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SCRUTINY WILL WORK, BUT NEEDS SUPPORT

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By our political correspondent, Mithran Samuel ...
By our political correspondent, Mithran Samuel

Local government scrutiny has the potential to outdo the parliamentary select committee system but is hamstrung by a lack of resources, party politics and executive disdain.

Dr Rachel Ashworth of Cardiff Business School, who has published a report on scrutiny, said the best councils are outstripping their parliamentary counter-

parts, despite the fact reformed council constitutions are based on the Westminster model.

But in many cases, scrutiny has little independent officer support, executives ignore recommendations, while political tribalism often undermines cross-party co-operation and leads majority groups to appoint 'safe' committee chairs.

Dr Ashworth's report follows a study published by the Centre for Public Scrutiny (LGC, 19 September), which found scrutiny had failed to embed itself into the culture of many councils, with resources a key problem.

She said many councils have not invested in independent officer support, but seconded staff from other departments.

According to Dr Ashworth: 'Officers felt a dilemma in wearing two hats. In some authorities, old committee support staff had just been relabelled as scrutiny officers.'

On the councillor side, she added: 'There were occasions [where] the majority group had appointed a safe chair who wasn't asking the right questions.'

Besides better resourcing councillor training has to improve to bring scrutiny up to scratch. 'Members reported they were fed up with their training programmes. They wanted more practically based training,' she said.

She added: 'I think the Centre for Public Scrutiny is going to provide a vehicle for improvement.'

Some councils have moved beyond the parliamentary select committee model through the use of performance indicators, and the practice of backbench councillors carrying out in-depth fieldwork on particular issues.

Dr Ashworth said: 'They could certainly teach Parliament a few lessons.'

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