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Wirral suspends director of law and two senior officers pending investigation

The Director of Law, HR and Asset Management at Wirral Council is one of three senior staff members to be suspended after a critical public interest report into the award of the authority’s Highways and Engineering Services (HESPE) contract in 2008.

In a statement on its website the council said: “In order to properly investigate and address the findings of the report three members of staff, who have both statutory and line management responsibilities for the corporate governance functions where failings were identified, have been suspended.

It stressed that suspension was “a neutral action” and an investigation would be undertaken to see whether there was a case to answer.

Alongside Director of Law Bill Norman, the officers suspended were the Acting Chief Executive and Director of Finance, Ian Coleman, and the Deputy Director of Finance, David Taylor-Smith. 

“Arrangements have been put in place to ensure services will remain unaffected,” Wirral said.

It added that David Armstrong, Interim Director of Children’s Services, would assume Chief Executive responsibilities until an Interim Chief Executive was in post.

The Audit Commission became involved in the case after concerns were raised by members of Wirral's Operational Services Department (OSD) about the award of the HESPE contract, which was aimed at bringing together several separate contracts.

Staff at the OSD were transferred to the successful bidder on 1 April 2009. However, a group were not satisfied with an internal investigation carried out by Wirral and contacted the Audit Commission.

In a report published last month, the watchdog concluded that there were a number of weaknesses in the council’s arrangements to award and manage the HESPE contract. 

The Audit Commission said that while no specific loss to public funds could be identified, the council’s arrangements did not demonstrate good governance and value for money were being secured from the contract. Wirral had as a result exposed itself to significant risks, the report added.

The watchdog suggested that the case highlighted the need for Wirral to strengthen its arrangements for demonstrating good governance and securing value for money in its use of public funds.

The report acknowledged that progress had been made by the authority, for example by improving procedures and systems for recording, managing and reporting contract variations.

However, it said that much was still to be done “to mitigate a number of the risks identified by my work, for this contract, for other council contracts and for the council’s overall arrangements for securing good governance and value for money”. The report contained a number of recommendations to improve matters.

Leader of Wirral Council, Cllr Phil Davies (Labour), said: “When becoming Council Leader, I made it clear that in order to move the Council forward it was necessary to address honestly and openly where failings had occurred in the past. That is why I make this announcement in partnership with my fellow Party Leaders.

“Together with them I will ensure that this investigation takes place both robustly and speedily. My clear priority is to ensure that the residents of Wirral have a Council delivering the excellent services that they both need and deserve.”

Leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr Jeff Green, said: “I have made it clear for some time that Wirral Council must be open and transparent and hold people to account where necessary. The needs of residents and businesses must be our overriding priority.

“The culture of the Council has damaged their interests and I have always made it clear that it is important for all politicians to work together to deliver real change. I will work with Phil Davies as Council Leader to ensure that all necessary actions are taken and that together we build a Council with a culture and approach to difficult issues that the public can have confidence in.”

Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group, Cllr Tom Harney, added: “The improvements we must make to the manner in which Wirral Council operates require the full support and efforts of all political parties and I pledge to be a part of that. We will not make progress unless we face up to some of the things that have gone wrong and put in place a new culture and a better way of working together.”