Star date: 8th January 2018


The findings of a new House of Commons report on 'Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees' concludes that party politics affects the way that council leaders are held to account; that the public and service users should be involved in scrutiny; and that council leaders and officers should 'welcome constructive challenge and democratic accountability'...

In Salford? In your dreams!

Full details here...

Salford City Council is a one-party regime, led by the Labour Party which has a forty seat majority, and almost no opposition from nine Tory councillors and one Independent. While that is democracy and reflects the will of Salford people, who is actually holding the City Mayor and his Cabinet to account?

A new report by the House of Commons cross party Communities and Local Government Committee, chaired by Clive Betts MP, reviewed "the ability of committees to hold decision-makers to account, the impact of party politics on scrutiny, resourcing of committees and the ability of council scrutiny committees to have oversight of services delivered by external organisations".

It noted that "Senior councillors from both the administration and the opposition, and senior council officers, have a responsibility to set the tone and create an environment that welcomes constructive challenge and democratic accountability".

Does this happen in Salford? Here, the Council has five scrutiny committees - Children's, Community and Neighbourhoods, Growth and Prosperity, Health and Adults, and the main one that the House of Commons Committee was generally looking at, the Overview and Scrutiny Board.

The last publicly available minutes of this Board in Salford show officers largely reporting on subjects, with councillors asking a few questions afterwards with virtually no answers recorded.

For example, the minutes note members' 'Concerns in regard to the significant budget pressures on Children's Services'. What were these 'concerns'? How did officers respond? We'll never know.

Matters Arising from the same meeting show that information requested by councillors from as far back as August and September had still not been provided (see here).

Meanwhile, community concerns, such as the £90,000 NDC 'legacy money' handed to the Inspiring Communities Together group never got near any scrutiny committee, despite being asked.

Nor do many of the other controversial Salford Council decisions and practices get discussed by scrutiny. The system just isn't working, and this observation locally has been largely backed up by the findings of the House of Commons Committee which took evidence from all over the country.

The Salford Star has been told by one councillor that the scrutiny committees are "useless...a waste of time".

One of the main concerns of the Committee was the role of party politics in scrutiny. Here in Salford, because of the make-up of the Council, all the scrutiny committees are totally dominated by Labour Party councillors, effectively holding their own party to account. Are they going to rock the boat and expose any scandals?

"...Local councillors will always be aware of party politics, but sometimes this can have too great an influence and act as a barrier to effective scrutiny" states the House of Commons Committee "Jacqui McKinlay from the CfPS [Centre for Public Scrutiny] told us that 'We often say that local government scrutiny is a perfect system until you add politics to it. In our last survey, 75% of people say that party politics affects scrutiny'..."

The Committee recommended, as a solution, "That overview and scrutiny committees should report to an authority's Full Council meeting rather than to the executive, mirroring the relationship between Select Committees and Parliament..."

Would this work, given that full council meetings in Salford are just opportunities for ruling councillors to showboat, with stage managed questions and stage managed answers?

At the end of each council meeting reports are presented from 'outside bodies' that the Council is involved with, such as Salix Homes, the Salfordian hotel, City West etc – and these are never discussed, with councillors nodding them through with one eye on the clock.

More interesting is the Committee's recommendation "That members of the public and service users have a fundamental role in the scrutiny process and that their participation should be encouraged and facilitated by councils".

It gives an example of effective public scrutiny from the London Borough of Hackney monitoring services for disabled children...

"Rather than only using the testimony of the council officers delivering the service, a major part of the evidence base for this review was the views of parents and carers of disabled children, as well as disabled children and young people themselves about the services they receive and the barriers they face in accessing current services...

"We commend such examples of committees engaging with service users when forming their understanding of a given subject, and encourage scrutiny committees across the country to consider how the information they receive from officers can be complemented and contrasted by the views and experiences of service users."

This method would have been really useful when the Salford Mayor, Paul Dennett, made the decision to close The Grange, the city's only residential care home for disabled children, or during the current proposal to charge parents of disabled children for transport to college and nursery.

Other recommendations by the Committee included "That scrutiny committees and the executive must be distinct and that executive councillors should not participate in scrutiny other than as witnesses, even if external partners are being scrutinised"...

"...That scrutiny committees should be supported by officers that are able to operate with independence and offer impartial advice to committees. There should be a greater parity of esteem between scrutiny and the executive, and committees should have the same access to the expertise and time of senior officers and the chief executive as their cabinet counterparts..."

..."That councillors working on scrutiny committees should have access to financial and performance data held by an authority, and that this access should not be restricted for reasons of commercial sensitivity"...

The Committee also found "that there can sometimes be a conflict between commercial and democratic interests, with commercial providers not always recognising that they have entered into a contract with a democratic organisation with a necessity for public oversight".

This a huge one in Salford, with too many public services now 'outsourced' to private unaccountable organisations, like Salix Homes, Pendleton Together, loads of care services and financial consultants.

"We believe that scrutiny's powers in this area need to be strengthened to at least match the powers it has to scrutinise local health bodies" states the Committee, which also called for more scrutiny of procurement.

Huge contracts in Salford are currently being rubber stamped by just three senior councillors – John Merry, Bill Hinds and Paula Boshell - and the City Mayor... "It is imperative that council executives involve scrutiny at a time when contracts are still being developed, so that all parties understand that the service will still have democratic oversight despite being delivered by a commercial entity" states the Committee.

Will Salford City Council put any of these recommendations into practice? In your dreams!

Meanwhile the House of Commons Committee also looked at the scrutiny of the 'metro mayor' authorities, such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), now led by GM Mayor Andy Burnham; and concluded that scrutiny "performance is currently hindered by limited resources. We therefore call on the Government to ensure that funding is available for this purpose..."

