THE leader of Hampshire County Council is facing calls for his resignation and an inquiry after being accused of a cover-up over secret payments to top executives.

Opposition councillors are demanding an inquiry into Cllr Ken Thornber’s conduct, after it emerged that he authorised payments of £87,000 to seven council officers.

Cllr Thornber had told the Hampshire Chronicle in 2009 that no staff received bonuses.

However, the payments, made over two years, were revealed following new rules that force local councils to publish salaries and payments to staff earning more than £155,000.

Cllr Thornber has repeatedly refused to discuss the issue, and last week issued a statement that said he had authorised the payments following a favourable external assessment — describing them not as bonuses, but as “special recognition payments”.

He approved payments of £80,000 in 2008-09, and then £7,000 in 2009-10.

In 2008-9, the largest single payment of £15,000 was made to Andrew Smith, chief executive, on top of his £204,723 salary and £39,878 contribution to his pension.

His total package was £259,601.

Now Liberal Democrat county councillor Bruce Tennent, a member of the council’s select committee for policy and resources, has tabled a formal request for the issue to be scrutinised at its next meeting on July 22.

Cllr Keith H o u s e , leader of the opposition Lib Dems, also called for an investigation.

“We need an inquiry into these pay awards and Cllr Thornber’s decisions to ensure transparency and accountability,” he said.

“This smacks of a cover-up by the county council. When is a bonus not a bonus? When it’s a ‘special recognition payment’.

“I don’t dispute the ability of the county’s senior staff, but Cllr Thornber should not hide behind the meaning of words to disguise pay awards.”

He said he was concerned that the awards had not come before councillors to approve.

“Yet again it is business covered up as private, and not open to scrutiny by all councillors or the press,” he added.

Lib Dem county councillor Peter Chegwyn said: “I think he certainly should consider his position as he appears to have spoken with a forked tongue.

“Not only has he kept the electorate in the dark, but fellow councillors too. This smacks of arrogance and adds to the climate of secrecy at Hampshire County Council — we saw that with the way the Hampshire Senate was set up.

“It is a scandal that when librarians are fearing for their jobs he is rewarding the highestpaid officers with even more money.”

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said local taxpayers would be absolutely justified to call for Cllr Thornber’s resignation.

The money was paid out between 2008-10 when the country was gripped by a financial crisis, and when 1,750 of mainly male workers at the county council had their pay cut as part of a new salary structure.

Despite repeated attempts to speak directly to Cllr Thornber, he would only issue a statement.

He said: “The two statements are not inconsistent. As we have said previously, there is no contractual bonus scheme in place within the county council.

“We have explained that we do, however, recognise exceptional performance with special recognition payments on a oneoff basis, an approach which is in line with most other local authorities and derives from established national agreements for chief officers.

“The officers in receipt of these payments have delivered efficiency savings of £57m in the past three years alone as verified by the district auditor.

“Without such savings, council tax could have risen by just over 10 per cent.

“These are also the officers who, as verified by Government, have delivered Hampshire as the country’s top performing county council, giving value for money.”

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