Sunday 14 February 2016

Brent admits single Scrutiny Committee failures and proposes a change to two committee system

Less than two years after the adoption of the controversial decision to have just one Scrutiny Committee in Brent proposals are to go before the Cabinet to have two Scrutiny Committees. If adopted this would go to the May Council AGM.

The proposal outlines the issues that have arisen from the single committee structure, some of which were forecats by a guest blog on Wembley Matters in May 2014 LINK:

.        The purpose of moving to a single Scrutiny Committee meeting on a frequent basis was to enable a more consistent, holistic and streamlined approach to all scrutiny activities commissioned by a single committee. The introduction of a single committee to replace the previous four themed scrutiny committees also made a considerable saving in terms of member allowances. Prior to May 2014 each scrutiny committee had a chair, vice-chair and six members with respective allowances. The annual potential cost of each committee was £38,020 in member allowances, making a total for the whole scrutiny function of potentially £152,080. The current cost of member allowances for a single scrutiny committee is potentially £36,190 making a potential saving of £115,890 on the previous model. These costings are maximum potential costs only as members already in receipt of a special responsibility allowance would not be entitled to a second special responsibility allowance for their scrutiny role. The costings nonetheless provide a useful illustration of the indicative costs implications.

.        It was considered that operating separate scrutiny committees produced a fragmented approach to scrutiny with each committee developing its own work programme which did not always reflect the cross-cutting aspects of complex policy issues. It was also felt that a single committee would be a more effective use of the finite officer resources available to support scrutiny given the pressure on resources.

.        However after nearly two years of operating the single Scrutiny Committee structure, the anticipated advantages have not outweighed the logistical issues of monthly meetings and has resulted in a concentration of scrutiny activities into a relatively small group of members and officers.

.        Having one committee responsible for all scrutiny activities has meant that the committee has not developed in depth specialism and understanding of services or key policy agendas. With a wide variety of issues being considered at each meeting the agendas can be incoherent and this makes it difficult to develop continuity on specific subjects or issues between committee meetings.

.         In particular the move away from themed committees has resulted in less active engagement of service areas in working constructively with scrutiny members as there is less perceived ownership of one corporate Scrutiny Committee. This has both distanced service departments from scrutiny and meant that less members overall are activity engaged in debate and discussion on the policy issues and performance of Council services. In practice the current model means that only eight members are actively engaged in scrutiny discussion on a regular basis (although other members who are not part of the formal scrutiny committee do contribute to task groups). Previously around 30 non–executive members regularly contributed to a scrutiny committee at least once a quarter.

.        The single Scrutiny Committee model has also impacted on the development of a productive scrutiny relationship with statutory partners, particularly in relation to the duties of the Council to scrutinise the provision of local health services and partnership work on community safety. It has proved difficult to accommodate a consistent work programme on health issues, children’s services and adult social care within the single work programme. This has limited the development of an in depth understanding of these complex and critical service areas, which was noted in the findings of the recent Ofsted inspection of Brent’s Safeguarding and Looked After Children’s services.

.        The disadvantage of a single Scrutiny Committee structure could not necessarily have been foreseen. Brent is still the only Council in London to operate a single scrutiny committee structure, although three others have a main committee with themed sub-committees. However as the Council enters the next phase of change with the development of the Brent 2020 Vision and the programme of outcome based reviews, it is vital that we reconsider the most appropriate scrutiny structure which will facilitate the effective engagement of members in shaping the future direction of the Council via the Scrutiny function. This is particularly important given the political composition of the Council and the challenging nature of the issues the borough faces.

The report goes on to propose a two committee structure to remedy the situation after setting out the role of Scrutiny:
.        There are a number of key objectives which any new scrutiny structure should be designed to achieve. These are:-
·      To enable non-executive members to develop a thorough understanding of key policy and service issues which supports effective and constructive scrutiny of performance and decision-making across Council services and meets the statutory requirements of scrutiny.
·      Maximises the number of Members engaged in regular scrutiny activities and enables non-executive members to contribute to the shaping of Council policy at the right point in the policy development process.
·      A structure that covers both the breadth of internal and external issues but also provides sufficient scope for the committee to develop specialisation and become experts in their subject areas.
·      The frequency of scrutiny meetings is aligned to the decision-making timetable and enables high quality reports to be produced with scrutiny input made at the right time in the development of options and proposals.
·      Can take a holistic view of partnership, performance and resourcing issues in relation to the individual service or issue under scrutiny.
·      Enables clear accountability of Lead members and senior officers for decisions and service performance.
·      The scrutiny function should be responsive to the views and concerns of service users and residents, actively seeking their opinions to shape their work programme.
·      Is properly resourced and supported by senior officers and services within the Council and the contribution of scrutiny members is a valued part in the process of defining the Council’s future policy direction.
.        3.15  In order to achieve these objectives it is therefore proposed that the future Scrutiny committee structure should, as set out below, be more closely aligned to the organisational structure of the Council as well as providing more opportunity for in-depth scrutiny.

 Proposed Scrutiny Structure

The proposal is to have two scrutiny committees combining the following remits:-

·      Community and Well being Scrutiny Committee 

This committee would cover Housing, Adult Social Care, Public Health and the statutory responsibilities with regard to scrutiny of local health services and major reconfigurations of provision. It would also scrutinise the children and young people’s service, partnership work undertaken by the Children’s Trust and scrutiny of Safeguarding arrangements. The committee would be composed of eight elected members (seven from the Labour Group and one opposition group member which is consistent with current political balance arrangements). The four voting education co-opted members and the two non voting education co-opted members would be part of this committee. 

·      Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee 

This committee would cover corporate resources, (including Customer Services, Policy, Partnerships and Performance, Procurement and IT) as well as regeneration, environment and community safety. The committee would be composed of eight elected members (seven from the Labour Group and one opposition group member which is consistent with current political balance arrangements). 
The indicative cost implications in respect of special responsibility allowances are set out below. As previously stated, however, these costings are potential maximum costs only and actual costs are likely to be lower as some of the members will already be in receipt of a special responsibility allowance. In addition, in accordance with the provisions of the Members’ Allowance Scheme, a 1% uplift in allowances has been factored in. On this basis the total potential costs are £40,614 higher than the current scrutiny structure.

2 x Chairs allowance at £14,140
2 x Vice Chairs at £5,050
12 x SRA allowance for committee members at £3,202
£28,280 £10,100 £38,424
The full report can be found HERE


Philip Grant said...

I love the line in the report which says:
'The disadvantage of a single Scrutiny Committee structure could not necessarily have been foreseen.'

Many people, including a number of Brent councillors, did foresee this when the single Scrutiny Committee proposal was put forward in 2014, and openly said so. Those in power chose to ignore what was said!

Philip Grant.

Martin Francis said...

Yes, worth looking at James Powney's comments when the new committee was propsoed in 2014

Alison Hopkins said...

Hang on a minute. That maths is cockeyed as heck. I chaired Budget and Finance Scrutiny. ONLY the chair got an SRA, and it was well under £4K, from memory. The vice chair and members received nothing additional. Same applied to the other scrutiny committees.

Having several scrutiny committees meant each could concentrate properly on a particular area and build expertise in it.