Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees Contents

5Member training and skills

The importance of training

66.Unlike the quasi-judicial council committees of planning and licensing, members of scrutiny committees are not required to have any specialist skills or knowledge. We have heard evidence suggesting that this can hinder the effectiveness of committees, and are concerned that some councillors might not take their scrutiny role as seriously as others. For example, an anonymous spouse of a scrutiny chair states that:

Whilst most Authorities have educational classes for members they are not well attended for the following reasons. Members who are in full time employment are not willing to attend in their ‘nonworking hours’; those who are long standing members think it beneath them and those who work for a political party are ‘instructed’ by the party’s position on the subject.69

67.If scrutiny members are not fully prepared and able to ask relevant questions, the committee will not be able to fully interrogate an issue and committee meetings can become little more than educational sessions for councillors to learn about a service, rather than scrutinise it. An officer from a London Borough explains that scrutiny meetings are:

typically between scrutiny members and senior officers where the temptation to ask questions to simply learn more about a subject matter is greater … The Council’s Member Development Officer, together with Democratic Services Officers, do arrange training for scrutiny members when opportunities arise; but this has proved insufficient as members infrequently display the required level of listening and questioning skills to make scrutiny impactful. Too many discussions at meetings are based on requests for more information, without expressing why it is required or how it will facilitate good scrutiny.70

68.Jacqui McKinlay from CfPS explained that training for scrutiny members usually fell into one of two categories:

One is the generic skills element—questioning skills, and understanding data and performance management information. We then also run training, which is around children’s services, understanding health and social care integration, whatever it might be. We are getting into the nitty-gritty then to give people enough knowledge… [However,] it is about who comes forward and accesses that. The people who come forward and access that tend to come from good organisations.71

The suitability of training provided

69.Without the legal requirement for training such as on quasi-judicial committees, councils are not able to ensure that scrutiny members have all of the skills or knowledge that they need to deliver effective scrutiny, and those that need it most are the least likely to engage. However, we also note the view of Professor Copus, who highlighted that the value of councillors is that they are lay persons:

There is a danger that we end up training councillors to be elected officers, and that has to be avoided. Officers are there to do their role. Councillors require a different type of skill and training. I am a great fan of council officers and I am not unfairly criticising them, but in many cases the training that is provided to members is what officers need members to understand, rather than what members need to understand.72

70.We agree that councillors require a different type of training from officers and that knowing a subject is not sufficient to ensure good scrutiny. The ability to question effectively, as well as actively listen to responses, is fundamental to successful scrutiny. Cllr Fitzsimons told us:

Indeed, some of the simpler questions are some of the most pertinent questions going. Someone coming in not knowing too much about a subject can almost get more from a session than someone who has drifted into data nirvana or something like that, where they are really drilling down and finding out why this figure does not match this other one.73

The quality of training available and DCLG oversight

71.We are concerned that there is no mechanism to ascertain whether scrutiny councillors are able to fulfil their vital role or that the training they do receive is fit for purpose. We asked councillors about the training and support that they had received from the Local Government Association (LGA), and responses were mixed. Cllr Fitzsimons for example told us:

the LGA runs some really interesting courses, which I have attended. They outsource some of it to the Centre for Public Scrutiny. I am not particularly a fan of the way they do things, and their training has not really moved on for a long time. The skills training that a councillor has for a meeting about questioning-and-answering skills are good training sessions.74

72.He argued that fundamental requirements for training included more emphasis on a self-reflective approach:

I remember going to do a training session with the London Borough of Richmond in 2006, and my challenge to the councillors who were doing scrutiny was, “How much backbone do you have?” and I just do not see that within the training. Are you willing to ask difficult questions? Are you willing, in your own political group, after you have done a scrutiny meeting, to have people say to you, “You were a bit harsh on the leader”? They do not get that self-reflective type training about, “What is your role? Are you really going to hold to account?”75

73.Cllr Fitzsimons also criticised national conferences and networking events for having an insufficient emphasis on frontline scrutiny members:

You do not see ordinary councillors leading the events … ultimately the LGA is focused on the executive and their whole setup. Scrutiny, I believe, is an add-on, and that is just a reflection of the way it works, because the people who are influential in LGA are more likely to be council leaders and cabinet members than the ordinary scrutiny people. Individual training is good, but overall I do not think it is hitting the mark.76

74.The Minister told us that the Department allocated £21 million to the LGA “so that it could support various activities to improve the governance in local authorities; and it is why we are absolutely committed to working with the LGA and its delivery partners—organisations such as the Centre for Public Scrutiny”.77 DCLG states that:

The Government does not monitor the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees–which is a matter for the authorities themselves. However, the Secretary of State may intervene in authorities which have failed in their best value duty, as happened in 2014 in Tower Hamlets and in 2015 in Rotherham.78

75.We are concerned that DCLG gives the LGA £21 million each year to support scrutiny, but does not appear to monitor the impact of this support or whether this investment represents best value. When we questioned the Minister about his Department’s monitoring of scrutiny effectiveness and the extent to which this was delegated to the LGA, he told us that DCLG “will look very carefully at the recommendations that are made by the Committee.”79

76.It is incumbent upon councils to ensure that scrutiny members have enough prior subject knowledge to prevent meetings becoming information exchanges at the expense of thorough scrutiny. Listening and questioning skills are essential, as well as the capacity to constructively critique the executive rather than following party lines. In the absence of DCLG monitoring, we are not satisfied that the training provided by the LGA and its partners always meets the needs of scrutiny councillors, and call on the Department to put monitoring systems in place and consider whether the support to committees needs to be reviewed and refreshed. We invite the Department to write to us in a year’s time detailing its assessment of the value for money of its investment in the LGA and on the wider effectiveness of local authority scrutiny committees.

69 Anonymous submission (OSG006)

70 An officer from a London Borough (OSG091) para 10

71 Q30

72 Q32

73 Q59

74 Q64

75 Q64

76 Q64

77 Q113

78 Department for Communities and Local Government (OSG122) para 19

79 Q125

14 December 2017