Overview and scrutiny committees were introduced by the Local Government Act 2000 and were tasked with acting as a counterweight to the increased centralised power of the new executive arrangements. Whilst some authorities were not covered by the changes brought in by the Act, the Leader and Cabinet system is the predominant model of governance in English local authorities. However, since the Localism Act 2011, councils have had the option of reverting to the committee system of governance. Some authorities that have chosen to do so have expressed dissatisfaction with the new executive arrangements, including concern at the limited effectiveness of scrutiny. Noting these concerns, and that there has not been a comprehensive assessment of how scrutiny committees operate, we decided to conduct this inquiry. The terms of reference placed an emphasis on considering factors such as the ability of committees to hold decision-makers to account, the impact of party politics on scrutiny, resourcing of committees and the ability of council scrutiny committees to have oversight of services delivered by external organisations.
We have found that the most significant factor in determining whether or not scrutiny committees are effective is the organisational culture of a particular council. Having a positive culture where it is universally recognised that scrutiny can play a productive part in the decision-making process is vital and such an approach is common in all of the examples of effective scrutiny that we identified. Senior councillors from both the administration and the opposition, and senior council officers, have a responsibility to set the tone and create an environment that welcomes constructive challenge and democratic accountability. When this does not happen and individuals seek to marginalise scrutiny, there is a risk of damaging the council’s reputation, and missing opportunities to use scrutiny to improve service outcomes. In extreme cases, ineffective scrutiny can contribute to severe service failures.
Our inquiry has identified a number of ways that establishing a positive culture can be made easier. For example, in many authorities, there is no parity of esteem between the executive and scrutiny functions, with a common perception among both members and officers being that the former is more important than the latter. We argue that this relationship should be more balanced and that in order to do so, scrutiny should have a greater independence from the executive. One way that this can be achieved is to change the lines of accountability, with scrutiny committees reporting to Full Council meetings, rather than the executive. We also consider how scrutiny committee chairs might have greater independence in order to dispel any suggestion that they are influenced by partisan motivations. Whilst we believe that there are many effective and impartial scrutiny chairs working across the country, we are concerned that how chairs are appointed can have the potential to contribute to lessening the independence and legitimacy of the scrutiny process.
Organisational culture also impacts upon another important aspect of effective scrutiny: access of committees to the information they need to carry out their work. We heard about committees submitting Freedom of Information requests to their own authorities and of officers seeking to withhold information to blunt scrutiny’s effectiveness. We believe that there is no justification for such practices, that doing so is in conflict with the principles of democratic accountability, and only serves to prevent scrutiny committees from contributing to service improvement. We have particular concerns regarding the overzealous classification of information as being commercially sensitive.
We also considered the provision of staff support to committees. Whilst ensuring that sufficient resources are in place is of course important, we note that if there is a culture within the council of directors not valuing scrutiny, then focussing on staff numbers will not have an impact. We are concerned that in too many authorities, supporting the executive is the over-riding priority, despite the fact that in a time of limited resources, scrutiny’s role is more important than ever. We also consider the skills needed to support scrutiny committees, and note that many officers combine their support of scrutiny with other functions such as clerking committees or executive support. It is apparent that there are many officers working in scrutiny that have the required skills, and some are able to combine them with the different skill set required to be efficient and accurate committee clerks. However, we heard too many examples of officers working on scrutiny who did not possess the necessary skills. Decisions relating to the resourcing of scrutiny often reflect the profile that the function has within an authority. The Localism Act 2011 created a requirement for all upper tier authorities to create a statutory role of designated lead scrutiny officer to promote scrutiny across the organisation. We have found that the statutory scrutiny officer role has proven to be largely ineffective as the profile of the role does not remotely reflect the importance of other local authority statutory roles. We believe that the statutory scrutiny officer position needs to be significantly strengthened and should be a requirement for all authorities.
We believe that scrutiny committees are ideally placed and have a democratic mandate to review any public services in their area. However, we have found that there can sometimes be a conflict between commercial and democratic interests, with commercial providers not always recognising that they have entered into a contract with a democratic organisation with a necessity for public oversight. We believe that scrutiny’s powers in this area need to be strengthened to at least match the powers it has to scrutinise local health bodies. We also call on councils to consider at what point to involve scrutiny when it is conducting a major procurement exercise. It is imperative that council executives involve scrutiny at a time when contracts are still being developed, so that all parties understand that the service will still have democratic oversight despite being delivered by a commercial entity. We also heard about the public oversight of Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs), and have significant concerns that public scrutiny of LEPs seems to be the exception rather than rule. Therefore, we recommend that upper tier councils, and combined authorities where appropriate, should be able to monitor the performance and effectiveness of LEPs through their scrutiny committees.
We recognise that the mayoral combined authorities are in their infancy, but given the significance of organisational culture in effective scrutiny, it is important that we included them in our inquiry to ensure that the correct tone is set from the outset. We are therefore concerned by the evidence we heard about an apparent secondary role for scrutiny in 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. We therefore call on the Government to ensure that funding is available for this purpose. We also argue that when agreeing further devolution deals and creating executive mayors, the Government must make it clear that scrutiny is a fundamental part of any deal and must be adequately resourced and supported.
14 December 2017