A process that has been in place for decades is being changed after a mess of a Scrutiny meeting last week, meaning committee members will have to do their own thinking on recommendations rather than taking Lead Member or Officer’s versions verbatim.
Traditionally Scrutiny Committees at Wrexham Council are presented with reports by Lead Members that give details on a topic, plus a ‘Recommendation’. This is often the only output of the meeting, and gives the official ‘view’ of the Committee itself passed to the Executive Board, Full Council or the like.
The Recommendations usually take the form of The Committee…. ‘considers the progress made‘, ‘notes the work‘, ‘considers and comments on‘ and often go forward word for word as presented. On occasion members of the committees change the recommendations themselves either fully, or the odd wording change, or tacking an extra one or two on as well.
That decades old process is set to change with all Councillors and senior Council staff notified on Friday afternoon via a ‘clarification’ from the Council’s legal officer after ‘apparent confusion’ at the Scrutiny committee meeting on Wednesday – that we reported on under the headline “Another shambolic end to a Scrutiny meeting at Wrexham Council“.
The Committee on Wednesday was asked to ‘consider and comment (twice)’ and ‘provide feedback’ on issues surrounding the ceasing of Communities First by Welsh Government, a trio that appeared to required output from the committee. The Committee and Lead Member had a decent debate on the issues, with the report presented by Cllr Pritchard who pointed out many times that Wrexham Council would not be picking up the bill for replacement services after the Welsh Government cut as it was ‘unaffordable’.
Issues arose at the end of the meeting where Committee members discussed forming recommendations, however the meeting was told by Cllr Pritchard he would not be willing to change his recommendations in his report, with some deeply unhappy at how the meeting was conducted – you can read the nitty gritty in our report here.
The legal officer’s email circulated on Friday after the meeting was described to us as ‘highly unusual’ by a person long familiar with council workings. The legal officer wrote he had “been asked to clarify the position as to the way the procedure should operate” regarding the recommendations section in scrutiny reports and their purpose.
Two sections of Lead Members and Scrutiny Protocol (The email helpfully had a copy of the Protocol attached) are specifically highlighted: “Lead Members are expected to present their reports, answer questions and contribute to the debate as requested. The appropriate reporting officer will also attend.” and “A Lead Member should not attempt to direct scrutiny work programmes, recommendations, etc.”
The email goes on to point out that the ‘recommendations’ from Lead Members are suggested ways forward for the committees, adding: “This is where some confusion has occurred, it would seem. Obviously, a Lead Member cannot formally propose any recommendations to be voted on – these have to come from the Scrutiny members themselves. The Committee proposes its own conclusions and recommendations, based on the information in the report and the discussion that takes place at the meeting.”
Due to ‘confusion’ arising in this area at the last meeting the way reports are presented are to be rejigged, with Lead Members no longer having formal recommendations, rather sticking those in the body of reports or elsewhere in the documents.
As a result, Scrutiny Committee reports will now see the following as the recommendation:
“Recommendation: That Members of the Committee formulate their conclusions and recommendations based on the information in the report and the discussion at the meeting.”
These changes are hoped to ‘try and avoid any future confusion’ to ensure ‘separation of function’ is ‘abundantly clear’.
The changes may mean some Councillors will have to up their game, hopefully long term scenes of some councillors not knowing what is going on on meetings when it comes to votes on recommendations finally stopping, as they will have to do the work to create, propose, second, amend and finally vote on the recommendations themselves.
The power of Scrutiny is often raised, with it recently being charged by the Executive Board itself to scrutinise the ‘Difficult Decisions’ budget – something that some councillors are now following up.
One recent Scrutiny output that has been mentioned several times to Wrexham.com is the output from the Democratic Services Committee who met in July to consider an Officer’s report that contained the recommendation that “Members consider the implications of exercising discretion on salary levels and recommend to Council accordingly.”
The output of that meeting saw the Chair of Democratic Services report going before Full Council in September with the Committee’s recommendation that “when setting the level of Senior and Civic Salaries to Members, the lowest level of remuneration as set out by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW) be paid achieving a total annual saving of £41,700.”
The meeting in July had input from Council Leader Mark Pritchard giving a ‘history lesson’ to new Councillors on the committee as we documented in our report. The meeting was also notable for another shambles of a vote, with Councillors Atkinson, Baldwin and Edwards all unhappy how a vote was formed and taken.
The pay recommendation came before Full Council, and was effectively nullified by an amendment from Cllr Pritchard democratically approved – again with scenes of some Councillors not knowing what had gone on with a vote.
We asked Wrexham Council on Friday morning if there was any guidance in terms of what the legal process is formally for the intervening on recommendations by Lead Members at a Scrutiny Committee.
We also requested if there was a copy of the minutes made by the Officers at the meeting, which would capture the recommendations tabled and the final votes. We also asked if there had been any complaints been raised over the meeting.
At the time of writing we had no reply, but our questions were raised prior to the email being circulated by the legal officer later that afternoon.