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UPDATED: MP keeps the pressure on over watchdog report
PRESSURE is growing for the publication of a report by local government watchdogs into Wirral Council’s handling of a multi-million pound highways maintenance contract.
Birkenhead MP Frank Field says he has been told by the Audit Commission it will ensure its inquiry will be made public before the end of March.
The investigation was sparked last year when it was revealed the council was unable to define whether or not the contract represented “value for money".
Mr Field had accused council officers of attempting to delay publication until after the so-called pre-election “purdah period” which comes into force at the end of March.
This prevents central and local government departments from making announcements about any new or controversial developments which may be seen as giving an advantage to one political party over another.
However, Mr Field says the district auditor has told him the report will not be covered by the purdah rules and will see light of day before local elections.
He said: “As it exclusively centres on the actions of officers and not elected members, it falls outside purdah restrictions.
“If anyone was hoping 'purdah' and a change of administration following May elections would buy them some time, they’re going to be disappointed.”
And he warned: “If this inquiry throws up a similar pattern of poor governance we witnessed over the council’s handling of the Cheshire Lines building, I will expect the very strongest measures to be taken against those responsible.”
Mr Field’s reference to the council’s highways administration centre, Cheshire Lines, is an echo from a speech he gave to Parliament in Westminster Hall on February 7.
In a scathing attack against what he called the “crass inefficiency” of council chief officers, Mr Field told MPs: “An £11m contract covering long-term rentals was squandered because it included a building which the council didn't own.
“What happened was discovered only because a member of staff reported to councillors that major work, for which no authority had been given, was being undertaken in the Cheshire Lines building.”
The council’s chief executive has denied that the hold-up of the auditors’ report is down to officers, saying they have complied fully with the inquiry.
At a town hall cabinet meeting this Thursday, council leader Cllr Jeff Green disclosed: “The second draft of this report now has been delivered to council.
“Councillors are still not allowed to see it.
“I’m not even allowed to know who has seen it!”
UPDATE: In a statement tonight in response to this article, Cllr Green said: "The report belongs to the district auditor, not the council.
“We have been given until March 27 to submit further comments - and we plan to respond before this deadline.”
In October, the Globe exclusively revealed that Mr Field had called on the Serious Fraud Office to investigate the council's handling of the highways contract.
The UK investigations agency was asked to step in following allegations made to the MP by a group of whistle-blowers.