LABOUR leaders in Wirral have denied including hidden cuts to services in the controversial budget due to be given its final hearing tonight.

Liberal Democrats claimed the Labour group, which holds the casting vote in financial decisions of Wirral Cabinet, had slipped in cuts which almost went unnoticed when the budget was passed last week.

The Labour group made U-turns on controversial plans to reduce opening hours for leisure centres and charge children with special needs for transport.

This year Wirral residents face a council tax rise of around 3.98%. In 2004 it was 2.1% and the lowest in the country.

Lib Dem leader Cllr Stuart Kelly said one of the stealth cuts he had identified was the reduction in money to be given to local communities to fight crime.

He said: "After querying an item in Labour's budget I now find that the entire Community Safety Fund has been re-allocated, and

the £5,000 for each area forum has been replaced by £3,000.

"This is a cut that was neither announced nor consulted upon. It is a disgraceful stealth cut."

Cllr Kelly said other cuts included the leisure centres which Labour said they had reprieved from their original cost-cutting plans.

He said the Lib Dem budget excludes many of Labour's unacceptable cuts and prioritises schools, community safety, recycling, and young people.

Cllr Kelly added: "Under Labour's proposal not only will every leisure centre close on every bank holiday, but they will also close on the two additional council staff holidays in June and August.

"Europa Pools, The Oval, Woodchurch and West Kirby Concourse used to remain open on all bank holidays barring Christmas and New Year: they will also now be included in the bank holiday closures."

Conservative leader Cllr Jeff Green said his group planned to introduce a budget which would result in a 2.9% increase in council tax for Wirral, but joined the criticisms of Labour's proposals.

He said: "Stealth cuts is exactly what they are. Labour have consistently tried to spin their way through this budget.

"The £15 for the ERIC service is a stealth tax and will have implications for blighting neighbourhoods. Then they are introducing a £180,000 scheme to clean up the mess their own policies are creating."

But Labour leader Steve Foulkes said the other parties' budgets were "dangerous" for the future and they had missed opportunities to suggest savings for this year, leaving Labour to protect the tax payers.

He said: "The Lid Dems and Conservatives have both gone against the advice of the director of finance and used money which will have to be repaid in the future.

"To try to con people they can have low council tax with no consequences is ridiculous.

"We believe our council tax increase in Wirral will be one of the lowest on Merseyside and will continue to move us down the league table nationally."

He dismissed the claims of stealth cuts pointing out that Labour had set up the community forums and they would now have a total of £14,000 each to spend when other cash was included.

Cllr Foulkes said the leisure centres have been losing money and they had called for them to provide business plans to improve. He said: "We have tried to turn things around so they will not be a drain on council tax payers. It's small price to pay to keep the centres open in the mornings when pensioners have told me they want them. They are little used over bank holidays."