'Cultural shift' needed to change scrutiny of RBWM decision-making

Shay Bottomley

shayb@baylismedia.co.uk

Changes to scrutiny of the Royal Borough’s policymaking will involve a ‘cultural shift’ at the council, an audit and governance committee heard on Thursday.

Presenting an annual governance statement, monitoring officer Emma Duncan said that the council’s overview and scrutiny panels were a ‘key area’ of work for this year.

The scrutiny process has come under fire in recent months, with opposition councillors highlighting concerns that the process is ‘broken’.

At an extraordinary council meeting in June, Cllr Jon Davey (WWRA, Clewer & Dedworth West) said he believed the ‘real purpose’ of scrutiny had been ignored in favour of ‘ticking a box’.

In response, council leader Andrew Johnson said that whilst there was room for improvement, he did not believe the scrutiny process was ‘fundamentally broken’.

By law, the balance of the political parties in council must be reflected on scrutiny panels ‘so far as reasonably practicable’, meaning the Conservatives hold a majority on all committees.

On Thursday, the monitoring officer said that the council was planning to alter the scrutiny process both inside and outside of the panels.

“There will be quite a significant amount of work with members (councillors) and officers, not just in scrutiny [panels], but outside of it as well in helping scrutiny find and develop its role so that it can add value to the work of the council,” she said.

“The role of oversight committees in terms of the council’s work is absolutely critical, and we need to be better than we are at the moment at that.

“That will involve quite a lot of cultural shift for members on all sides and for officers as well.

“Hopefully we can get to a place where we all feel that scrutiny is really adding value to the work of the council as a whole and giving transparency and robustness to decisions that we make.”

Andrew Hill, a resident in attendance at the meeting, asked why some decisions appear to go straight to cabinet or full council where proposals may have ‘very little debate’.

In response, the monitoring officer said: “In terms of the decision-making framework, the law determines which decisions are made by who.

“Executive functions are made by cabinet – they’re listed in the functions and responsibilities order – everything which isn’t a council function (listed in the order) is an executive function – most stuff is an executive function.

“In relation to that, overview and scrutiny has a number of roles: its role is not basically to scrutinise every decision that cabinet makes – that’s very unhealthy and bad practice in terms of scrutiny. It also shouldn’t slavishly follow the cabinet agenda.”

She added that the panels had several functions including call-ins and had a policy development role by making recommendations to cabinet about policy direction, something which the Royal Borough ‘doesn’t really do very well’.

Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) mentioned that in a previous meeting of cabinet, he had raised the point of ‘continuing to involve’ the leaders of the opposition in the development of a report, to which Cllr Johnson replied that it would be going to the relevant scrutiny panel.

“I just wondered whether you would like to comment on whether that fitted in with your vision of [a council which is] ‘cooperative’ [and] ‘collegiate’,” said Cllr Baldwin.

“You’re selling this vision of a council that, suddenly and miraculously, is going to be transformed, and I don’t buy it.”

The monitoring officer replied by saying that the overview and scrutiny panels had a ‘statutory function’ to help develop policy, and that she was ‘not sure how it would reflect good governance’ to take policy development outside of the panels.

“Working within a formal committee structure gives transparency and accountability in a way that informal member discussions don’t have which are behind the scenes,” she added.

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