Lawyer blasts 'shocking' council

A former local government lawyer has shed light on the “appalling treatment” meted out to officers in highly politicised authorities.

Robert Lewis, former deputy chief solicitor at Westminster City Council, says nothing could have prepared him for his “shocking” experience at the flagship Tory borough.

Officers came under attack from both Conservative councillors and Labour members.

He told the public inquiry in to the homes-for-votes allegations: “A few individuals on both sides behaved in a disgraceful fashion. They were unpleasant people.

“Some of the Tories thought the fact that we were public servants meant that we were beneath contempt,” he said.

But Labour politicians attacked lawyers and other officers for helping to implement the policies of the majority Conservative party – which they were obliged to do.

Lewis claimed that the Labour housing spokesman, Neale Coleman, once said to him: “You know what it's like at Westminster. Any officer who comes to the authority knowing that is, in my view, automatically damned.”

Lewis said the politicisation made the authority “an impossible place to work” and he was glad when he left in 1988 to join City firm Freshfields.

He paid tribute to his former fellow officers who “did their best in difficult circumstances”.

He described Matthew Ives, the former City solicitor who has been accused by Objectors of being involved in gerrymandering, as “a completely honest and upright man”.

“I find it disgraceful that he has been dragged into all of this,” he said.

Lewis compared his experience to his seven years with Hertfordshire County Council, where they were “nice people to deal with” and where they took officers' advice.

Now an environmental law partner, Lewis was articled with Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council and went on to work for Hyndburn Borough Council and Manchester City Council.

He is one of the officers accused by District Auditor John Magill of being involved in the alleged gerrymandering conspiracy but has vigorously refuted the claims.

Lewis insists that he was instrumental in ensuring that a proposed change in housing policy should be referred to counsel.