'Witch hunt' claims as Lancashire council leader announces restructure plan

Geoff Driver
Image caption Conservative Geoff Driver is one of four men being investigated over council financial irregularities.

The leader of Lancashire County Council has been accused of trying to oust his chief executive after he announced a shock restructuring of the authority.

Conservative Geoff Driver, who is being investigated over alleged council financial irregularities, earlier banned Jo Turton and four others from briefings he attends.

Labour group leader Azhar Ali described the move as a "witch hunt".

Mr Driver was not available for comment.

Mr Driver has proposed a new management structure which effectively forces chief executive Ms Turton out because it requires the role to have formal financial qualifications.

Mr Driver, who became council leader after the Tories won a majority in elections in May, had previously been in charge until 2013.

A few weeks after the election victory, he was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and witness intimidation and later released pending further inquiries.

Three other men were also held as part of the police investigation which began in 2013.

Image caption The police investigation into financial irregularities at Lancashire County Council started in 2013

It relates to allegations of financial irregularities in the tendering of a £5m contract with One Connect Ltd, a joint venture between the council and BT to run some services.

The individuals banned from briefings could be witnesses in the ongoing investigation, the BBC understands.

'Wildly inappropriate'

On Thursday, Mr Driver announced a matter of "urgent business" during a cabinet meeting, to be discussed in private, without any press or public present.

The BBC was told he gave details of a restructuring, to take place before the end of September, which requires the chief executive to also be director of resources.

Image caption Labour group leader Azhar Ali holds the piece of paper he was handed at the cabinet meeting

Mr Ali said: "Due process isn't being followed. There are no job descriptions involved...They are making decisions behind closed doors... and one sheet of paper handed out with no legal advice.

"I feel this is a personal agenda that Geoff Driver has. He's going to bring the council into disrepute, create more chaos and actually achieve very little."

Earlier this week, senior figures at county hall called for Mr Driver to resign following the briefings ban.

In an email to all councillors, Ms Turton stated that since his arrest, she and four colleagues had been requested by Mr Driver not to attend briefings where he was present.

Mr Ali said the ban was "wildly inappropriate" and wrote to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, asking for him to intervene.

In a statement, Lancashire's lead member for HR Alan Vincent said: "As the revised structure replaces the current chief executive role with a new position that requires formal financial qualifications, the intention would be to appoint to that new position on an interim basis as soon as possible."

Some senior figures in Mr Driver's own party have told the BBC they believe he should step aside whilst investigations are ongoing.

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