My Leader on Sefton Council, Cllr. Iain Brodie-Browne, has previously raised this issue in the context of all of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee Chairs being held by Labour councillors when the Council is also Labour run.
The party political system and party loyalty can clearly get in the way of in-depth scrutiny so having those in charge of the scrutiny being from the same party as those they are scrutinising is not ideal. Indeed, it is often the case in local government that those doing the scrutiny are scrutinising their own party political bosses! Of course the opposite could also be true in that opposition politicians could act irresponsibly in a scrutiny role if they are looking to score points rather than genuinely scrutinise things.
In Parliament the Chairs of Select Committees are from all parties no matter which party or parties are in power and this seems to work well. For example, in the present Parliament, we have seen Labour chairs of Select Committees sensibly pushing at issues such as big corporations and their financial responsibilities. All in all I think we generally see the chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees as acting reasonably impartially.
Returning to Sefton Council, the problem is that the executive (Cabinet) is not only all Labour but all 7 of them represent wards within the Bootle Constituency. The need for serious scrutiny of their work is therefore required for geographical reasons on top of the usual reasons for scrutiny.
My point in raising this again now is that at the last Sefton Council meeting the chairs of Overview and Scrutiny Committees all submitted written reports of what their Committees had been looking into over the past 12 months. The reports were accepted but they were, in my view, hardly an exercise in holding the Cabinet to account. One report in particular made me wonder as it said things like:-
‘have built strong relationships with the four Cabinet Members whose portfolios are with our terms of reference.’
‘we have continued to welcome update reports from Cabinet Members’
‘the Committee are briefed on current Cabinet Member activities.’
‘It allows Committee to make judgements and offer assistance to the Cabinet Members where they agree it’s required.’
Is that what we want to see? Whilst there seems to be a good working relationship between the scrutineers and those being scrutinised, surely that is not what scrutiny is all about? To my mind Cabinet Members need to be looking over their shoulders at times wondering if they are going to be challenged and knowing that the scrutiny committees really do leave no stone unturned.
Sorry, cosy scrutiny on a one party run Council seems nothing much like scrutiny at all to me and having opposition politicians in control of some scrutiny functions is clearly required.