Scrutiny: Let’s break it down

Have you ever wondered what Scrutiny is all about, why it is there and what benefits it brings?

We have put together a simple guide to help answer these important questions.

Scrutiny

Scrutiny is done through ‘effective questioning’ this means asking the kind of questions which get to the heart of an issue to find out the right information

Scrutiny is led by Councillors. Swansea Council has 72 Councillors who have been elected locally.

12 of these Councillors are Cabinet Members also known as Executive Members. They are the main decision and policy makers for The Council.

Each Cabinet Member has a different portfolio of departments and services within The Council that they are responsible for.

The rest of the Councillors all have the chance to be a part of Scrutiny by volunteering their time. Their role within Scrutiny is to hold the Cabinet Members to account, to be the voice of the public and to help drive improvement of the Council’s public services.

Councillors who take part in Scrutiny work are referred to as Scrutiny Councillors.

There is also a team of council staff, Scrutiny Officers who support the Scrutiny Councillors in their work.

The Scrutiny Team do a range of tasks. They organise meetings, request reports, work with departments to develop work plans and write all of the letters and reports which come out scrutiny. They also research topics, arrange focus groups and other public engagement projects to track the impact of the work of the Scrutiny Panels.

Why do we need Scrutiny?

Scrutiny was introduced by law through the Local Government Act 2000 in England and Wales. It is a legal obligation for each local authority with an Executive arrangement (a Cabinet who make decisions) to have an ‘Overview and Scrutiny function’.

The main reason this was introduced is because before this Act all local authorities in the UK made decisions through meetings of the full Council (all the elected Councillors).

Since the introduction of the Local Government Act 2000 local authorities can have Cabinet Members that make the decisions and the rest of the Councillors are required to scrutinise the Cabinet Members through Scrutiny Committees.

Scrutiny Committees should in general reflect the political balance of the Council – which means they should represent the political parties who have been elected.

How does Scrutiny work?

The overall work of Scrutiny is organised by the Scrutiny Programme Committee. This is a group of Scrutiny Councillors who organise and manage what Scrutiny will look at each year. The Scrutiny Programme Committee is led by a Chair. The current Chair of the Scrutiny Programme Committee is Councillor Mary Jones.

The Scrutiny Programme Committee will look at different issues. The Committee generally meet every month and often hold ‘Question & Answer Sessions’ with Cabinet Members. Members of the Public (and Swansea Council staff members) are also able to contribute ideas towards these ‘Questions & Answer Sessions’. A Scrutiny Newsletter goes out every month inviting for such ideas.

All other work that is carried out by the Scrutiny Councillors is done through different Scrutiny groups. These are called Scrutiny Panels. The Scrutiny Panels all have a Convenor who is the leader of each Panel. It is their job to Chair all of the meetings and to contact Cabinet Members through letters to either ask questions that The Panel may have, give recommendations that The Panel agrees or just give general feedback from meetings held.

There are 3 main types of Panels:

  1. Scrutiny Performance Panels – these meet regularly and review the performance of certain topics for example, social services, education, budgets
  2. Scrutiny Inquiry Panels – these panels look at one topic in depth for 6-9 months and develop a substantial report with evidence and ideas for change for the relevant Cabinet Member
  3. Scrutiny Working Groups – are one off meetings looking at an item of interest in one meeting and developing a letter with comments and ideas

What is the benefit of Scrutiny?

Scrutiny represents the public ‘voice’ and is able to question Cabinet Members about the work they are doing. By asking the right questions and reading reports which are sent to them, the Scrutiny Councillors can make comments about what is going well and what could be improved.

As Scrutiny is led by Councillors who have been elected locally they can bring insights relevant to their local area and the local people who have elected them. This gives Scrutiny its great value: promoting democracy.

Scrutiny meetings are generally open to the public (unless stated otherwise), members of the public are therefore also able to make use of Scrutiny to get their concerns around the Council Services heard.

Scrutiny Councillors have the power to request Cabinet Members or Council Officers from across departments of the Council to attend their Scrutiny meetings. At these meetings the Cabinet Members and Officers answer questions and present or discuss the work they do surrounding the services within their portfolio (or department). This helps make sure that Council Services, are constantly improved.

Scrutiny Councillors are also able to help improve policies that are in place and have their input on policies that are being developed or new policies that may be looked at in the future.

After each meeting, a letter or report is sent to the relevant Cabinet Member explaining what The Panel thought about the meeting and why. Cabinet Members must respond to all letters sent by Scrutiny Councillors in writing within two months. All letters that are sent to and received from Cabinet are published on the Council Website.

It is important to note that although Scrutiny Councillors can give recommendations for improvements to the Cabinet, they are not able to enforce any recommendations if The Cabinet does not agree, or is (for any given reason) not able to implement the recommendations made.  

Scrutiny Councillors do have the power to ‘Call in’, which is to ask The Cabinet to reconsider decisions before they are implemented.

Scrutiny is there to represent the people. Effective scrutiny can lead to improvements in the Council’s policies and procedures, which is good for everyone!

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