Pembrokeshire waives the rules

A few weeks ago I reported that, because of the statutory requirement that the council’s audit committee should have at least one lay member, the sudden resignation of Mr John Evans (see resignation letter here) had left the committee in limbo.

Normally this wouldn’t matter too much, but these are not normal times because at its next meeting the committee is due to discuss a lengthy document listing the administrative failings that led to the fiasco over the commercial property grants in Pembroke Dock. I haven’t actually seen this report, but during discussions with council officers about related matters, I got the clear impression that it will uphold all, or nearly all, my criticisms of the way the scheme has been run.

Naturally, I am keen to see this document published because it will provide me with another golden opportunity to remind readers of what cabinet member David Pugh (and others) had to say about my concerns at the Cabinet meeting on December 2 and full council on December 12.

At the last meeting of council I asked the Leader whether the appointment of a new lay member would have to be endorsed by full council and he replied that the panel established at the annual meeting in 2012 had plenary powers to make the appointment without reference to full council. The draft minutes record:

“In response to a supplementary question, the Leader explained that the recruitment process for appointing a new lay Member of the Audit Committee had been extended by a week and that the Appointment Panel would make its decision under delegated powers.”

I think there may be an interesting story behind the week’s extension for applications, but that will have to wait for another day, however I’m not sure the leader is right about this because the Local Government Measure 2011 which brought the audit committee into being states quite clearly:

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(1) A local authority is to appoint the members of its audit committee.
(2) A local authority must secure that —
(a) at least two-thirds of the members of its audit committee are members of the authority;
(b) at least one member of its audit committee is a lay member.

It seems to me that unless the council expressly delegates the function to appoint the lay member to some other body (e.g the appointments panel) then the power remains with the council, the sovereign body.

The situation with the appointments panel for selecting lay members of the standards committee – on which the audit committee appointments panel is modelled – is that the panel can make recommendations which the council can either accept or reject. In any case, it hardly seems in keeping with the Leader’s boasts about transparency and accountability that such an important appointment should be made by a three-person panel which is not subject to either the political balance rules or S100 of the Local Government Act 1972 which requires all council committees to meet in open session.

Indeed this panel never advertises its meetings; meets in secret; and publishes no minutes. On top of that, two of its three members – Cllrs Stan Hudson and Tom Richards – are the Leader’s nominees, and the third, Mrs Lynette George (lay member and chairman), was in effect appointed in mysterious circumstances by former Leader Maurice Hughes way back in November 2001.

And, I almost forgot, nowhere in the council’s constitution is there any mention of this panel, or its functions. It was set up at the annual council meeting in May 2012, and the audit committee had its first ever meeting in September 2012 at which the newly appointed lay member (Mr John Evans) was present. Indeed, the committee elected him as its chairman. However, when I checked the minutes of the only council meeting in the intervening period (July 19 2012) there was nothing to indicate that the council had ever endorsed Mr Evans’ appointment. So, if I am right about the constitutional position, Mr Evans was never actually appointed.

The legislation also provides:

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(6)An act of an audit committee is invalid if the membership of the committee breaches subsection (2).

Subsection (2) is the one printed above which requires that an audit committee shall have at least one lay member. I would suggest that this means a properly appointed lay member, otherwise it would be open to the council to invite someone in off the street. An added complication is that the lay member of an audit committee is entitled to collect an allowance of £198 per day (£256 if, as in this case, they are chairman).

So the question arises as to whether these payments could be lawfully made when the recipient had not been lawfully appointed. We heard quite a lot about unlawful items of account during the protracted debates on the senior officers’ pension arrangements and it is interesting to speculate whether this is a horse from the same stable.