We have long said the effectiveness of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee (O&S) has been unacceptable and that it has been the lion which never roared. It has been a rubber stamping committee for Cabinet. Thankfully the chair of O&S, Cllr Rebecca Shoob (Green Party), has openly confirmed that the O & S committee is not delivering to its full potential and this is not satisfactory.
The O & S 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. 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.
It is the Governance Working Group – held behind closed doors – which is driving the changes to O & S.
On the 25th Nov 2019, a report was submitted to the Governance Working Group called Goals for Change; at point four and six it states:
Point 4 – Effective Scrutiny – strong scrutiny is to be encouraged. In particular, there should be more emphasis on pre-decision scrutiny to ensure that proposals are explored in detail before decisions are made. In a Committee system this can be achieved through ensuring that each Committee has a clear role in ensuring effective scrutiny. In a Cabinet system, the Overview and Scrutiny Committee can have a stronger and more influential role in decision making (eg the Kirklees model) and not just scrutinising decisions once they are made. A process for call in will remain necessary.
Point 6 – Transparency – the forward programme of decisions and the reasons for decisions, once made, should be communicated clearly to all Councillors and to residents and businesses in the Borough. The number of meetings held in private or confidential papers should be minimal.
Regarding the transparency issue, there are more meetings now behind closed doors than ever. There’s the Climate and Ecological Emergency Working Group, the Governance Working Group, the Otterpool Park Working Group, Corporate Plan Working Group and the Folkestone Town Centre Working Group. All these working groups take place behind closed doors, as such they deny the public the ability to scrutinise the details until after matters have been decided. We note Cllr Laura Davison (Lab) suggest setting up even more working groups. However, to be fair she does suggest the public be allowed to have input in deciding what might go on any future agenda.
Let’s remember, all opposition parties, Labour, Lib Dems and Shepway Green Party called for more openness and transparency prior to their election, but since their election, there has been a marked decline.
On the 21st Jan 2020, Mr. Ian Parry of the Centre for Public Scrutiny attended O&S to to observe the meeting. On the 27th Feb 2020, Mr Parry presented his survey results to the Governance Working Group (held behind closed doors). Only 19 (or 63%) of the 30 Cllrs bothered to respond to the Scrutiny survey by Mr Parry.
It’s clear that one of the matters O&S should consider is openness and transparency. Without it the public will not come to trust the Council or the Cllrs. However, that was NOT on the potential list of topics to discuss.
Moving on, the O & S want less busy agendas as they felt they did not have have the time to give due diligence and full consideration to every item. This was a point made by former Cllr Susie Govett as long ago as Sept 2017, when she asked Cllr David Monk at full council:
How can future Overview and Scrutiny agendas be managed to allow time for due diligence and consideration to every item prior to it going to Cabinet…
Three years on and O & S are finally giving former Cllr Govett’s question some consideration.
O & S also propose reducing the number of meetings from 11 to 5 or 6 per year. The creation of a finance and performance sub-group to meet quarterly (behind closed doors). A work plan to include about 12 clearly scoped topics, allowing for a deep dive into two topics per meeting, plus the retention of external expertise as necessary and the Call-in function.
Who will get to decide the “12 clearly scoped topics” for O & S to discuss is not known. We believe that the public should be allowed to put forward at least three or four of the topics to be discussed.
Whether the proposed changes to O&S bring about any significant changes, we’ll just have to wait and see. For now it remains the lion which never roared which is NOT satisfactory. Let’s hope that can change.
The Shepwayvox Team
Dissent is NOT a Crime