Stoke-on-Trent School of Scrutiny

Although I was one of the three councillors who signed the Call-In of the Cabinet decision to engage consultants at an initial price of some £400,000 to come into the City Council and sort out the mal/administration.

As a Member of the Scrutiny Committee considering the call-in I was able to take a more active role than is permitted for the councillor presenting the case for the call-in.

That said, however, I singularly failed to gain the slightest insight into the thinking of the Cabinet that led them to apporove the engagement of expensive consultants without going out to tender. A Certificate of Exemption permits the “usual” tendering process to be circumvented. And for good reason according to the Chief Executive. The root and branch change required is not tinkering around the edges of myriad hierarchies but major heart surgery. “Would you consult the Yellow Pages if you wanted the best heart surgeon?” asked the Chief Executive. Well, of course not, we were told, because we would want to be sure of the very best and the best is sought by personal recommendation and personal knowledge of the person weilding the knife. So that disposed of the usual tendering process. Fine. So far so good, for the Cabinet decision.

But why the need for external consultants to tell us, basically how to best organise to deliver the best services?

Some of us can’t understand why our highly paid directors and heads of services haven’t got it sorted already; after all, when they were appointed we were assured they were the best people for the jobs with proven track records of delivering.

Our problem is that we have limited imaginations. We have failed to appreciate that in fact without the insights of jargon ladened oragnisational management speak of a Tory supporting professor our City Council can never “move forward”.

So again, so far so good for a management driven decision which still left me puzzled about the political thought processes of the Cabinet. The Cabinet member for Resources cut a lonely figure under sustained questioning about the Cabinet’s political strategy. His fellow Cabinet member for Transformation did not speak at all. She left him floundering without a paddle.

At one point it seemed that the root and branch exercise was about saving money so that it could be invested in front line services. Asked what wold happen to staff de-jobbed, well they could be re-deployed in the front line. It was as though the Cabinet member had forgotten that the whole exercise is geared towards cutting £20m or more a year from the City Council’s annual £200m budget. When probed, the response was that we didn’t know how much we had to cut until the government told us! So what on earth the Cabinet think they are dong is anyone’s guess.

The Council Leader might, if his full-time employment allows him sufficient time to devote to his Council Leader’s responsibilities, ponder a Cabinet reshuffle. Surely a quadruple party alliance of Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and City Independents is able to develop some political analysis, strategy and leadership.

Anyway, after three hours, the Labour Chair called the vote and the 3 Labour councillors supported the Cabinet decision with the one City Independent and my Unaligned self voting against. One Labour member had left early to avoid a tangle with the whip; quite astute considering the Labour chief whip was present in the form of the silent Cabinet portfolio holder.

However, it’s not only about winning or losing votes. That is a forgone conclusion given that scrutiny committee has an inbuilt majority of the quadruple coalition. It is about keeping scrutiny alive…just. With only five unaligned councillors a heavy responsibility for scrutiny rests on a handful of people.

New Powers To Help Residents Fix Local Problems

A new Private Members Bill published today and backed by the Government, will give every resident the right to hold local service providers to account through their elected representatives on all issues of local concern: like dug up roads, poor facilities at train stations, or threatened local bus routes.

People often feel they don’t have the power or knowledge to tackle service providers on their own. But instead of having to suffer in silence, they will be able to call on their councillor who will have new powers to fight their corner.

The proposed new powers mean councils could legally compel organisations to attend public scrutiny hearings to justify their actions and respond in full to recommendations made by the councils to resolve the problem. This sweeps away the need to rely solely on the voluntary co-operation of organisations when addressing local concerns.

The Bill will complete the scrutiny arrangements so that all significant local public service spending can now be covered by scrutiny; and could mean service providers being held to account on a range of issues like:

Energy companies digging up roads, pavements and gardens for repairs and then leaving them in worse condition once finished.
Many things commuters care about – station safety, proper lighting, decent facilities and access.
Young families with children using regular bus services to get to school who feel the discounted bus tickets are still too expensive.
Gas and electricity companies digging up and blocking roads and pavements and restricting access to shops and facilities for a prolonged period.
Bus services in largely rural areas – a lifeline for many rural communities – can be scrutinised if there are concerns about the routes used, the pick up points or even the area included in the catchment.
Concerns about other local services including, local sports facilities, museums, libraries, health and safety, and the fire and rescue service.

Councils will also have strengthened powers to scrutinise all the activities of Job Centre Plus, on issues like worklessness in the area, or how they’re helping people into jobs locally.

John Denham, Communities Secretary said, ‘Local people should be able to elect councillors who can get back to them on the performance of all local public services, not just the ones run by the council itself. This Bill gives councillors the power to hold all these services to account whether they are provided by other public bodies or private companies delivering public services. It will give councils the ability to shine a spotlight on services not delivering for local people and demand action on behalf of their communities to resolve local problems. There should be no hiding place from awkward questions for company bosses about why they are not providing the high quality local public services people are entitled to.’

David Chaytor MP, who is taking forward the Overview and Scrutiny Bill, said, ‘I am delighted that the Government is backing my Private Members Bill to put the power to act quickly and effectively into the hands of local councils. This will allow them to step in and fix problems and raise standards where local public services are seen to be falling short of what is expected of them.’

‘It is a testament to the Parliamentary system that MPs and the Government can work together to ensure that residents, like those in my Bury North constituency, can have a powerful voice and can flag up the many local problems we hear them raise each week on the doorstep or in our surgeries, and ensure that local councils have the power to act decisively on such problems.’

Tim Gilling, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, said, ‘Local authority scrutineers need the freedom to be able to gather evidence, and make recommendations, to any organisation spending money in the locality. Local residents, too, need to be able to know that their elected politicians are able to effectively hold to account those who make decisions affecting people’s lives.’

He continued, ‘These proposals will serve to consolidate both existing law and existing practice in the field, where many practitioners are having great success in using scrutiny to deliver tangible results for local people, by influencing those within and outside local government.’

Under provisions in the Bill, organisations called to scrutiny will be required to provide information to the scrutiny committee, send an appropriate person to a scrutiny hearing to answer questions and to consider and respond in full to scrutiny committee reports and recommendations. The extension of scrutiny powers is part of the Total Place approach to give councils more say over spending across their area to cut out waste and duplication and deliver better value for money for the taxpayer’s pound.