectors' case in fact reinforces the principle that councillors are protected but only if they properly seek legal advice,” he says.

Peter Brooke, former Conservative party chair and MP for Westminster South, has added his voice to claims that audit law, and in particular the Local Government Finance Act 1982, may be in need of review.