MPs call for council scrutiny shake up

15 Dec 17

Local government needs a cultural change to allow the scrutiny process to work properly, a parliamentary report has said.

MPs on the communities and local government committee reviewed scrutiny arrangements, which were established by the Local Government Act 2000 as an intended counterweight to the cabinet system it also created.

But the MPs’ report, Effectiveness of Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees, said scrutiny was often held in low esteem with little influence on council policy.

Committee chair Clive Betts, said: “Scrutiny is marginalised at too many local authorities, which in extreme cases can contribute to severe service failures, letting down council taxpayers and those that rely on services.

“Only by rebalancing the system and ensuring scrutiny is held in high esteem will we see better decisions.”

The report concluded a council’s organisational culture was the most significant factor in whether or not scrutiny was effective.

The MPs said overview and scrutiny committees should report to full council meeting rather than to executives, and have access to financial and performance data without this being withheld due to claims of commercial sensitivity.

It condemned cases where scrutiny committees had had to submit Freedom of Information requests to their own authorities to get data.

Committees should also receive officer support of equivalent expertise and seniority to that afforded to cabinets and gain rights to call witnesses, including from other public bodies and council contractors.

The MPs also voiced concern that local enterprise partnerships were barely scrutinised.

“We also…have significant concerns that public scrutiny of LEPs seems to be the exception rather than rule,” the report said, calling for scrutiny committees to gain power to monitor LEPs.

MPs were also worried about “an apparent secondary role” for scrutiny in the new combined authorities.

“Mayors are responsible for delivering services and improvements for millions of residents, but oversight of their performance is currently hindered by limited resources,” the report said.

Responding to the report, the Centre for Public Scrutiny called it a “timely intervention”.

Chief executive Jacqui McKinlay said: “The committee strongly points to the need for scrutiny to have equal access to impartial and independent advice including access to council officer time and information, this includes commercial information on council ventures.”

Highlighting the committee’s recommendation that scrutiny committees examine the work of LEPs, she added: “We have been calling for scrutiny to be allowed to ‘follow the public pound’, possibly through a local public accounts committee which has been supported by CIPFA and others as a necessary part of public accountability.”

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