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Eric Pickles asked to investigate absence of Somerset chief executive Sheila Wheeler

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 18, 2014

Somerset County Council has been asked to 'come clean' over the eight-week leave by its chief executive Sheila Wheeler

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Eric Pickles has been asked to investigate the circumstances surrounding the mystery eight-week absence of Somerset County Council chief executive Sheila Wheeler.

The call was made to Mr Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, by Somerton and Frome MP David Heath, in response to calls, made through the Western Daily Press, for the council to come clean on the reasons behind the leave. A possible disagreement with council leader John Osman has been reported as being a factor in her time off – for which she is still being paid her full £160,000 salary.

Addressing the House of Commons as he made his request, Mr Heath asked Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley: "May we have a debate on transparency and the use of public funds in local government? In Somerset, a previous leader of the county council fell out with the chief executive and summarily sacked him in 2009.

"That cost Somerset council taxpayers more than a third of a million pounds. It now appears that exactly the same thing is happening again."

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Former chief executive Alan Jones in fact took early retirement in 2009 after six years at the helm of the council, taking it from a two-star to a four-star authority.

Mr Heath continued: "The present chief executive is 'out of the office' and has been for seven weeks. No statement has been made by the council, and members of the council have been gagged by a confidentiality clause.

"Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – who I gather is in my constituency this week, although he has not had the courtesy to tell me – to investigate?"

Mr Lansley responded by saying he would not comment on the specific case but that the Government was taking steps to simplify the process used for resolving disputes with senior council staff.

Mr Heath is the fourth Liberal Democrat MP in Somerset to call for an explanation of Mrs Wheeler's absence, joining calls from Tessa Munt, MP for Wells, Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane, and David Laws, MP for Yeovil. In the Western Daily Press last week, the Taxpayers Alliance urged the council to "come clean".

Somerset County Council originally said Mrs Wheeler was on sick leave. Last week it said she was "out of the office at this time".

Mrs Wheeler, a high-flyer seconded to Whitehall before joining Somerset, declined to comment.

This week the council said: "Sheila Wheeler continues to be away from the office.

"The responsibilities of the chief executive as head of paid service are temporarily being carried out by the deputy chief executive Pat Flaherty.

"This council has a strict policy of not commenting on employees and this continues to be the case."

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