The local authority has been operating a scrutiny function since 2000 which involves a range of committees and panels looking at council services, contractors, NHS commissioners/ providers and more.
In practice, scrutiny aims to hold the council’s executive to account while also shaping policy in the best interests of residents.
Examples of effective scrutiny in the past have included council ‘commissions’ which have focused on issues in the borough such as housing, poverty and skills.
According to a presentation to councillors this week, given the “huge changes” South Tyneside Council has had to make over the last two decades, it was an “opportune time to look at whether the scrutiny function remains fit for purpose.”
The suggested review aimed to look at the current role and function of scrutiny committees/ performance panels and any perceived “barriers” for councillors involved, with a view of making recommendations about the scrutiny function’s structure and operation for the next municipal year.
The council’s main scrutiny panel, the Overview and Scrutiny Coordinating and Call-in Committee (OSCCC), discussed the proposals on Tuesday, May 25.
Councillors were told that the suggestion of a review stemmed from discussions between council officers and the council’s new leadership.
Some members of the committee defended the track record of scrutiny and said it had influenced key local issues and health matters in the past.
But councillor Ed Malcolm said more support and resources from council officers were needed to assist scrutiny committees in future.
Meanwhile, councillor John McCabe, who serves as chair of the People Select Committee, said that the current system worked well but could be improved with a few ‘tweaks.’
This included increased staffing to support the scrutiny process and education and training for councillors serving as ‘scrutineers.’
Other suggestions from the OSCCC included keeping South Tyneside’s residents informed and involved in the scrutiny process and adopting best practice guidance from national organisations.
Following discussion, the committee agreed early recommendations for the council’s scrutiny function, which will feed into the wider review.
This included more council officer support for scrutiny committees and financial support to explore models of scrutiny that are working well in other parts of the country.
Following the meeting, a ‘scoping report’ will be produced to develop the review’s ‘terms of reference’ which will be discussed again in future.
Councillor Rob Dix, chair of the council’s OSCCC, added: “Over the past 12-15 months the way the local authority and its partners have done things has had to change because of Covid.
“I think it’s the job of scrutiny to make sure these changes are in the best interests of the residents and best value for money.”
What is scrutiny?
The Local Government Act 2000 introduced a new political management system for local councils in England and Wales, requiring them to have a separate ‘executive’ – in the case of South Tyneside Council, this is the council leader and cabinet.
The Act also introduced the concept of ‘overview and scrutiny’, designed as a check on the executive, allowing the rest of the council to scrutinise the executive by investigating their decisions and policies, and issuing reports and recommendations.