Magill denies creating legal quandary despite attack by Westminster Tories

THE DISTRICT Auditor for Westminster Council has denied claims he has created a legal dilemma for hundreds of local authorities.

John Magill, the auditor investigating the Tory council's housing sales policy, said councillors making decisions with legal implications could trust the advice of their legal departments.

Westminster Conservatives claim they only went ahead with the controversial designated sales policy after seeking advice from counsel.

They allege Magill's continuing investigation implies local authorities can no longer rely on advice from their legal departments.

Earlier this year, Miles Young, the council leader, said: “Councillors up and down the country are uncertain about taking legal advice from their own officers.”

But at Westminster's audit meeting last week, Magill defended himself against a volley of hostile questions from Tories. He said uncertainty only arose in exceptional circumstances.

The auditor is investigating claims that in the 1980s, under Dame Shirley Porter, the Conservatives sold off council homes in an attempt to increase their vote in marginal wards.

Magill later declared the policy unlawful, and 10 former councillors and officers face being surcharged for their part in the scheme.

They have used the backing of counsel as a key element of their defence against the allegations. Ian Wilder, a Tory member of the council's financial management and personnel committee says they would persist with the argument.

But Peter Bradley, leader of the council's Labour group, says: “This is absolute nonsense. The only difficulty members place themselves in when they vote is when they know they are voting for something which is unlawful. “