Friday 31 January 2020

Brent Cabinet fails to take scrutiny seriously

Interventions by Cllr Neil Nerva and Cllr Roxanne Mashari at the Brent Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday centred on the failure of the Cabinet to properly consider the recommendations made by the Committee and its Task Groups.

An example was the recent Air Quality report where the Cabinet merely 'noted' its recommendations. This could mean that officers go away and make detailed action plans or just that the recommendations are vaguely borne in mind or put on the back burner.

The most telling document presented at the Committee was the 'Tracker' which records the Executive/Cabinet response to the two Scrutiny Committees' recommendations. Out of 18 reports only one - the Air Quality Report has a response, and that was just to 'note'.

Click bottom right for full page:

Cllr Mashari questioning officers on the latest Council Assets report complained that there was less information in the latest reports than previous ones that had been referred back as inadequate. She was told that information had been withheld because of 'commercial considerations.'

Cllr Nerva demanded proper responses based on good practice. The information below may help both councillors in their demand for proper process. However well Scrutiny Committees do their work they are of little use if then ignored by the Cabinet.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny publishes a Good Scrutiny Guide LINK 

1.2.1 Powers in relation to councils: in general, Scrutiny can:

  • Require information from the council. Councillors sitting on scrutiny committees have broad information access rights which means that they can and should be able to have access to information even on matters exempt for reason of commercial confidentiality, and the other exemptions found in Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. More information on information rights can be found in section 4.1 below and at section 5 of the guidance.

  • Require attendance from council officers and councillors. Members of the executive invited to attend scrutiny committee meetings, and council officers issued with similar invitations, are expected to do so. While the law does not specify the seniority of officers who should be invited to give evidence, it will usually be most appropriate for senior officers to attend, even where questions are being asked about operational delivery. More information on engagement with councils officers and executive-side councillors can be found in section 2.1 below.

  • Require that the council provides responses to scrutiny’s recommendations. Importantly, it is for scrutiny to determine the nature of the response. It is legitimate, for example, for scrutiny to require that a substantive response to each recommendation be made individually, with timescales for implementation; scrutiny can require that the executive do not respond to recommendations simply by “noting” them. More information on recommendations and impact can be found in section 5 below.  
Some councils continue to codify how and in what timescales this should be done – see pts 12 and 13 (below) in Camden Council’s constitution) . Brent does not appear to do this.
The specific functions relating to policy development and review functions of Scrutiny Committees are detailed in Article 6 in Part Two of this Constitution. In addition, the terms of reference of the Resources and Corporate Performance Scrutiny Committee are listed in Part 3.
a.     The Scrutiny Committee may develop a protocol for the production of reports.
b.    Reports from the Scrutiny Committees shall be submitted within a reasonable
time of their completion to the Proper Officer for consideration by the Cabinet and/or the Council as appropriate.
c.     The Cabinet and/or Council shall send a written response to the Scrutiny
Committee within a reasonable time of considering a report, with a copy to the Proper Officer 1.
1 Section 21 B of the Local Government Act 2000 now imposes a time of limit of two months for the Cabinet/Council to reply
a) The agenda for Cabinet meetings (including any meetings of single members and the Cabinet (Environment) Sub-Group) shall include an item entitled ‘Issues arising from scrutiny’. Reports of the Scrutiny Committees referred to the Cabinet shall be included at this point in the agenda within one month of it being submitted, unless either they have been considered in the context of the Cabinet’s deliberations on a substantive item on the agenda or the Cabinet gives reasons why they cannot be included and states when they will be considered. The Cabinet shall send a written response to the Scrutiny Committee within a reasonable time of considering a report, as set out in Rule 11 above.
It is worth remembering Barry Gardiner's warning after Labour won the overwhelming majority of Brent council seats. LINK


Philip Grant said...

For ease of reference, here is what Barry Gardiner said in May 2014:

'Barry Gardiner MP for Brent North, who attended the vote count, said he was delighted with the result but issued a stern warning to the [Labour] group’s councillors.

He said: “I’m thrilled, of course I’m thrilled but we need to be very careful.

“It is a huge responsibility because a majority this big for any party means that we have to look within ourselves for the sort of scrutiny that we need of the policies that we ourselves are proposing.

“All of these people got elected because they managed to persuade voters they wanted to represent them in the Civic Centre on the Council. They must remember their job is to represent the people to the bureaucrat[s] of the Council and not to represent the Council bureaucrats to the people.'

