(Democratic Services Manager) To consider the attached report, following the statutory guidance recently issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.
The Democratic Services Manager presented a report on the Statutory Guidance on Overview & Scrutiny in Local & Combined Authorities, that had been issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in May 2019.
The Committee was informed that Local Authorities ‘must have regard to the guidance when exercising overview and scrutiny functions’ which meant that the guidance should be followed unless there was good reason not to. There were six themes running throughout the guidance, which were: Culture; Resourcing; Selecting Committee Members; Power to Access Information; Planning Work; and Evidence Sessions. The Democratic Services Manager then proceeded to highlight the key points for each theme within the guidance.
Organisational culture within local authorities was recognised as one of the key measures of success for Overview & Scrutiny, with an emphasis placed on the importance of Overview & Scrutiny being owned and led by Members.
The guidance did not prescribe a specific level of Officer support to be allocated to Overview & Scrutiny, other than an appropriate level of support to enable Overview & Scrutiny to function effectively. Any support should also include the way that the wider Council engaged with Overview & Scrutiny.
Selecting Committee Members
When selecting Members to serve on Overview & Scrutiny Committees, consideration should be given to experience, expertise, interests, ability to act impartially, ability to work as part of a group, and capacity to serve. The importance of the role of Chairman for Overview & Scrutiny Committees was recognised, with a suggestion that they should be selected by means of a secret ballot. The guidance also emphasised the value of outside expertise that could be obtained by co-opted members onto a Committee or the use of technical advisors.
Power to Access Information
The guidance highlighted the legal powers which already existed for Overview & Scrutiny to access information to enable it to carry out its work. This included access to data on finance, performance and risk.
The guidance stressed the importance of work programming to the success of Overview & Scrutiny, with a focus on items which could make a tangible difference. A variety of sources should be used to inform the work programme, and the use of shortlisting was recommended in deciding which topics should be included in the work programme. There also needed to be co-ordination across the work programmes of individual Scrutiny Committees, to ensure that the best use was made of the available support.
Evidence Sessions were highlighted as a key means for Overview & Scrutiny Committees to inform their work, but they required effective planning. In developing recommendations from Evidence Sessions, a maximum of six to eight recommendations was suggested as being sufficient to ensure a focused response was received.
The Democratic Services Manager requested the Committee to consider the statutory guidance and to identify whether any changes to current processes were required as a result.
Councillor Mohindra stated that the guidance on Evidence Sessions sounded interesting, and inquired whether there had been any benchmarking or peer reviews of the Council’s Scrutiny function? The Democratic Services Manager responded that the Council did undertake benchmarking exercises for different service areas against other Councils when it was appropriate to do so. The last corporate peer review had probably been 15 years or more ago, in relation to the Council’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment. Councillor Mohindra suggested that a peer review of the Council’s Scrutiny function could be a useful exercise.
Councillor Knight queried whether any of the Overview & Scrutiny Committees had ever had a co-opted member, and whether the Council was actively pursuing this. The Portfolio Holder for Housing & Property Services informed the Committee that there had been a member of the Tenants & Leaseholders Federation co-opted onto the Communities Select Committee in the past, and the Portfolio Holder tried to include them where possible, but housing issues were dealt with by three different Committees. The Democratic Services Manager added that this individual was a formally co-opted member of the Communities Select Committee, but this was an issue for each Select Committee to consider. Councillor Knight followed up by inquiring whether the possibility of being a co-opted member of a Scrutiny Committee could be advertised to the public as it could be beneficial to have more co-opted members. The Chairman opined that co-opted members probably worked better for the Select Committees than for the main Overview & Scrutiny Committee, and the Democratic Services Manager stated that he would advise the Committee on the procedure to follow for appointing co-opted members.
Councillor J H Whitehouse advocated that there should only be two or three substantive items on each Scrutiny agenda so that each item could be examined in more detail; this was also the advice from the Member Scrutiny training held in June 2019. The Councillor also felt that the report should be put forward to the Constitution Working Group for further consideration. However, the Democratic Services Manager advised the Member that there was not a great deal in the Guidance for consideration by the Constitution Working Group, unless Members wished to amend the Overview & Scrutiny rules in Article 6 of the Constitution. Councillor J H Whitehouse then enquired as to how Members could decide on their agenda? The Democratic Services Manager stated that each Select Committee had a Lead Officer at Leadership Team Level to discuss their work programmes with, and there was a bi-annual meeting of all the Overview & Scrutiny Chairmen & Vice-Chairmen. The Chairman added that each Select Committee had the opportunity to discuss their own work programme throughout the municipal year.
Councillor Murray felt that this was an excellent report, and requested that the Joint Meeting of Overview & Scrutiny Chairmen & Vice-Chairmen should consider if anything within the statutory guidance should be implemented by the Council. Councillor Murray did highlight one issue within the Guidance – the selection of Committee members – as he felt that the Council was not keeping to the spirit of the guidance.
The Democratic Services Manager reiterated that, apart from selecting the Chairman of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee by secret ballot, any other changes prompted from the guidance could be achieved within the existing Overview & Scrutiny Procedure Rules.
(1) That the Statutory Guidance on Overview & Scrutiny in Local & Combined Authorities recently published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government be noted; and
(2) That the Statutory Guidance be considered by the Joint Meeting of Overview & Scrutiny Chairmen & Vice-Chairmen at its meeting scheduled for 12 September 2019 to identify any potential beneficial changes to current procedures.