Conservative councillor criticised for working from Panama receives backing of senior colleagues
Liam Randall, local democracy reporter
A senior Wrexham councillor who has come under fire for working remotely from Central America while his department faces “significant concerns” has been defended by his colleagues.
Andrew Atkinson, Wrexham Council’s lead member for children’s services, is currently on a “working holiday” 5,000 miles away from home in Panama.
The Conservative councillor, who is paid around £29,000 a year, has been dialling into meetings from the country and is planning to emigrate there permanently with his family at a later date.
The performance of Wrexham’s children’s services is facing close scrutiny after a critical report by Care Inspectorate Wales identified the need for urgent change in the department.
Former Plaid Cymru Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, Arfon Jones, has called for Cllr Atkinson to be replaced by someone who can “give the scrutiny required” to the service.
However, members of the council’s independent/Conservative administration have backed the Gresford councillor, despite Panama featuring on the Welsh Government’s red list of countries at high risk from the coronavirus.
‘Entitled to holiday’
Government guidelines advise people only to travel to countries on the list for essential purposes.
Speaking at a media briefing held today (Tuesday, 6 July), council leader Mark Pritchard said: “To be fair to Andrew, he was in two meetings yesterday.
“People might not want to hear this, but Andrew is on holiday, and he is entitled to his holiday just like everybody else.
“Andrew has made his position very clear, and we’ll see what the future holds.
“He’s on holiday for three weeks and I can’t say any more than that as it would be inappropriate for me to do so.”
Cllr Atkinson previously stood for the Conservatives at the 2015 and 2017 Westminster elections and ran for the Welsh Senedd in 2016, finishing second to Labour candidates on each occasion.
Posting on the Gresford News Facebook page last week, he announced he would not be standing at next year’s local elections and would resign as a councillor if he decides to make his current visit to Panama a permanent one.
Cllr Pritchard’s comments came after the council urged Welsh football fans not to travel to the Netherlands for the national side’s Euro 2020 last-16 fixture against Denmark last month because of the risks posed by Covid-19.
In a series of Twitter posts on June 23, the authority told supporters “don’t book a flight” and to show their support from home, citing government travel guidance.
Conservative group leader Hugh Jones said it was up to individuals to decide whether their reason for travelling was necessary.
Cllr Jones, who was attending the briefing remotely from a holiday in Scotland, said: “It applies to everybody equally across the county borough.
“It’s a matter for each individual to determine what they perceive to be essential or non-essential in accordance with the guidance.”
He added: “I attended about six meetings last week and I’ll probably attend about six meetings this week.
“I wonder how many people making these critical remarks work on their holiday?”
Deputy council leader David A Bithell said he had not been on holiday since the pandemic began in March last year.
However, he said modern technology made it easier for politicians to conduct work while they are on leave.