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Wirral Council accused of 'over the top' secrecy
THE leader of Wirral Liberal Democrats has accused the authority of imposing a veil of secrecy over the identity of a senior councillor facing serious allegations of using "unacceptable language" against a chief officer.
Councillor Phil Gilchrist was asked to sign a form pledging his silence before being allowed to read a report into the claims.
He refused - and said that in 34 years of local government, he had never come across such “over the top” restrictions on an issue.
It is believed a recording had been covertly made of the alleged verbal attack, and the issue was raised at a meeting of the full council last month.
Council leader Phil Davies later wrote to all members disclosing that “no evidence was made available to the investigation to substantiate a serious allegation regarding inappropriate language.”
He indicated, however, that the independent investigator had twice written to the the people who had brought the matter forward and they had "refused to co-operate."
It also revealed the matter had been dealt with in a confidential manner at the request of the senior officer.
Councillor Gilchrist demanded to know what legal basis existed for keeping the accused member’s identity secret.
He said: “I was advised that all would be explained when I came to read the report (of the investigation).”
He was invited to a meeting with chief executive Graham Burgess when, he said, it was made clear he would have to accept certain conditions before he could read the report, which was placed on a desk three feet away from him.
He said: “I read the conditions and the agreement, which I refused to sign.
“This is the first time in 34 years that I have come across such over-the-top restrictions.”
The conditions would have compelled him to:
• Not take the report or any copies away from the meeting.
• Not make any copies of the report.
• Not disclose the report or any information contained in the report to any person.
• Not discuss the report with any person other than Joe Blott (strategic director transformation and resources) or Mr Burgess without express permission.
Councillor Gilchrist added : “I fully recognise the duty of care to staff so I can understand the need for an officer to seek some protection.
"However, in this case, the accusation is said to be about the conduct of a member towards an officer.
“Members are expected to abide by a Code of Conduct. All this does is fuel speculation about who might be being ‘protected’ and why.”
Councillor Davies said today: “I asked for an independent investigation to take place and found the allegations could not be substantiated.
“The member concerned accepted that an adverse comment was made and an independent investigation concluded that the appropriate action was a conciliation process with the member apologising to the officer.
“This took place and this was the end of the matter.”
He added: “There was no question of a cover up. At the request of the senior officer it was dealt with in a confidential manner
“We have a duty of care to officers which was why the report must remain confidential.
"I offered to share the report with the other two party leaders on the basis that it must remain strictly confidential and they could not reveal any details out of respect to the senior officer involved.”
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Claims a secret tape on which a councillor verbally abused a senior officer to a third party surfaced when Tory leader Jeff Green used the question time session at December's meeting of the full council to ask about a recording of the alleged wrongdoing.
Councillor Green asked: “Is the leader of the council aware of a tape recording produced as recently as August this year in which it is alleged that a senior member of his administration can be heard using language about a senior officer that is totally unacceptable, and encouraging former council employees to smear me to take the pressure off his own colleagues and gain political advantage?”
A firm of solicitors was hired to carry out the investigation.
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