Chief Executive’s update: on health scrutiny, and levelling up
It’s been a busy summer – although nobody really expects August to be a period of “downtime” any more. We head into the autumn with a new Prime Minister and hence some uncertainty over the future of some key national policies with an impact on local government and, by extension, scrutiny.
The first big issue is around health scrutiny. Many of you will have shared our disappointment that, despite attempts to persuade on the part of us and colleagues at the LGA, NHS Confederation and NHS Providers, Government have still gone ahead and removed the long-standing power that health scrutiny committees have had to refer substantial variations in local health services to the Secretary of State where they have particular concerns. Although the use of the referral power has been fairly limited it is a lynchpin of the system because – speaking bluntly – knowing it exists brings NHS colleagues to the table. When the power finally goes – in July next year, what, if anything, will replace it?
Well, what will replace it – in part – is a requirement that the Secretary of State will “consult” with local councils when considering using his or her powers of intervention. We’ve been assured that the reference to “local councils” here should be interpreted as meaning local scrutiny committees.
This is the subject of conversations I have been having with various civil servants at DHSC over recent weeks. I should say at this stage that DHSC civil servants have been extremely open and engaging in their willingness to have frank and candid conversations about these issues, and Government plans – more so than in my experience with any other Bill. There is a recognition that more needs to be present in Regulations and guidance to bolster scrutiny’s powers, both of which are currently under development. There’s also a recognition that more support needs to be given on joint committees (ie, when they might need to be convened) and transitional arrangements (substantial variations which “start” before next July but where the process straddles the old and new system).
As things stand I have asked DHSC to ensure that fresh Regs and guidance are produced by January next year at the latest, to provide an opportunity for scrutiny committees to consider them before the 2023 pre-election period and make any necessary changes to systems and processes well in advance of July.
In order to support DHSC’s thinking they have asked us if we can convene a session later in the autumn to bring practitioners together to discuss this, and your needs, in more detail. We haven’t yet set a date but do look out for this – when we’ve set a date and format we will be publicising it heavily. I want to make sure that plenty of people – including colleagues from shire districts, who also have a stake in this – can attend to voice their views (although we will have to make sure it doesn’t end up a free-for-all!). As you would expect it will be a remote session.
The second big issue to talk about is the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We’re putting out more on this in the next couple of weeks. You may have seen in the press frustrations expressed by Clive Betts MP, Chair of the LUHC Select Committee, who feels that the Bill does not contain enough detail to effectively scrutinise. We have been speaking to civil servants in DLUHC about the Bill and its progress, and about the role of scrutiny in new county combined authorities – as well as the alignment between combined authority scrutiny and local authority scrutiny. I’m quite keen to see the Bill, and associated guidance, with some more beefed-up material about oversight and good governance. I’m also quite keen to try to persuade Government to shoehorn the power to meet remotely in there too. Of course rather a lot of this hinges on what happens with “levelling up” under the new PM – hopefully things will become a little clearer in a couple of weeks.
I want to update you on some recent and forthcoming CfGS publications from over the summer – some of which you might have missed. We have just published our guide on how scrutiny can assist councils to learn from the pandemic, which you can find here – https://www.cfgs.org.uk/?publication=learning-from-the-pandemic. In the next couple of weeks we will be publishing our 2022 Annual Survey (apologies for the delay on this – I know many of you were expecting it out rather sooner) – you can read the headline findings here – https://www.cfgs.org.uk/?publication=what-makes-for-effective-scrutiny-excerpt-from-the-cfgs-annual-survey-2021
We are currently finalising our plans for the production of guidance material for scrutiny practitioners in the autumn. This work is funded by Government, through the LGA. We currently plan to produce – in partnership with LLG and ADSO – a guide to call-in, which will be informed by two round-table practitioner events. The event for officers, on 28 September, is already sold out, but we do still have places on the member event, on 29 September at 11am – you can sign up here – https://buytickets.at/centreforgovernanceandscrutiny/738203. We are currently looking at the logistics of organising a second officer event to meet demand. These events are of course free.
We are planning the production of further guidance on council constitutions, and on the effective running of full Council meetings, amongst other subjects. We welcome thoughts on these issues as we carry out the research.
We are also in the early stages of work with the law firm Trowers & Hamlins to produce some research on Mayoral governance, which we are likely to publish in November.
Finally, I know that some of you may be wondering why you haven’t heard anything about our Annual Conference. We have decided to postpone the Conference to its former timeslot in the summer – please save the date of Wednesday 14th June 2023 at the King’s Fund in London for this. The reason for the move is that holding the conference in December is very close to the ADSO and LLG conferences – while that hasn’t created huge problems in the past we don’t want officers in particular to feel they have to choose one or the other, and we know that some members were unable to attend in early December as, in the past, the date clashed with budget scrutiny meetings for some.
While I’m acting up into the Chief Executive role we will be publishing newsletters every fortnight, and I’ll be producing one of these updates as part of every one. If there’s something you’d like me to address in future messages (or if it’s a complex issue, in a separate blog post) let me know.