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SPECIAL REPORT: Wirral leaders clash over 'regime of secrecy' claims
POLITICAL leaders have clashed over major changes designed to make Wirral Council more open and transparent.
New rules were brought in this year after an inquiry in 2011 revealed major failings in the way the authority was being managed.
So critical was the review, it was decided radical steps needed to be taken to "restore normality."
But today Tory group leader Cllr Jeff Green said the shake-up has led to the town hall being run under a "regime of secrecy."
He said the authority is in danger of plunging back into the crisis it faced two years ago.
His claims have been rejected by council leader Cllr Phil Davies, who believes the new system has made Wirral a far more open, accountable and transparent organisation than it was before.
Councillor Green said the administration has taken the wrong road to improvement and has diminished the democratic process along the way.
He said: "The Labour group abolished several scrutiny committees and made other constitutional changes that allowed them to take all the power to themselves.
"It is now all-but impossible to get to the truth of certain issues and to understand what’s going on inside this authority.
"To my way of thinking, that is not improving the council.
"In fact it is self-evidently making it less democratic.
"This sort of secrecy leads to the situation we were in two years ago, when our corporate governance was so severely criticised by independent consultants.
"This veil of secrecy has generated several incidents recently when councillors were kept in the dark over very serious matters.
"The only way these issues were brought to light were through members of the public submitting Freedom of Information requests.
"This is entirely the wrong way for us to be going about our business."
Council leader Phil Davies said: “I reject all of that.
“I believe the council is far more open and transparent than ever it was under his leadership.
“Yes, we reduced scrutiny committees. But the whole purpose of that was to encourage the new policy and performance committees to engage with cabinet much earlier in the cycle of business.
“We’re far more open at full council meetings now as well.
“Every single councillor can ask an unrehearsed question to a cabinet member and really put them on the spot.
“I also reject entirely that Labour has' taken all the power' to ourselves.
“Under the rules, Labour could have chaired all three scrutiny committees.
“But we haven't.
"I put a Conservative chair on one of them, a Liberal Democrat on the other and we took the third.
“I also introduced a Leaders’ Board, were Jeff Green, Phil Gilchrist (Lib Dem) and I meet once a month. They can ask me about anything and everything that’s going on.
“The picture Jeff is painting is unrecognisable to the reality.
“He may feel he has less influence now – but I would suggest that is because he is no longer the leader of the council.”
Councillor Davies said information revealed under FoI law would have beome public knowledge in any event through the scrutiny committee process.
Changes to the constitution came after a devastating investigation had shown Wirral Council was in the grip of a "corrosive culture."
An examination of the local authority's corporate governance was carried out by independent investigator Anna Klonowski.
Her report could scarcely have been more damning.
Published in September 2011, it said the town hall was in the grip of an inward-looking culture in which the needs of residents and service-users had become submerged.
Jim Wilkie, chief executive at the time, said: “These findings represent the most significant challenge this council faces."
He apologised on behalf of the council to "anyone who has been affected" by its failings.
Unfortunately Mr Wilkie suffered a period of ill-health and, in June of last year, he left the authority, taking early voluntary retirement.
After a series of interim or acting chief officers, Graham Burgess was appointed chief executive in September of last year.
Under his leadership, extensive improvement plans have been put in place.
The council's progress was praised this June by local Government experts, who noted its “impressive journey of improvement.”
The "Peer Challenge Team" has twice met with council leaders, employees and representatives of outside agencies to get a picture of the local authority’s progress.
They examine how the council has developed its financial risk management, organisational skills, governance and decision-making.
According to the findings the council is now “more confident and decisive about dealing with the challenges it faces.”
• The£250,000 Klonowski inquiry was commissioned by Cllr Green - who was at the time leader of the council - in response to a series of exclusives in the Globe exposing financial abuses in the Department of Adult Social Services revealed by whistleblower Martin Morton.
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