Overview and scrutiny committees in local government are supposed to be forums for councillors to hold the leaders and Cabinets of councils to account. But Parliament's Communities and Local Government Committee looking at these Overview and scrutiny committees, or O&S, has been hearing of their inept existence.
At the last session of the Committee, halted by the General Election, one letter of written evidence was received from someone who wished to remain anonymous...
"I find that there are perhaps three types of Members in a Local Authority" he wrote "One, those that are content to receive the 'salary' and do little; Two, those that see it as a sounding board to further a political career and have little time for the well-being of the populace, and unfortunately a lowly Third, those whose desire is to better the services for the people whom they represent..."
Now, normally this could be written off as the 'green ink brigade' but this guy states that his wife was actually the chair of a scrutiny committee at his local council!
Meanwhile, evidence from the Local Government Research Unit at De Montfort University added that "Although whips are not supposed to be employed in O&S it is clear from research that a self-imposed whip can operate with councillors from ruling groups often reluctant to challenge, criticise and question executive members from their own party...
"Majority and minority group councillors have indicated that executive accountability, because of party loyalty and discipline can, if left unchecked, turn scrutiny into a meaningless ritual" the University explained.
On 16th October, the Committee resumed its hearing with Chair, Labour MP Clive Betts, opening the sessions... "We have asked people about their views on overview and scrutiny" he said "There have been some pretty derogatory comments in with the evidence we have received, saying that it is ineffectual and passive. Those words have been used. It was described as a 'pleasant little talking shop' and something to keep councillors employed who have not got any executive functions. Is that a fair summary of what actually goes on?"
'No, no, no' replied those with a vested interest... 'Yes, yes, yes' replied those with no vested interest...Today, there's another load of councillors and bureaucrats giving evidence, including the only local person, Susan Ford, Scrutiny Manager at Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
Meanwhile, on 1st November, Salford City Council's O&S Board meets. The agenda for this week's session includes the minutes of the last meeting, devoted almost entirely to the £60,000 loan given to Swinton Lions, and agreed by Deputy Mayor, John Merry in secret at a non-executive meeting where no other councillors were present.
The scrutiny of the loan was held with the 'exclusion of the public' and the minutes record just three lines of what was discussed... "Councillor Merry attended the meeting to outline the circumstances leading to the decision that he had taken in relation to Swinton Lions Rugby Club. He and Councillor Hinds, as Lead Member for Finance and Support Services, responded to questions from members." Transparency at its finest!
This week's O&S has a Treasury Management Strategy Mid Year Review that shows some truly scary financial figures, particularly if anyone can make head or tail of what's going on...
Buried in the report to the Board are tables showing a rise in capital expenditure this year, from £68.7million to £110.2million, and the borrowing requirement rising from an original estimate of £29million to £69.1million.
Another table shows the 'operational boundary for external debt' for the year rising from an original estimate of £471.6million to £780.8million; while a different table showing 'authorised limit for external debt' puts the total debt limit rising from £571.6million to £851.3million.
In all these figures are sums included for sorting the tower block cladding, for building the Embankment at Greengate, the RHS Garden in Worsley and the crippling PFI payments. Basically if the interest rates go up more than expected, the Council could be knackered...
The report ends that "Members are requested to note these changes detailed in
appendix 2"...which are completely different figures from those shown previously in the gobbledygook.
...Do the councillors sat on the O&S Board have the financial knowledge and understanding to challenge any of this? Can they challenge it? Is there a will to challenge it? Do the councillors care? Are the officers who prepare these reports making them deliberately confusing?
There is loads of evidence to the Parliament Committee on the problem of 'one party councils' and the unhealthy closeness of senior officers to the political leadership. It's summed up by Professor Copus of De Montfort University giving oral evidence to the Committee on 16th October...
"For officers in particular, it is also fair to say that there is sometimes a problem" he states "They will often be career-minded people who operate within a hierarchical
organisation. If their position within that hierarchy is such that they are not taken as seriously or powerfully as they might be, then scrutiny can suffer as a consequence, in terms of access to information.
"Some officers might be reluctant to provide members with information that enables
them to challenge either the leadership or indeed senior officers above them" he adds "All those sorts of dynamics come into the process..."
The Parliamentary sessions continue, with the brief: "The Committee will therefore seek to establish whether the overview and scrutiny model is meeting its objectives and to highlight examples where scrutiny has worked well, and instances where it has not. Local authorities have significant discretion on how they deliver the scrutiny function, and the Committee will consider how decision-makers can best be held to account..."
To see more written and oral evidence – click here
Main photo shows Clive Betts MP in action...