Tuesday 23 February 2016

Scrutinising Brent Council' new scrutiny arrangements

The Wembley Matters reader who scrutinised Brent Council's new scrutiny arrangements in 2014 LINK  looks at the proposals which were adopted by Full Council yesterday evening in this Guest Blog:

On the positive side, it should be welcome that Brent Council has acknowledged that a single scrutiny committee with a very limited ability to set up Task & Finish Groups to investigate issues in depth has failed to deliver. It would have been more honest, though, if the committee report had not claimed that ‘the disadvantage of a single Scrutiny Committee structure could not necessarily have been foreseen’. The fact that Brent Council alone of all the London Boroughs thought it could manage with a single scrutiny committee with a very limited ability to do work outside of committee meetings ought to have been flashing red warning signals from the outset.

The overall objectives set for the new system are fine, but whether the new arrangements will be able to deliver those objectives is questionable. The proposals are still very committee-oriented ─ but experience over the years from elsewhere shows that Members develop a thorough understanding of key policy and service issues (one of the stated key objectives) best through in-depth Task and Finish Working Groups. There is no indication that more officer time will made available to resource such Working Groups.

More alarmingly, the report says that “Strategic and Operational Directors would still be expected to take a central role in developing the work programme”. This is contrary to the standard good practice of scrutiny being a Member-led function. It is Members who should be taking the central role in developing the work programme, while calling on and using the advice of, amongst others, strategic and operational directors. The danger here is Members are channelled to look at only what Directors are comfortable with Members examining, rather than what really needs a spotlight being shone on it.

Two final points: why is a review of scrutiny arrangements concerning

strategic matters such as budget setting and policy formation delayed until later in the year? And there is no stated commitment to review how the new system is working so that changes might be made to correct any imbalances or deficiencies in its functioning.

Marks out of 10: five.

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