Posted: Fri 24th May 2024

Ruling Administration accused of ‘sacking’ Audit Committee lay members for being “too effective in their job” for people living in or visiting the Wrexham area

A fractious council committee could get three new lay members as councillors voted to advertise their jobs rather than extend their terms, in an entirely legal move, but one that was described as a ‘sacking’.

The decision means three lay members, including Trevor Coxon – who previously worked as Wrexham Council’s Head of Corporate and Customer Services and Council Monitoring Officer, have been removed from the position on the Governance and Audit Committee pending a new advertisement for the role.

The committee should provide “…an independent and high-level focus on the audit, assurance and reporting arrangements that underpin good governance and financial standards”.

A ‘lay’ member of a committee are independent members of the public who sit on a council committee, should be non-political and are paid for their time. There are deeper rules, for example you can’t be a council officer and also a lay member, nor a spouse or civil partner of a member or an officer of the council. The aim is for people who are of unbiased mind and an independent attitude, and challenge where appropriate.

At the Full Council AGM this week councillors were recommended in a report to agree to the extension of the three current Independent Lay Members to the Governance and Audit Committee for the period up to and including 24th May 2028.

It also notes, “The Appointments Panel interviewed candidates on 9th May 2024 and recommends that the successful candidate is appointed to Governance and Audit Committee for a period up to and including 24th May 2028”, however adding “The extension to the existing lay members’ term was not a matter considered by the Appointments Panel, it is a proposal put forward to the Full Council in line with existing precedents and practice followed by both Wrexham Council and other Welsh councils and is separate to the new member appointment process”.

Officers told councillors, “The proposed extension of the current lay members’ appointments would allow continuity and consistency of service and would help to ensure that the Governance and Audit Committee continues to function effectively whilst meeting its Terms of Reference.”

The normally straightforward process was interrupted with Council Leader Mark Pritchard moving an amendment to the recommendation that “… the Council supports that an advert goes out for the recruitment of three independent lay members of the Governance and Audit Committee for the period up to the 24th of May 2028”. Cllr David A Bithell seconded the amendment.

No detail to why the amendment was put forward was given at Full Council.

However, readers will recall how the lay members warned about the behaviour of some councillors in the chamber (although Mr Coxon was clear he was “not saying it all falls at the leaders’ door“).

Another meeting called out ‘bad behaviour‘ of councillors.

More recently the committee has been a battleground over the Local Development Plan, and an attempt by councillors to remove the Chair via a vote of no confidence was deemed out of order – prompting a walk out of some councillors.

During the latest meeting an email was read out by Cllr Bates that he claimed was sent erroneously to him from the Chair of the committee, appearing to be to the police.

Back in April the Crown Prosecution Service “made a decision that no criminal proceeding would be pursued in relation to the matter” surrounding an attempted Judicial Review into the Local Development Plan and ‘an allegation of malfeasance in public office by councillors’ in Wrexham.

After Cllr Pritchard put forward the amendment, Cllr Dana Davies (who is also the vice-chair of the Audit Committee in question) spoke against the idea, noting the exact same process had been followed for the Standards Committee with ‘no issue there’, asking if this was ‘pure self preservation’.

The Legal Officer advised that “the committee can still run while the recruitment proceeds” and therefore was legally compliant.

Cllr Malcolm King was highly critical of the Council Leader’s move,  “There aren’t vacancies, as has been pointed out, they are not leaving. We are in fact, sacking them.

“If we’re going to be honest with the people in Wrexham, and ourselves, we all know what this is about.

“They’ve been too effective in their job of being independent on the audit committee and it’s made us feel uncomfortable, so we get rid of them. I mean, that’s what the issue is, isn’t it?”

“Maintaing this mystery and that we are going to look for other people, with the implication that these three hadn’t been doing their job very well? Well, I think it’s quite the opposite. They’ve been too independent and been doing their job too well. That is the truth of it.

The Legal Officer reiterated from the legal point of view “there is no concern around the extension proposed in the report”.

A recorded vote was called by Labour, and 36 councillors effectively decided to advertise for three new lay members, the vote was split along the lines of the Administration and Plaid Cymru outvoting Labour on the matter.

Top pic: Council Leader Mark Pritchard making his point on the amendment, with lay member Trevor Coxon observing in the public gallery.




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