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Executive Board meeting suspended to allow councillors to calm down

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Tuesday, Oct 9th, 2018.

Wrexham Council’s monthly Executive Board meeting was effectively suspended this morning to allow councillors to calm down during a passionate debate over disability employment service cuts.

It is quite common for a lengthy meetings to have 10-15 minute ‘comfort breaks’ after running for a couple of hours, yet just over an hour into the meeting this morning a ‘comfort break’ was called mid-debate for a cool off due to ongoing battles.

The kick off revolved around the cutting and ‘reshaping’ of work opportunities for those with a range of physical and learning disabilities, provided by Wrexham Council. The topic has gone through the Scrutiny process and ended up in a report before Wrexham Council’s Executive Board to make a decision that would see cessation of two projects, Coverall and Portable Appliance testing (PAT).

The Cafe in Alyn Waters comes under Wrexham Council’s Adult Social Care, so they are looking to run it ‘in partnership’ rather than directly as it is now, but they say they will ensure any contractor gives the opportunity for those working there to carry on.

The Scrutiny Committee asked for a deferral of the decision as they were not sufficiently reassured that suitable alternative services would be provided for individuals.

Last week Cllr David A Bithell explained he felt such demands would be duplicating work already carried out by officers and was in effect not appropriate due to the personal nature of the information to be handled by a Scrutiny committee.

Today, after the usual formal presentation of the report containing plans to close some services and outsource Alyn Waters cafe to a third party, Cllr Derek Wright presented a bundle of papers to the Council Leader Mark Pritchard and Chief Executive Ian Bancroft before stating he felt Scrutiny had been ignored and protocols were not being followed and a ‘breach’ had taken place.

Cllr Wright said the protocols, formed in 2016 as part of ‘developing effective scrutiny’, clearly stated that councillors should have had a written report on the outcome of Scrutiny and a verbal update, yet the report and the presenting of the report had neither.

Wrexham.com has located the outcome guidance of the 2016 process that includes:

– Recommendations of Scrutiny Committees to always be recorded in Executive Board reports
– Lead Member should include reference in the report as to whether scrutiny recommendations have been accepted or not and the reason(s) why
– Lead Member to make reference to scrutiny comments/recommendation when introducing report at Executive Board.

Cllr Wright said these ‘had been completely ignored’ noting that 11 members of a politically balanced committee had formed recommendations, unanimously. He said: “There are 52 councillors on Wrexham Council involved in the decision making process.

“That is not the case now, it is just 10 with no regard or respect to the other 42, particularly scrutiny members.”

Cllr Wright asked for the report and debate to be deferred until a complete report could be prepared.

Clr Pritchard was unhappy, calling the remarks about no respect or regard as being ‘untrue’, saying he had the ‘utmost respect and regard for every elected member’, and invited Cllr Wright to ‘find time to apologise’.

He said: “Scrutiny make recommendations and bring it to us. We make a judgement call on if we want to accept the recommendations made by scrutiny and take it forward”

“In the past it is a mixed bag, we do it and we don’t. On the report it is in there with regards to the scrutiny comments.”

The Legal Officer confirmed ‘the scrutiny recommendations are contained within the report’.

Cllr Wright read out the line from the protocol that states the report should ‘…include reference in the report as to whether scrutiny recommendations have been accepted or not and the reason why’, noting ‘they totally have not’.

“The protocol has been breached. It is there in plain english.”

The Council Officer explained to the meeting that ‘we took on board the comments and recommendations from scrutiny’ and that information was ‘in the body of the report’.

Cllr Wright was unimpressed, rejecting a chance for further follow up saying “I don’t see the point, no one is listening to me.”

Cllr David A Bithell raised the temperature saying: “I am quite disappointed to be honest with you, why an elected member of the Labour party has attacked us this morning by saying ‘no respect, no regard’.”

“I think that is disappointing and I hope there is an apology coming as it is quite clear in the report that the scrutiny comments are there.”

In a comment that appears to have raised eyebrows outside of the chamber as well as triggering shakes of heads and face-pulls inside it, Cllr Bithell went on: “We don’t have to take on board what scrutiny says because we are the Executive Board.

“If after the decision is made today that Scrutiny are not happy with that decision if we make that decision then you can call it in.”

Cllr Dana Davies posed various questions, but picked up on her party being named by Cllr Bithell: “I find it incredulous we have a Lead Members Scrutiny Protocol and that the Labour Party are some how being blamed for you ten executive members not knowing your own protocol.

“I do worry about the attack coming from that direction. Our constitution should demonstrate our democratic process, we have had various conversations in Part 2 about breaches of constitution.”

