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Committee led by Sheffield MP calls for 'cultural change' on scrutiny process

Clive Betts MP.
Clive Betts MP.

Councils need a cultural change to allow the scrutiny process to work properly, a parliamentary report led by a Sheffield MP has recommended.

MPs on the communities and local government committee reviewed scrutiny arrangements, in which council committees question the authority's cabinet on a range of issues as a way of holding them to account.

Their report, entitled Effectiveness of Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees, concluded that scrutiny was often held in low esteem with little influence on council policy.

The committee made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the process.

Sheffield south east MP and committee chair Clive Betts 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.

“Only by rebalancing the system and ensuring scrutiny is held in high esteem will we see better decisions.”

The report concluded a council’s organisational culture was the most significant factor in whether or not scrutiny was effective.

The MPs said overview and scrutiny committees should report to full council meeting rather than to executives, and have access to financial and performance data without this being withheld due to claims of commercial sensitivity.

It condemned cases where scrutiny committees had had to submit Freedom of Information requests to their own authorities to get data.

Committees should also receive officer support of equivalent expertise and seniority to that afforded to cabinets and gain rights to call witnesses, including from other public bodies and council contractors.

MPs were also worried about “an apparent secondary role” for scrutiny in the new combined authorities.

The report said: "Mayors are responsible for delivering services and improvements for millions of residents, but oversight of their performance is currently hindered by limited resources."

The Centre for Public Scrutiny called the report a “timely intervention.”

Chief executive Jacqui McKinlay said: “The committee strongly points to the need for scrutiny to have equal access to impartial and independent advice including access to council officer time and information, this includes commercial information on council ventures.”