We must herald the importance of scrutiny in 2018

21 Dec 17

All Jacqui McKinlay wants for Christmas is for the value of government scrutiny to be recognised and for it be a topic of discussion in 2018. 


As we hurtle towards the end of 2017, my wish for 2018 is that we continue to talk about scrutiny (alongside world peace, healthy children and less choc consumption, of course).

Scrutiny has been high on the agenda in recent weeks – the demand for effective parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit deal; the Communities and Local Government select committee report published last week shining a much-needed spotlight on the effectiveness of local government scrutiny.

And at our own recent conference where sector leaders including Dame Louise Casey passionately articulated the vital need for scrutiny to tell truth to power.

Many of the challenges that the CLG Committee identified are cultural in nature – connected to the issue of “parity of esteem” between scrutiny and the executive.

The findings make it clear that a local culture that embraces challenge is vital to success.

Scrutiny needs to be taken out of its box and given a much more valued and respected role as an equal counter balance to the political executive.

In addition, that scrutiny needs to be taken out of its box and given a much more valued and respected role as an equal counter balance to the political executive.

There are some key recommendations such as having a more senior designated council officer to oversee and champion scrutiny and for scrutiny chairs to be elected by members rather than appointed by council leaders.

If scrutiny is to have teeth, then it needs a valid and impartial status.

CfPS also welcomed the recommendation that committees should be allowed to scrutinise external public bodies and makes direct references to scrutiny of LEPs.

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.

We will be providing more detail to the our evolved Local Public Account Committee ideas early in 2018.

We particularly welcome the call for enhanced information rights for councillors.

Scrutiny councillors do have broad rights of access to information, which were expanded in 2012 – but these rights do not go far enough.

We agree with the committee that scrutiny members should have an automatic right of access to information – not just where it relates to a “live” scrutiny inquiry – and that councils should look at the way that they make “commercially sensitive” information available to scrutiny.

While we produced research on this subject in 2015 we are concerned that the key arguments – and legal obligations – around councillors’ information rights have yet to hit home in many authorities.

We also welcome the committee’s comments and recommendations on resourcing.

While government should not be expected to make requirements and expectations of democratically-led local authorities about resourcing, the suggestion that councils publish information about the level of resource available to scrutiny will, we think, allow a debate to take place about what scrutiny does with that resource.

In particular, it will help members and officers to identify where officer resourcing may be “hidden” – we have published recently on the fact that councils with limited dedicated officer resourcing may instead rely more heavily on senior staff support from service departments, in a way that makes more of a call on resources than many might expect.

The committee also made findings and recommendations on sector support and training.

Most councils undertake some form of scrutiny and member development training and are obviously free to choose how this is delivered.

There is, however, a need overall to review the focus of training and the topics covered.

Good scrutiny does not happen by osmosis, telling people about the powers will not necessarily deliver a focused work programme, give the necessary subject knowledge, ensure excellent information gathering and analysis, brilliant questioning and report/ recommendation writing.

Without this, scrutiny won’t be talked about and its impact will continue to diminish.

Our whole purpose as an organisation is to support good governance; supporting elected members to be effective is a central part of that, and we will look to put in place ways to make sure that their needs continue to be front and centre and we promise to be noisy in how we do that during 2018.

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