Another damaging legacy from the previous Labour government

Call for review of scrutiny post Rotherham
4 February, 2015 | By Sarah Calkin

Councils should consider changing the way chairs of scrutiny committees are appointed in the wake of recent high profile reports into failings in health and children’s services, the Centre for Public Scrutiny has recommended.

A survey of officers and members involved in scrutiny found in almost two thirds of councils’ overview and scrutiny committee chairs were appointed either by the council leader or the majority group, with no input from the opposition.

In the majority of local authorities (65%) all scrutiny chair positions went to the majority party, which also took all vice chair positions in almost half of councils. Only 35% of councils filled their scrutiny positions in proportion to the political make up of the council.

The survey was carried out by the CfPS in the wake of Alexis Jay’s report into council failings in handling of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and Sir Robert Francis’s report into care at failings at Stafford hospital.

It said the findings of the survey echoed concerns raised by the Francis and Jay reports about a lack of robust challenge by members, political culture issues and obstructiveness from senior officers, members and other public agencies.

In total, 36% of respondents to the CfPs survey reported regularly or sometimes being blocked in their attempts to get hold of information from officers or cabinet members.

The CfPS said the findings meant it was “becoming urgent” that “proper research” was carried out into the effectiveness of scrutiny, noting no research had been done since 2004. The centre said this review should include looking at the impact of council cuts on overview and scrutiny.

Jessica Crowe, the body’s outgoing executive director, said: “CfPS’s work over the years has highlighted the value of effective scrutiny in improving local services and giving local people a voice in shaping service plans and decisions.

“However, what we are now seeing is a twin threat to that effectiveness from resource reductions – with resources for scrutiny down to their lowest level in a decade – and a political culture in a small minority of councils which seeks to control and limit its effectiveness.”

The report also recommended that all councils should review the governance arrangements of their scrutiny committees in light of the Francis and Jay reports.

Ms Crowe added: “Ultimately in my view, it is weak leaders who seek to control and limit scrutiny; confident leaders can face effective challenge and recognise the value it adds to their decision-making and efforts to improve services.”

The survey was carried out between September and November 2014. The majority of respondents were scrutiny officers with 5% of them members and 11% from a mixture of other backgrounds.

Scrutiny is no more than whistling in the wind

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Nearly every other day now, councillors are being told that they are, ‘key to driving forward the innovations needed to transform local government, so that it can weather the current financial storm being visited upon it by Westminster’.
Along with this often junior government minister uttered blurb, which is actually code for we’re passing the buck – they wouldn’t describe it as a ‘financial storm’, but rather, local government doing its bit – comes advice that the scrutiny process is an integral element in any transformation strategy.
It’s somewhat disingenuous to identify scrutiny as the way forward, given the abysmal record it has even when richly resourced and supported, as in the case of the Parliamentary scrutiny system.
Almost every other week we hear and read statements from various Parliamentary committees, with Keith Vaz and Margaret Hodge having a seemingly insatiable appetite for appearing on our TV screens, with the opening words, “The government needs to….”, yet what difference does it make to what the government actually does?
Translate this to the amateur, volunteer ‘scout master’ world of the local government councillor, where officer support is always at a premium and constantly under threat from the slash and burn economics of deficit reduction, and scrutiny looks more like whistling in the wind, than an insightful process, that can beat a path to innovative service delivery.

By way of a footnote, I would point to the recent revelations regarding the Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust. Lincolnshire County Council has a health scrutiny committee, with South Holland District Council represented by an independent councillor, who takes every opportunity to tell us what the committee is, or more accurately, isn’t doing. I say isn’t doing, because, in theory, if LCC’s scrutiny of our local hospitals was in any way effective, Lincolnshire hospitals wouldn’t have one of the highest abnormal death rates in England would it? Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten themselves completely hung up on the proposed changes to our local ambulance service instead.