The Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal has shown that some council scrutiny bodies are being too easily assured about service standards.
That view has come from the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), after the Jay report into events at Rotherham strongly criticised the effectiveness of scrutiny there.
CfPS executive director Jessica Crowe (pictured) said in her response that the report’s findings pointed to a scrutiny culture that “placed too much store on the assurances of people in authority that everything was fine”.
Too many council scrutiny committees were content to discuss items “where the only source of evidence is a report written and presented by a chief officer” and councillors were asked merely to note the contents.
She added: “Scrutiny members should be playing a much more active role in challenging councils, and their partners, to back up their assertions of the quality of service that public agencies provide to local people.”
Ms Crowe said the CfPS knew anecdotally of “a worrying number” of cases of councils obstructing scrutiny investigations, and even of councillors feeling obliged to take out Freedom of Information requests to access information from their own authority that they were legally entitled to see.
The Jay report – which found some 1,400 children had been sexually abused over 16 years – found: “The challenge and scrutiny function of the Safeguarding Board and of the council itself was lacking over several years at a time when it was most required.”
It went on to note: “Scrutiny in its widest sense is an essential component of cabinet government. Rarely does it appear from the minutes that councillors have held officers to account by checking the evidence for proposals or asking whether their ends could be met in other ways.”