Government aims to enhance council understanding of scrutiny

8 May 19

The government has issued statutory guidance for English councils to strengthen the role of scrutiny committees.

Local authorities will be expected to share any information asked for by a scrutiny committee, according to the guidance, released yesterday by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Where a council is unable to give information in public they should consider sharing it in a closed session, the statutory advice added.

Rishi Sunak, minister for local government, said: “Scrutiny committees form an integral part of the work of councils in delivering services by acting on behalf of residents to hold councillors and staff to account for the important decisions they make.

“That is why I have set out new guidance to ensure authorities and residents can reap the benefits of effective scrutiny, by instilling a culture that welcomes challenge.”

Sunak wrote in his forward to the guidance document that councils and combined authorities should “know the purpose of scrutiny, what effective scrutiny looks like, how to conduct it and the benefits it can bring”. He added: “This guidance aims to increase understanding in all four areas.”

The government advised that scrutiny bodies should be “constructive ‘critical friends’ with a vital role of amplifying the voices and concerns of the public when councils take important decisions”.

Another key point was that authorities should consider whether outsourced contracts should include a requirement for companies to supply information to scrutiny committees.

The guidance noted that “ultimately it is up to each authority to decide on the resource it provides” for its scrutiny function. But the document added that the resource an authority allocates to its scrutiny function is “pivotal” to its success.

“Creating a strong organisational culture supports scrutiny work that can add real value by, for example, improving policy-making and the efficient delivery of public services,” it added.

The MHCLG document also called for councillors to take a lead in ensuring that the culture of effective scrutiny is embedded across their organisations.

“While everyone in an authority can play a role in creating an environment conducive to effective scrutiny, it is important that this is led and owned by members, given their role in setting and maintaining the culture of an authority,” it said.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, said: “We welcome government’s timely revision of its statutory guidance on scrutiny, and particularly its focus on leadership buy-in, culture and behaviours that are so central to ensuring that effective overview and scrutiny can operate, and make an impact, at local level.”

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