Tag Archives: scrutiny

Rebuilding democracy: challenge and scrutiny

The Centre for Public Scrutiny has been tasked by the government with contributing to the new statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny in local government [1].  Below are my own suggestions, drawing on experience with monitoring Exeter City Council, which I have sent to the CfPS and the government.

1. There should be a requirement that scrutiny committees are constituted so as to be able to challenge ruling group proposals effectively. Exeter City Council changed its rules a few years ago to require that the chairs of scrutiny committees would be drawn from the majority party only (previously the chairs could be taken by members of opposition parties). This reduces the independence of the committees and, for obvious party political reasons, reduces criticism of leadership group proposals.

2. There should be more opportunities for members of the public to ask questions and challenge councillors at meetings. Other Devon councils allow questions to be asked at meetings of their executives/cabinets, but Exeter limits this practice to its scrutiny committees. Although the questioner is allowed to speak at the end of any discussion following the question and answer, no opportunity is provided to ask a supplementary question. This reduces the effectiveness of the challenge and the quality of discussion, and a requirement for one supplementary question would be valuable.

3. Scrutiny committees should be required to engage independent specialists to help them understand and challenge leadership proposals which have a high technical content, for example: on air quality, waste collection and disposal, estimation of housing need. This would enable officer-led proposals, often informed by consultancy studies predicated on terms of reference and assumptions issued by those officers, to be debated on a level playing field of knowledge.

4. Officers should be required to inform scrutiny committees of any representations received from organisations and individuals, whether solicited or not, relevant to an item being discussed by a scrutiny committee.

5. It should be mandatory for all proposals which would incur unbudgeted expenditure in excess of (say) £50k should be discussed at a scrutiny committee; and the proposal should state explicitly where the funding for the proposal will come from, including the impact on existing specific budgets.

6. In the interests of measuring the extent to which members of the public are having to resort to FOI Act/EIR channels to obtain information, the number, nature and outcome of all such requests such be reported publicly to each scrutiny committee cycle.

Some of these requirements will have – modest – costs at a time when local authorities are under severe financial constraints. In the interests of restoring the health of our democratic arrangements, the government should be prepared to make available additional funding to support them.

NOTES:

[1]  See https://www.cfps.org.uk/3323-2/

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