“We should not be blamed for you guys not knowing your constitution. It is down to us to hold you to account. That includes questions on breaches of the constitution. What is the protocol for a breach of protocol?”

Cllr Pritchard enquired if Cllr Davies was making a personal point, or a wider point about all members of the Executive. Cllr Davies replied: “All ten” saying “We will keep reminding you” if issues around the process cropped up again.

Cllr Pritchard told the meeting he knew the constitution, and protocols ‘off by heart’, and the Legal Officer was called in to speak on the allegation of a ‘breach’.

The Legal Officer said the issues raised by Scrutiny were ‘addressed primarily in the report’, but did note that it was not explicitly expressed along the lines of the protocol, calling the manner of how the report handled it a ‘nuanced approach’ and therefore could not see a breach.

The Legal Officer also pointed out, by design or an oversight, that the 2016 protocol was an ancillary document rather than specifically part of the council’s constitution and was an ‘informal’ document, thus not going by the letter of it ‘did not undermine any decision making’.

Cllr Pritchard paused and made a request that all councillors ‘be considerate and thoughtful’ and ‘not to personalise any debate’.

Cllr Atkinson then spoke to applaud Cllr Wright’s manner of making his point, but noted his disagreement.

Cllr David Griffiths spoke to say: “I don’t get involved when we get tit for tat as we left school a long time ago. I was on that scrutiny committee, I am part of it, so to say I don’t understand it is quite insulting. They need to do their homework to see I was part of that.”

Just 70 minutes into the meeting Cllr Pritchard then said “I am going to call comfort break. We will have ten minutes out.”

The meeting was then suspended mid-debate and mid-agenda item. We can’t recall such a move previously during an agenda item.

During the brief break councillors generally migrated towards each other in politically groupings, with some leaving the Chamber. Afterwards we were told some discussions were held to calm councillors down, to discuss a possible extra amendment to pacify the scrutiny based debate.

The meeting restarted, with questions coming from the Plaid Cymru group. Cllr Marc Jones asked a range of questions revolving ‘however you dress it up it is a cut in service’ and how that contrasted with a ‘person centred approach’, and also mentioned ‘compulsory redundancies’.

Cllr Bithell made a ranging point about the quality and quantity of information in the report, saying there had been several ‘disrespectful comments’ made towards the Executive Board.

He said: “We are making decisions in difficult times. The service has to change. Yes there are savings attributed to this, like anything else coming in the near future, we can’t hide away from that because that is austerity.

“What we are trying to do, and all members of this Executive Board have the same passion as Cllr Pritchard and myself, we are trying to deliver a service in difficult times.”

Clr Bithell went on to explain how it the issue had been treated ‘with compassion’ by the Executive, Lead Member and council officers, warning ‘we are in danger of being disrespectful to them’.

Turning back to Cllr Jones specifically, Cllr Bithell said: “You have mentioned compulsory redundancy. You have made that statement of compulsory redundancy. I don’t see anywhere in the report….”

A retort of “It is in there” came back.

“Can I just say Cllr Jones, you can argue that, and it is a typical Plaid Cymru trick about compulsory redundancy”.

Cllr Bithell went on: “We have a redeployment policy in this council. We have a good track record to make sure all our staff are redeployed as far as possible. To make statements of compulsory redundancy at this stage, and to play pedantics is a little bit disrespectful.”

With things heating up yet again Cllr Pritchard stepped in with another unfamiliar suggestion at Executive Board meetings, an amendment to the report before them, with the rumoured comfort break compromise being put forward.

The suggestion was an extra recommendation that would see a report on progress on providing opportunities to service users sent to the Scrutiny committee for consideration in around six – likely to contain update on ‘placements’ and to give the ‘reassurance’ Cllr Derek Wright was looking for.

As Lead Member Cllr Joan Lowe was asked to back that, which she did, but after saying she was ‘surprised at the negativity coming forwards this morning’, adding it was ‘unfair’ on the council’s Social Services department and could impact on staff moral.

With protocols and constitutional debates still fresh, Cllr Hugh Jones enquired with a smile if the Executive Board could in-fact tell Scrutiny what to do, and suggested advising them instead.

After the further recommendation was firmed up business proceeded swiftly to vote – and the initial recommendations passed, along with the newly introduced on.

Although we have witnessed fierce debates, shouting matches and amusing snark and sass, today was the first time a time out has had to be called in the several years Wrexham.com has been attending meetings.

The above is heavy on the arguments and process debate, there is more detail on the actual report in our article on the plans here…

Top pic: A pantomime character ended up in the chamber in 2013.

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