Scrutiny on Sefton Council – All Labour’s pretence of holding the Cabinet to account has been ditched

Because Sefton has a Cabinet style of governance it also has 4 Overview & Scrutiny Committees whose job it is to examine what the 7 person Cabinet is doing. These committees effectively do, or should do, what it says on the tin – scrutinise the decisions of the Cabinet. But are they being allowed to do that?

I commented prior to Christmas on the bizarre events at a Scrutiny Committee held in December where we watched Labour members of the Committee call for a recess so that they could go into a private meeting seemingly with the Labour Cabinet members whom they were supposed to be scrutinising. It ended up with the Labour Council Leader coming back to the Scrutiny meeting to advise that Committee how they should conduct their scrutiny of him and his Cabinet! Indeed, from my perspective, the Leader, who was only there to give evidence to the Committee, effectively took over the Scrutiny Committee meeting and all but ran it himself. The issue was of course Labour’s botched library closures and its refusal to accept volunteer bids to run two of the 7 closing libraries – Aintree and College Road in Crosby.

The Aintree & Maghull Champion newspaper took this up in its 1st January edition but again it was the Council Leader speaking for the Scrutiny process when he said “We agreed to defer the Scrutiny & Review meeting so that we could clarify some of the points raised by the campaigners.’ BUT the point here is that his opinion of the scrutiny process is all but irrelevant because it is he and his all-powerful Cabinet that was supposedly being scrutinised.

Even I had expected Labour to at least go through the motions of running this scrutiny process properly but they clearly don’t give a damn. The Chairperson of the scrutiny committee is the one who should be explaining what went on and why not the Leader of the Council.

A similar scrutiny process takes place in Parliament where Parliamentary Select Committees hold the Prime Minister, Cabinet, senior civil servants etc. to account and often those giving evidence get a rough ride no matter who they are. But in Sefton it seems that the Scrutiny Committees, which all have Labour majorities and Labour Chairpersons, are there to ensure that the Labour-run Council gets an easy ride. This is scandal and an affront to democracy.

But even at an organisational level the meeting looked odd before it started because siting around a horseshoe style table were not only all the Scrutiny Committee but also the Council Officers and Cabinet members who were being asked to give evidence, so the public could not really make out who the scrutineers and the evidence givers were. Interestingly, the library campaigners and the back bench councillors who were also giving evidence were all shunted into the public gallery with a separate table where they had to sit to give their evidence.

It was like a court where the judge, defendants, jury and counsel for the defence were all sitting together in a very chummy way.

Localism – Don’t make me laugh & Scrutiny – Not a chance!

When the Coalition Government brought the Localism legislation onto the statute books the following Governmental statement was made “Councils need to be making it as easy as possible for people to take over buildings and services that are valued by the local community”.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know only too well that Localism is a policy that suits the Coalition at times and not at others. But let’s take that statement of Government at face value because I believe that Sefton Council can’t honestly hold its hand up and say it has made it as easy as possible for community groups to take over the running of the 7 branch libraries that it has just closed across the Borough. Indeed, I think it would be fair to say that Sefton’s stance could, I my view, be more accurately defined as making it as difficult as possible!

But what of scrutiny of the Executive/Cabinet? Has that process been holding the powerful on the Council to account? Sadly the answer is NO! We Lib Dems said, when the Labour-run Council grabbed all the chairs of the scrutiny committees for Labour councillors to hold that there would not be any effective scrutiny and so it has proved. And I say this despite Labour councillors on a scrutiny committee failing to back the Labour leadership last night over the libraries debacle.

Sefton's Scrutiny Committee in session at Bootle Town Hall on 17th December 2013

Sefton’s Scrutiny Committee in session at Bootle Town Hall on 17th December 2013

To my mind what happened last night was driven by the Labour Cabinet not by the Scrutiny Committee because when it got too hot the Labour members of the Committee called for a recess. They seemingly did this so that they could go into a private meeting with the Labour Cabinet members, which they were supposed to be holding to account, to come up with a way of getting the Council out of a hole it had dug for itself.

When they emerged the meeting was effectively taken over by the Leader of Council who proceeded to make recommendations to the Scrutiny Committee about how he thought they should deal with the embarrassment at hand. That put the tin lid on it for me.