Concerns raised over value of scrutiny of Welsh council’s leadership
Rory Sheehan – Local Democracy Reporter
Concerns have been raised that attempts to scrutinise policy set by Wrexham Council’s ruling leadership are being obstructed.
A meeting of the authority’s governance and audit committee saw members question the Independent / Conservative executive board leadership’s response to scrutiny committees and their recommendations.
Chairing the meeting, lay member Jerry O’Keeffe brought up an example from a recent executive board meeting when opposition councillors on the lifelong learning scrutiny committee felt attempts to encourage a review of school transport policy were being blocked off.
Since before Christmas that committee has flagged up issues for sixth form pupils attending Ysgol Morgan Llwyd and the Maelor School in Penley.
One of the recommendations made was to request the executive board revisit a decision taken in 2015 not to subsidise post-16 transport in light of the current cost-of-living crisis.
But the executive board opted against this until Welsh Government gives an update on its Learner Travel Measure review – a policy which could make it a statutory requirement for councils to fund post-16 transport.
Concentrating on reducing the council’s projected £23.8m budget deficit was given as a priority for staff above reviewing the policy.
This left scrutiny committee members frustrated that their efforts to look at council policy are being obstructed.
Raising it at the governance and audit committee meeting, Mr O’Keeffe said: “An application was made by scrutiny to commission a report by officers around school transport for over-16’s and the executive board turned that down.
“There are potentially implications for the governance and audit committee that if we accept the scrutiny process is an essential plank of the whole governance framework of the council, and they deem it necessary to commission a report.
“Where does that leave scrutiny in terms of their function and their central role in holding the executive board to account?
“If we as a committee were to initiate a topic request to scrutiny, could we have assurances that report would be commissioned regardless of the context that was mooted about ‘all hands to the plough’ to mitigate the financial circumstances the council finds itself in?”
Erddig Cllr Paul Roberts (Con), who is a member of the executive board, said he felt uncomfortable that the meeting was straying “off piste” after a previous intervention from monitoring officer Linda Roberts that it should not stray into areas covered by the council’s Standards Committee.
Cllr Roberts said: “No disrespect to yourself but why are we going on about scrutiny? I’ve come here today to talk about what’s on the agenda. Then we’re going to be talking about a decision that was made after discussion. I don’t see the relevance personally.”
Mr O’Keeffe said the committee was just looking for assurances that scrutiny is valued, that evidence from the last executive board meeting suggested that might not be the case.
Monitoring officer Linda Roberts intervened again, suggesting a separate discussion outside the meeting was needed as it was “straying off the agenda”.
Minera Cllr Jerry Wellens (Lab) said he felt some members were being particularly defensive.
“I detect elements of defensiveness everywhere”, he said.
“What we’re saying as a committee is that we would appreciate some positive signs and assurance that things will be put right and it worries me when members of the committee start to become defensive about the process as well.”
This irked Cllr Paul Roberts who pushed for Cllr Wellens to name the members of the committee that in his view were being defensive.
Vice-chair, Ruabon Cllr Dana Davies (Lab) intervened to try and halt this, saying: “This is exactly the behaviour we’re trying to change.
“I don’t want us to be pulling each other apart, that’s the behaviour we’re trying to avoid.”
Glyn Ceiriog Cllr Trevor Bates (Ind) pointed out that it was he who submitted the topic request to look at school transport, and that it was the leader of the council, Esclusham Cllr Mark Pritchard (Ind) who told him to proceed with it.
Later in the meeting Mr O’Keefe proposed more training for the governance and audit committee member on the function of scrutiny within the council.
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