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By Kerry Lorimer ...
By Kerry Lorimer

Failure by Welsh councils to recognise the role played by officers in effective scrutiny could undermine the success of new political structures, the Welsh Assembly has warned.

Evidence received by the assembly's local government and public services committee suggested that although accountability had improved since councils introduced cabinets and non-executive boards, some scrutiny committees suffered from a lack of officer support.

'The extent and status of officer support for scrutiny and overview committees varies between councils, and in some cases scrutiny officers are not of sufficient status for scrutiny to function effectively,' says the report.

It also highlights domination by officers as a common barrier to effective scrutiny, with members and officers alike failing to adapt to the changes demanded by the new system.

'There remain problems of organisational culture in the domination of committees by officers in terms of operation and agenda setting, and committee members operating as they would have done under the old committee system,' it says.

The report claims 'overly strong' officer support within small councils could prove divisive and take resources away from front-line service delivery.

'We recommend that all local authorities should have dedicated officer support teams for scrutiny, but recognise it is not possible for all,' it says.

'All should, however, have strong and well-resourced support provision for scrutiny which reinforces the separation of powers principle.'

The report echoes research by the Welsh Local Government Association and the Audit Commission in Wales earlier this year, which suggested many Welsh councils are continuing to struggle with scrutiny (LGC, 12 March).

Colin Everett, head of improvement and development at the WLGA, said members and officers were beginning to adapt successfully to the responsibilities demanded of each by the new system.

'Members need to depend on self preparation and research so they have their own lines of thinking and enquiry, rather than being over reliant on officer advice,' he said.

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