Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees Contents

8Scrutiny in combined authorities

97.We recognise that the mayoral combined authorities are in their infancy, but given how important organisational culture is, it is important that we include 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. Mayors will be responsible for delivering services and improvements for millions of residents, but oversight of their performance will be hindered by limited resources.

The London Assembly

98.The London Assembly has 25 members elected to hold the Mayor of London to account and to investigate any issues of importance to Londoners. London Assembly Members are elected at the same time as the Mayor, with eleven representing the whole capital and fourteen elected by constituencies. The Mayor holds all executive power and the Assembly’s ability to override decisions is limited to amending budgets and rejecting statutory strategies. The most visible accountability tool is Mayor’s Question Time, when the Mayor of London is required to appear in public before the Assembly ten times a year to answer for decisions made and their outcome. Oversight is also provided by ten thematic scrutiny committees. In 2016/17 the London Assembly controlled a budget of £7.2 million, of which £1.5 million was allocated to scrutiny and investigations, with the remainder used for other member services and democratic services functions. This compares with the Mayor’s budget of around £16 billion.101 The Chair of the Assembly, Jennette Arnold, told us:

You will see that we have been learning and changing over the last 16 years. I would say we are a much more robust body than we were, say, eight years previously because we have taken on learning. We set out to make sure that the centrepiece of our work, which is detailed scrutiny, is evidence-based, well resourced and is disseminated as widely as possible. We have two tracks: the first track is to follow the Mayor, i.e. we ensure mayoral accountability; and the other track we have is about any issue of public concern to London. I would say the combined authorities should look and see the clarity that we have. This is what good scrutiny looks like: it is separate; it has its own officers; it has its own budget; and there is money that is required to do that work.102

The mayoral combined authorities

99.We welcome and applaud the approach of the London Assembly, however the wide discrepancy in the approach to scrutiny in the newer mayoral combined authorities which has come to light during our inquiry is an issue of concern. Combined authorities have a far smaller budget and do not have an equivalent body to the London Assembly, with scrutiny instead being performed by members of the constituent councils. The Local Government Research Unit at De Montfort University argue that:

An opportunity was missed in the creation of combined authorities–because of the focus on leadership–to recreate a London Assembly style directly elected body with the responsibility to hold the mayor of any combined authority (and other organisations) to account. A directly elected scrutiny body with its own staff and resources may seem an expensive innovation, but … serious governance failures resulting in damage to public services and the public can occur where O&S is inadequate or fails.103

100.In contrast with the London Assembly, Cllr Peter Hughes of the West Midlands Combined Authority told us:

The regulations for the combined authority actually state “a scrutiny officer”, as it stands at the moment. This has been the case for the last 18 months. The combined authority scrutiny chair, whether it is me or anybody else, is supported by a part-time person who is lent out from our own authority. That is the case across all of the other issues. Effectively, the West Midlands Combined Authority is run on the basis of good will and people, chief executives and directors, giving up their time. That is exactly the same with scrutiny. At the moment, we have a person who is lent, with no financial refund to Sandwell, to the combined authority. That has not yet been formalised.104

101.We recognise that the resourcing levels are not necessarily decisions for the combined authorities themselves, with Government funding dictating that they be organisations with minimal overheads. However, we also acknowledge that the absence of an allocated budget or a directly-elected scrutiny body does not mean that the approach to scrutiny in combined authorities is necessarily wrong. Cllr Hughes for example told us how he will be measuring the effectiveness of his committee:

Part of scrutiny is not just the questioning and scrutiny aspect of it; it is also that we are adding value to the work of the combined authority. As you have just said, it is in the very early stages at the moment. We feel that we can actually add value to some of the policy decisions that are being taken or being formed by actually taking specific pieces of work and drilling down and calling upon evidence from the local authorities beneath us to add value to the work of the combined authority itself.105

102.Susan Ford, Scrutiny Manager of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, also told us that successful scrutiny in Greater Manchester will enable the Mayor and officers to:

understand the value that scrutiny can bring, and… sense-checking what might cause issues in particular districts and bringing that kind of wealth of in-depth knowledge that scrutiny members bring in with them. The scrutiny function also has a duty to the public to try to simplify some of what can be seen as a very complicated governance arrangement. Having different governance arrangements across different devolved areas has not helped. Mayors in different city region areas have different powers, so there is a duty to members of the public. There is also a duty to broaden the engagement in terms of thinking about things like younger people and the way in which elected members actually engage with their constituents. We have to support them to be able to make devolution governance and decision-making intelligible.106

103.We raised the issue of scrutiny of combined authority mayors with the Minister, who argued that the scrutiny arrangements were sufficient:

I consider that the scrutiny arrangements in that sense are stronger than they are for local authorities … Certainly the powers that were being transferred to Mayors were generally powers that hitherto had been held by Secretaries of State and, therefore, on a virtually daily basis when this House was sitting there was a method, potentially, of scrutinising the decisions that were being made, and their outcomes … That said, and I have mentioned this a number of times, I do not think there is any room, in this sense, for complacency. I would say that, in the same way as we are now talking about the scrutiny arrangements from the Local Government Act 2000 having bedded in … the question is: should there now be more changes to update things because time moves on? There will legitimately be the question, as time moves on: how have those scrutiny arrangements worked? Do we need to change anything going forward to make sure that we are responding to circumstances that arise?107

104.We welcome the approach to scrutiny by new mayoral combined authorities such as the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, but we are concerned that such positive intentions are being undermined by under-resourcing. This is not a criticism of the combined authorities - which have been established to be capital rich but revenue poor - as they do not have the funding for higher operating costs. However, we would welcome a stronger role for scrutiny in combined authorities, reflecting the Minister’s point that the Mayors now have powers hitherto held by Secretaries of State. We are concerned that effective scrutiny of the Metro Mayors will be hindered by under-resourcing, and call on the Government to commit more funding for this purpose. When agreeing further devolution deals and creating executive mayors, the Government must make clear that scrutiny is a fundamental part of any deal and that it must be adequately resourced and supported.

102 Q83

103 Local Government Research Unit, De Montfort University (OSG022) para 4

104 Q87

105 Q85

106 Q85

107 Qq131–132

14 December 2017