Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees Contents


1.This inquiry was initially launched in January 2017 by our predecessor committee. However, the dissolution of Parliament and the General Election prevented any oral evidence sessions from taking place. Following the Committee’s reconstitution, we considered carefully which issues we should initially pursue in our work and how best we could build on the work of our predecessors. It was clear to us from the level of interest and concern expressed in the evidence received that the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees in local authorities was something that we should investigate as an immediate priority. We therefore relaunched the inquiry in September 2017 and undertook to take account of the wealth of written evidence provided by councils, officers, members and stakeholders prior to the election.

2.We are extremely grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry. Scrutiny varies significantly across the country, and the level of interest in the inquiry has enabled us to hear from a wide range of authorities and form a representative picture of local authority scrutiny in England. To assist us in forming this picture, and to ensure we spoke with as many authorities as possible, we supplemented our oral evidence sessions with a less formal workshop event in October 2017. Our workshop was attended by over 45 councillors and officers working in scrutiny across the country and we thank them all for their attendance and contributions.

3.This report will consider why scrutiny is important and what the role of scrutiny committees should be in local authorities. We do not believe that certain models should be imposed on councils, but we do believe that there should be an organisational culture that welcomes constructive challenge and has a common recognition of the value of scrutiny, both in terms of policy development and oversight of services. In order to achieve this, we believe that scrutiny committees must be independent and able to form their own conclusions based on robust and reliable data, and that decision-makers should not seek to obstruct their role by withholding information. We also consider the role of the public in local scrutiny, both in terms of their participation in committees’ work and in how scrutiny committees can represent their interests to service providers, even when those providers are external commercial organisations. The final chapter of this report considers the role of scrutiny in the recently created mayoral combined authorities in an attempt to help these organisations to establish positive working practices as early as possible. Throughout this report we call on the Government to revise the guidance on scrutiny that it issues local authorities. For clarity, the specific points that we believe should be covered by such a revision are listed below.

Proposed revisions to Government guidance on scrutiny committees

  • That overview and scrutiny committees should report to an authority’s Full Council meeting rather than to the executive, mirroring the relationship between Select Committees and Parliament.
  • That scrutiny committees and the executive must be distinct and that executive councillors should not participate in scrutiny other than as witnesses, even if external partners are being scrutinised.
  • That councillors working on scrutiny committees should have access to financial and performance data held by an authority, and that this access should not be restricted for reasons of commercial sensitivity.
  • That scrutiny committees should be supported by officers that are able to operate with independence and offer impartial advice to committees. There should be a greater parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive, and committees should have the same access to the expertise and time of senior officers and the chief executive as their cabinet counterparts.
  • That members of the public and service users have a fundamental role in the scrutiny process and that their participation should be encouraged and facilitated by councils.

14 December 2017