Fewer than two full-time equivalent staff are on average performing scrutiny functions at local authorities – almost half the number of four years ago, research has found.
The annual survey by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS) found the number of dedicated scrutiny officers continued to fall, from an average 2.09 per council in 2012-13 to 1.75 in 2013-14 and a projected further fall to 1.63 during 2014-15.
Scrutiny budgets also declined, on average to £3,448 this year, against £4,015 in 2013-14.
But the study, answered by 172 councils, found 70.3% of respondents now had a system in place to monitor scrutiny recommendations, compared with only a half last year.
The study did not ask councils whether scrutiny posts had been lost as a result of moves from the cabinet to committee systems.
CfPS executive director Jessica Crowe said although the study had not revealed declining standards, the downward resources trend could “not go on”.
“We’re seeing scrutiny functions having to work in new ways – sharing resources across democratic resources and policy teams, so they’re trying to make the most of the scarce resources they have,” she said.
“We’re also seeing, particularly in relation to the ability to track and monitor recommendations, they’ve got systems set up that they’re just continuing to use.”
Ms Crowe urged council leaders not to view scrutiny as a “soft option for cutting” in the future as local authority budgets come under further pressure.
“See scrutiny as part of the ability to function well in these tough times,” she said.
Meanwhile, the government has urged councils to be more willing to question and independently verify information produced by NHS providers and commissioners.
The Department of Health said in new guidance that local health scrutiny committees should actively seek out alternative information about the quality of services.
Its guidance followed the Francis report into failings at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, and said: “Health scrutiny has a legitimate role in proactively seeking information about the performance of local health services and institutions; in challenging the information provided to it…and in testing this information by drawing on different sources of intelligence.”
Following the public inquiry into events at Stafford Hospital, Sir Robert Francis criticised Staffordshire CC’s health scrutiny committee as being “wholly ineffective” and argued, “scrutiny ought to involve more than the passive and unchallenging receipt of reports”.
The primary aim of health scrutiny should be to strengthen the voice of local people and ensure their experiences of healthcare were heeded, the guidance said.
Health scrutiny committees must consider the sustainability of health reconfigurations, in addition to their quality and safety, it added.
Katie Hall (Lib Dem), chair of the LGA community wellbeing board said: “Councils recognise that health scrutiny is vital in providing local accountability and challenge to the health system.”