Scrutiny Committees have the powers to hold the Council to public account – why don’t they use them?

The Council leadership has just announced the new composition of the ten Overview and Scrutiny Committees. (See end for the full list of Labour members.) Their intended role is to hold the Council to account. But how effective are they in doing so? Who scrutinises the Scrutiny Committees? The short answer is: no-one. Yet recent reports have strongly criticised Councils’ Scrutiny Committees for their lack of effectiveness.

MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee reviewed scrutiny arrangements. Their report, Effectiveness of Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees (December 2017), said scrutiny was often held in low esteem with little influence on council policy. Local government needs a cultural change to allow the scrutiny process to work properly. The Committee chair Clive Betts MP said: “Scrutiny is marginalised at too many local authorities, which in extreme cases can contribute to severe service failures, letting down council taxpayers and those that rely on services.”

More evidence is provided by The Voice of the Councillor, a report in July 2017 by the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University. It says:

‘O&S chairs lack the same level of access to officers and resources when compared to executive members. Moreover, the relationship O&S chairs and vice-chairs have with executive members is not one of parity within the council and O&S chairs attest to feeling marginalised, lacking in support and with insufficient access to the most senior officers.’

One councillor said:

‘There is no real scrutiny of the cabinet as most of the time the committee chairs just protect the executive and its members. They [O&S chairs and vice-chairs] see their role as making sure the cabinet have it easy and most of them seem to think if they make it easy for the cabinet they might get promoted to it.’

The Effectiveness of Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees report made the following recommendations. How many of them have been carried out by Birmingham City Council?

‘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.’

  • Not implemented in Birmingham.

‘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.’

  • Has this been implemented in Birmingham?

‘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.’

  • Has this been implemented in Birmingham?

‘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.’

  • This is a basic democratic right to citizen participation, but it is rarely if ever implemented in Birmingham. Yet the Council’s Constitution gives Scrutiny Committees a number of powers including the following:
    • conduct appropriate research, community and other consultation in the analysis of policy and budget issues and possible options;
    • consider and implement mechanisms to encourage and enhance community participation in the development of policy options;
    • liaise with other external organisations operating in the city, whether national, regional or local to ensure that the interests of local people are enhanced by collaborative working.

Birmingham’s Scrutiny Committees make little or no use of these powers – the Enablement workers dispute is a case in point. Right now they should be used, for example, by the Education Scrutiny Committee to talk to and learn from the parents, teachers and LGBT campaigners involved in the Relationships Teaching dispute.

‘That overview and scrutiny committees should be given full access to all financial and performance information, and have the right to call witnesses, not just from their local authorities, but from other public bodies and private council contractors. They should be able to follow and investigate the spending of the public pound.’

  • Again, there is little or no evidence that Scrutiny Committees in Birmingham call witnesses or investigate spending. (For example, have Amey ever been publicly questioned by any of our Scrutiny Committees?)

Below is the new list of Labour Scrutiny Committee members, with some changes to the Committees themselves.

Now it’s up to them to make full use of their powers, involve citizens and local organisations where participation is needed, and carry out their responsibility to the citizens of Birmingham to rigorously hold the Council to account.

And it’s up to all of us to hold them to account to do their job.

Labour Scrutiny Committee members

Commonwealth Games, Culture and Physical Activity Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Alex Aitken, Miriam Khan – chair, Zhor Malik, Hendrina Quinnen, Martin Straker Welds

Co-ordinating Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Tahir Ali, Albert Bore, Liz Clements, Mariam Khan, Penny Holbrook, Rob Pocock, Carl Rice – chair, Kath Scott

Economy and Skills Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Tahir Ali – chair, John Clancy, Chaman Lal, Lou Robson, Lucy Seymour-Smith

Education and Children’s Social Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee; Mohammed Aikhlaq – chair, Safia Akhtar, Barbara Dring, Kerry Jenkins, Zaheer Khan, Kath Scott

Health and Social Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Mick Brown, Diane Donaldson, Mohammed Idrees, Ziaul Islam, Zaheer Khan, Rob Pocock – chair

Housing and Neighbourhoods Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Akhlaq Ahmed, Marje Bridle, Penny Holbrook – chair, Mahmood Hussain, Shabrana Hussain

Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Birmingham and Sandwell): Mick Brown, Rob Pocock – chair, Chaudhry Rashid,

Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Birmingham and Solihull): Akhlaq Ahmed, Nicky Brennan, Mick Brown, Ziaul Islam, Rob Pocock

Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Muhammad Afzal, Albert Bore – chair, Brett O’Reilly, Yvonne Mosquito, Lisa Trickett

Sustainability and Transport Overview and Scrutiny Committee: Muhammad Afzal, Olly Armstrong, Liz Clements – chair, Julie Johnson, Josh Jones

There is also a WMCA Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The Birmingham members, both Labour, are Lisa Trickett – vice-chair – and Josh Jones.

 

 

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