CfGS welcomes calls for enhanced powers and esteem for scrutiny in local government

Posted on 15/12/2017 by Ed Hammond.

Today, the CLG Select Committee has published its report into scrutiny in local government. CfGS welcomes the findings of this inquiry – the Committee has recognised the cultural and structural challenges which put barriers in the way of making member-led accountability effective, distinctive and proportionate.

This brief post outlines our response to some of the principal findings.

Many of the challenges that the Committee identify are cultural in nature – connected to the issue of “parity of esteem” between scrutiny and the executive. The recognition of this parity of esteem rests on both the commitment of the executive and the diligence of scrutiny members in working constructively. Our work has always aimed to develop the scrutiny/executive relationship, and in the New Year we will be looking again at how we can address this issue with our partners.

We particularly welcome the call for enhanced information rights for councillors. Scrutiny councillors do have broad rights of access to information, which were expanded upon in 2012 – but these rights do not go far enough. We agree with the Committee that scrutiny members should have an automatic right of access to information – not just where it relates to a “live” scrutiny inquiry – and that councils should look at the way that they make “commercially sensitive” information available to scrutiny. While we produced research on this subject in 2015 we are concerned that the key arguments – and legal obligations – around councillors’ information rights have yet to hit home in many authorities.

We also welcome the Committee’s comments and recommendations on resourcing. While Government should not be expected to make requirements and expectations of democratically-led local authorities about resourcing, the suggestion that councils publish information about the level of resource available to scrutiny will, we think, allow a debate to take place about what scrutiny does with that resource. In particular, it will help members and officers to identify where officer resourcing may be “hidden” – we have published recently on the fact that councils with limited dedicated officer resourcing may instead rely more heavily on senior officer support from service departments, in a way that makes more of a call on resources than many might expect.

The Committee also made findings and recommendations on sector support and training. We agree with the Committee on the need to ensure that training directly reflects the needs of scrutiny members. Our own training and development courses, workshops and conferences consistently result in satisfaction rates of over 90%, but we will look with fresh urgency at those with whom that training does not currently engage – either because they don’t feel that it fits their needs and because they don’t feel that it offers value for money. Our whole purpose as an organisation is to support good governance; supporting elected members to be effective is a central part of that, and we will look to put in place ways to make sure that their needs continue to be front and centre in our offer in the future.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Committee suggests that DCLG makes available £21 million per year to support scrutiny; this is not strictly accurate. That figure encompasses the entirety of the LGA’s sector-led improvement grant, which includes the national peer review programme and many other activities which focus on leadership, the executive and councils’ corporate health. CfGS is funded from this grant to a value of £171,000 per year (in 2017/18). There is a reporting system direct to DCLG for these funds, and a distinct and more comprehensive reporting system into the LGA. We value our relationship with DCLG but do not feel that a more robust reporting regime for the spending of this grant than already exists would be proportionate. However, we do welcome the opportunity to reflect on how we can make more transparent to those in the sector how our work makes an impact, and we will think further on this issue before coming to a firm conclusion in the New Year.

This is only a preliminary response – we will be producing some more detailed thoughts on the report in January. In due course we plan to provide a formal response to the Committee, particularly on those points where the Centre and its work are directly referenced.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.