The Long Read: Overview & Scrutiny must follow the council pound and roar.

It is the committee which can allow citizens to have a greater say in Council matters, by holding public inquiries into matters of local concern. Such concerns might be a nuclear dump on the Marsh, The overcharging of between £1 – £1.5 million by P & R, or the new waste contract due to commence in 2020/21, for example.

In the next four years, the new members of the committee have the opportunity to allow the local concerns of the people to be heard and acted on. If such opportunities are missed the committee will continue to be the lion which never roared; and a rubber stamping committee for Cabinet.

Some of our freshly elected Cllrs to District espoused transparency and openness on their campaign treks around their wards prior to the elections. Let’s hope these newly elected Cllrs will ensure the O&S committee will not continue to be an automatic rubber stamp to allow Cabinet to do as it pleases. Let’s hope change comes and scrutiny truly arrives at some point hence.

The Annual General Meeting on May 22nd, has been dispensed with, and the Council’s calendar begins to fill up in June 2019. We now know who will sit on each committee and the Overview & Scrutiny Committee will be made up as follows:

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The first scheduled meeting for the Overview & Scrutiny Committee will be on the 18th June 2019. This is a committee which has considerable power to scrutinize the small print (the devil is in the detail). It can go on site visits, conduct public surveys, hold public meetings, commission research and do all other things that they reasonably consider necessary to inform their deliberation, within available resources. They may ask witnesses, to attend and address them on any matter under consideration and may pay advisers, assessors and witnesses a reasonable fee and expenses for doing so.

It is the committee which can allow citizens to have a greater say in Council matters, by holding public inquiries into matters of local concern, such as Princes Parade, Otterpool Park, Contracts the Council wish to sign or have signed.

It can call in a decision which has been made by the Cabinet but not yet implemented. This enables the Cabinet to reconsider the decision. We hope that now there are Greens, Lab & a Lib Dem on the committee they will use the “call in” procedure more often than previous members. The committee may also be consulted by the Cabinet, or the Council, on forthcoming decisions and the development of policy.

The committee is entitled to recommend to Council the appointment of a number of people, as non-voting co-optees. Co-optees will, in any event, comprise no more than 50% of the committee membership. The Council too may co-opt members, who are not councillors, to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, if this is necessary to give effect to legislation.

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Regulations give enhanced powers to an Overview & Scrutiny member to access exempt or confidential information. This is in addition to existing rights for councillors to have access to information to perform their duties, including common law rights to request information and rights to request information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Also the Statutory Guidance makes clear from page 18 what rights Cllrs have.

As a committee it is ruled by Part 7 of the Council’s constitution.

At Part 7.2 paragraph 9.2 it states:

  • Any member of the Council may give written notice, to the Head of Paid Service, that they wish an item to be included on the agenda of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee (the ‘call to action’). 

Furthermore Overview & Scrutiny members have right of access to information which members of the public do not have. These are set out at pages 7/21 and 7/22 of part 7 of the Constitution. Committee members may request information and each request should be judged on its individual merits. Folkestone & Hythe District Council should adopt a default position of sharing the information they hold, on request, with Overview & Scrutiny committee members. That said, Regulation 17 of the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 make it clear the executive must provide a requested document as soon as reasonably practicable and in any case no later than 10 clear days after the executive receives the request.

The law recognises that there might be instances where it is legitimate for an authority to withhold information and places a requirement on the executive to provide the Overview & Scrutiny committee with a written statement setting out its reasons for that decision. However, members of the executive and senior officers should take particular care to avoid refusing requests, or limiting the information they provide, for reasons of party political or reputational expediency; which has happened far too often to committee members over the last 20 years of Tory rule. We hope with new Cllrs we will see a more robust approach to overview and scrutiny. It must be a Lion which roars

  • Before an authority takes a decision not to share information it holds, it should give serious consideration to whether that information could be shared in closed session.

The Overview & Scrutiny committee have the  legal power to require members of the executive (Dr Priest, Tim Madden, John Bunnett) and officers to attend before them to answer questions. This is made clear at Section 9FA(8) of the Local Government Act 2000. It is the duty of members and officers to comply with such requests says 9FA(9) of the act above. No ifs or buts.

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The Overview & Scrutiny committee can seek information from outside organisations to supplement any Council held information they receive with information and intelligence that might be available from other sources, and should note in particular their statutory powers to access information from certain external organisations.

When asking an external organisation to provide documentation or appear before it, and where that organisation is not legally obliged to do either, the Overview & Scrutiny committee should consider the following:

  • a) The need to explain the purpose of scrutiny, as the organisation being approached might have little or no awareness of the committee’s work, or of the Council’s scrutiny function more generally, and so might be reluctant to comply with any request.

  • b) The benefits of an informal approach – individuals from external organisations can have fixed perceptions of what an evidence session entails and may be unwilling to subject themselves to detailed public scrutiny if they believe it could reflect badly on them or their employer. Making an informal approach can help reassure an organisation of the aims of the committee, the type of information being sought and the manner in which the evidence session would be conducted.

  • c)The committee obviously needs to win friends and influence people by encouraging compliance with the request – so it would be wise and prudent to frame their approach on a case by case basis. For contentious issues, committees might want to emphasise the opportunity their request gives the organisation to ‘set the record straight’ in a public setting.

  • d) It would not always be sensible to approach the Chief Executive or Managing Director of an organisation asking them to appear at an evidence session. It could be more beneficial to engage front-line staff when seeking operational-level detail rather than senior executives who might only be able to talk in more general terms. When making a request to a specific individual, the committee should consider the type of information it is seeking, the nature of the organisation in question and the Council’s pre-existing relationship with it.

We believe it would be advisable to follow ‘the Council Pound’ as we have the highest Council Tax in Kent and have had for 16 years. We believe it would be wise and sensible to scrutinise organisations that receive public funding to deliver goods and services to us, the residents. Examples might be Veolia who damaged in excess of 550 wheelie bins last years, or P & R who overcharged our and three other local councils by up to £1.5 million pounds, or Sopra Steria who have identified realizable savings of up to £600,000 per annum – based on 60% automation. Folkestone & Hythe District Council should recognise the legitimacy of this interest and, where relevant, consider the need to provide assistance to scrutiny members and their support staff to obtain information from organisations the council has contracted to deliver services, especially where substantial overcharging has taken place on the P & R contract.

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We believe that when agreeing contracts with large outside bodies, for example:  Cozumel Estates, Veolia, P & R, any potential developer perhaps of Princes Parade, our Council ought to include a requirement for them to supply information to, or appear before the Overview & Scrutiny committee.

Under the previous Tory administrations of 20 years, there was NO will to use the powers of this committee in a way to wield good for the people of the district. We the Shepwayvox Team believe it would be right and proper for the new make up of this committee to use its powers to follow the council pound. By doing so, we hope they will discover if we the people of the district are receiving value for money. If not, they could obtain changes to the contracts and by doing so reduce our council tax from the highest to the lowest in the next four years. If they can achieve savings to the public purse, if they can scrutinise and investigate impartially, the failings within council contracts, it would be a committee which once again rediscovers it can roar – and not just for itself, but for us, the residents of this fantastic district.

The Shepwayvox Team

Journalism for the People NOT the Powerful

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