Monday 29 March 2010

Need for "sea change" in Dundee Council scrutiny arrangements

As reported in tonight's Evening Telegraph, I have said that the City Council has to listen to the concerns raised by Audit Scotland in its Best Value 2 (BV2) report just completed - and act upon these concerns quickly and decisively, particularly in relation to current unsatisfactory scrutiny arrangements.

Following previous criticism from auditors about the council’s ineffective scrutiny arrangements, the Scrutiny Committee was established, but its terms of reference are thoroughly inadequate and this had been made clear to the SNP administration by myself and other opposition councillors at the time of the committee’s establishment. However, the SNP failed to take heed of these concerns and had created a Scrutiny Committee that is a bit of a "toothless wonder".

It is no wonder that Audit Scotland has again called for improvement to scrutiny arrangements and it is about time there is a proper and lasting improvement in scrutiny arrangements so that the decisions of the council and its performance in delivering services are properly scrutinised.

So what's wong with the current Scrutiny Committee? Its terms of reference are too limited – particularly the fact that it is not able to “call in” items for scrutiny and the fact that the major areas of inspection – examples being delivery of the housing service and child protection – are not part of the Scrutiny Committee’s remit at all makes the committee far too limited in its scope.

Taking these major reports only to the Policy and Resources Committee, where councillors’ contributions are each limited to 2 questions and 4 minutes of comment makes a nonsense of the concept of scrutiny and has resulted in most of the Scrutiny Committee’s time being spent on HMIE and Care Commission Reports with few areas requiring attention.

At the time the Scrutiny Committee was set up, I also suggested that there be a reduction in the number of committees with the merger of the Audit and Risk Management Sub-Committee and the Improvement and Efficiency Sub-Committee into the Scrutiny Committee. These committees have fairly similar remits and it is all overly cumbersome, top-heavy and bureaucratic. In the current financial climate, the council should be streamlining and should be striving for efficiency.

At the time, the SNP did not listen, but in light of the BV2 report, the time for a radical improvement to scrutiny is needed.

David Dorward, the Council’s Chief Executive, has advised me that he is now undertaking an review of the operation of the scrutiny function and that a report would be placed in the near future before the Policy & Resources Committee. It is vital that all sides of opinion on the council are given the opportunity to feed their views in before such a report is finalised, otherwise the criticisms of inadequate scrutiny will not be properly addressed.

I have suggested to the Chief Executive that elected members be given the opportunity to speak with the auditors about the findings of BV2 and the Chief Executive has indicated that “the Accounts Commission offered to hold a meeting with leading elected members and senior officials to discuss the report and the Accounts Commission’s findings. It was agreed that this meeting will take place in May/early June.” This is to be welcomed.