The reality of what has actually happened is that most of the, mainly Labour, councillors have very little power.

Cllr. Butt gave them the sop of a 25% "pay rise" (annual allowance up from £8,000 to £10,000) directly after the May 2014 elections (although I understand that they are expected to donate 10% of the allowance they receive to local Labour Party funds, which would mean that each Labour councillor gives £1,000 per year of Council Tax-payers money, so that Labour has a huge fund available when contesting local elections, and so ensures that its big majority continues!).

Virtually all of the power on Brent Council is held by the Council Leader and his appointed Cabinet. They also control the Council's General Purposes Committee, which is meant to consist mainly of "back-bench" councillors, as part of a system of "checks and balances" to ensure that too much power is NOT in the hands of a small number of Council members.

Now, as shown above, the Cabinet are ignoring the detailed consideration given to particular policy issues by the Council's Scrutiny Committees, which are another way by which "back-bench" councillors are MEANT to be empowered, so that potentially poor decisions by the Cabinet (and there have been a number of those in recent years!) can be effectively challenged.

For the sake of good governance in Brent, Cllr. Butt and his Cabinet colleagues need to give up some of their power, and respect the proper procedures which sensible Councils should follow.

Philip Grant said...


As I believe in engaging with councillors if I have strong opinion about something, I have sent an email (with the above title) to Cllr. Muhammed Butt and the members of his Cabinet. For readers' information, here is what it said:

'Dear Councillor Butt and Cabinet members,

The "Wembley Matters" blog website has published a thoughtful article, arising from last Wednesday evening's Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting:

I have added a comment to this blog, as follows:

[text of my comment of 31 January above]

You may not agree with everything I have said, and you are welcome to add your own replies to my blog comment if you wish.

I would, however, ask you to consider carefully the points raised, by Committee members, the blog article and my comment, particularly my final (highlighted) sentence. Thank you.

I am copying this email to the Chief Executive, the Chair and members of the Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee, and the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, for their information. Best wishes,

Philip Grant
(a Fryent Ward resident)'

Philip Grant said...

Ten days on, and not a single response to my email from anyone at Brent Council (apart from several automatic acknowledgements that my email had been received, including one from the Council Leader's email address).

It is a good sign for democracy when ordinary citizens are able to speak Truth to Power.

It is a bad sign for democracy when Power is so powerful that it feels able to ignore Truth.

Philip Grant said...


Further to my comment of 11 February above, I did receive a response to my email of 1 February (to Cllr. Butt and the members of his Cabinet) from Cllr. Tom Miller on 26 February.

Cllr. Miller is Lead Member for Community Safety and Engagement, but he did not say whether he was writing on behalf of the Council Leader and fellow Cabinet members, or just in a personal capacity.

Among the points in his email, I welcome his statement that:
'I wish to agree with the point that Scrutiny reports should not simply be ‘noted’. Often when there are 20+ recommendations etc it can be difficult to go into great detail in responding, but generally where an action or decision is requested I feel that the cabinet should record its response, if not its basic reasoning.'

He went on to say:
'... if cabinet disagrees with a scrutiny recommendation, then we should make an effort to say why. My officers will shortly report back to the Chair of the knife crime scrutiny task group, Cllr Kabir, on progress against her report recommendations, for this reason. I would like to see this embedded in our practice more officially.'

I have replied to Cllr. Miller, saying:
'I welcome your agreement that the Cabinet should do more than just "note" recommendations from Scrutiny Committees. The findings of those committees, who have the time to consider particular issues far more closely than the Cabinet can do, should be respected and implemented by the Leader and Cabinet, unless there are very good reasons why that should not be the case. Scrutiny is one of the important "checks and balances" which a well run Council democracy needs.'

Hopefully, the points raised by Councillors Nerva and Mashari at the Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee meeting on 29 January, and Martin's highlighting of them in the blog above, will see better treatment by Brent's Cabinet of recommendations by the Scrutiny Committees in future.

Philip Grant said...


I have received the following email from Cllr. Matt Kelcher, Chair, Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee, which suggests that Martin's efforts in highlighting this matter in his blog, and mine in sharing my concerns with councillors, may not have been a waste of time:-

'Thanks for your continued interest in this matter.

I have had several meetings on the subject with the most senior officers in the last couple of weeks. I can assure you that it is something I take very seriously.

A new system will be in place for the next couple of meetings of my committee and I am sure you will see a significant improvement.

Best wishes, Matt

Cllr Matt Kelcher'