The committee also looked into oversight of the un-elected Local Economic Partnerships, or LEPs, stuffed with vested business interests. The Greater Manchester LEP helps control budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds via things like the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund (£400million); the GM Investment Fund (business loans of up to £5million) and City Verve (£10million)...

The House of Commons Committee recorded "significant concerns that public scrutiny of LEPs seems to be the exception rather than rule"...

The Committee's report and findings has now been lodged with the Government. Will the Tories do anything with it? Will Salford Council even read the thing, never mind act on it? Unfortunately, it seems that the long grass is awaiting another delivery...

Read the full Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees report – click here

See also previous Salford Star article on the Communities and Local Government Committee – Is Democracy In Salford Failing? click here

down but not out wrote
at 2:05:05 PM on Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Joe O'neil wrote, I understand every word you say even though I have never met you. I find that if your heart is in the right place and you work hard for the people you support you are pushed to one side and it's ridiculous that all Councillors have to be at a meeting...when can you ever find two Councillors together in one day. The Council is run like Britain's got talent, it's all about the Judges not the contestants. I have had so many negative experiences with this Council and I have come to the conclusion that for most of them their heart is not in it, as long as they have a wage at the end of the week they go home satisfied. You will get the odd ones who do actually care for their constituents but otherwise these hangers on who are too long in the tooth need to go until then nothing will change. There needs to be a change with the way they never consider that we are paying them to take care of our community. Some treat people with such disrespect and disdain and wont give them the time of day if you are dedicated to what you are fighting for. There is no consequences for their actions if they mess up. There is no transparency,they need to come down from their perches onto their knees and beg forgiveness. I cannot vote Labour and I have lived here all my life, definately not until drastic changes are made. People in the community are the voices that should be heard not them!
down but not out! wrote
at 2:04:49 PM on Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Time for change, move em on in and head them all out!
Michael James Felse wrote
at 12:19:53 PM on Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Mary we have to keep on chipping away until the elected represent our communities. My stand in Langworthy tested the ground vote, proving the voters are to the back teeth with Salford Labour. My activist work will see me seeking the Ordsall nomination for May in 2018 again as Independent to reach the message to more people and because the new developments across Media City put this into a ditch Labour opportunity. I urge others to decide where to stand on a head to head in other wards. Game changer is 4 Labour to suffer losses.
Mary ferrer wrote
at 1:46:38 AM on Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Nothing will change in Salford until we get a strong opposition.It's been highlighted here,all committees are totally run by the Labour party. All community committees are also now run by labour.When they started it was community lead,not any more.If people can't be bothered to vote what do you expect. Labour have the money and manpower to work the streets come election time.People vote them in because it's a family thing. The residents can't be bothered or just don't care.I am still thinking about setting up a Salford independents party. But then I think why, I have fought challenged and done some naughty things with the press to highlight what has been going on in OUR CITY for years.But nothing changes.
Graham Cooper wrote
at 11:56:06 PM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Dream on people. It's all under the carpet
Mike Kelly wrote
at 11:59:49 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Your report mentions Hackney Council we may have to look at what is happening there as a way forward. In Hackney existing councillors who have become too comfortable in their positions are facing removal by way of Independent opposition coming forward at the time of local elections. Its no good sitting back and blaming Central Government for all of the problems our city faces, yes Government do not make it easy but there should be proper opposition and scrutiny of legislation. Council Officers should be made to ensure that everything possible is being done to extract every penny the council can get its hands on, by nodding through reports I do not believe this happening. The fact that developers are able to ride rough shod over this Council makes me wonder what is going on and is every effort made to ensure we receive any,all fee's that can be levied. Apathy from those that do not vote is worrying as that allows the existing cartel to operate knowing that they are secure. Not only do we need more scrutiny of decisions made by existing Councillors on our behalf we also need potential candidates to engage meaningfully with voters with a view to them being elected. Give us viable alternatives and maybe then the accountability we deserve will be forthcoming.
joe oneill wrote
at 11:58:27 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Ray i failed in seeing my party breakthrough a Labour majority, i failed in seeing the end of a Labour Tenure, but individually i succeeded in dealing with cases as varied as could be imagined, success and failure comes at a very fine line but i can look back on the people i personally helped and smile, and you? a sad person who finds nothing better to do with his time than criticise others probably sitting with a can of carling in your carpet slippers and faded vest holding a grudge against the world. I don't think i am in a minority of readers on this site that agrees you should get a life.
Rayofsunshine wrote
at 9:24:41 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Joe, thanks for admitting frankly that as a councillor you were a total failure!
at 9:24:36 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Mr. Felse wants to be the next mayor of Salford. I'm sure that he realises that in 2022 we have a referendum to consider whether to maintain the post of mayor. Hopefully by then the electorate will realise that it wasn't a good idea to have decided to have one and will abolish the post. By then what party will Mr Felse have adopted?
Joe Oneill wrote
at 7:45:03 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
Who's to blame but the people, you seek election unsure of what the process is only to be shocked to see Labour control outright. They control full council,they control the committee's and take the pick of the outside bodies leaving the scraps for the opposition often taking positions that are worthless. I alone arranged a meeting with salford market traders i asked for a meeting with Cllr Antribous on their behalf that meeting was granted but surprise i was excluded the answer if he was to invite me he would have to invite all councillors and yet i was the one who called it, i complained to his then leader the response no interest, Labour are like a banana republic they control and care little of the opposition. I sat with Cllr Owen he at least fought the injustice sad to day he sits with them, a victim of senior Liberal Democrat policy. I failed dealing with a multitude of small cases neglected the bigger picture, but while i still walk i will carry on my fight. The Star thank god highlights Labours failings sadly the apathy in Salford as a firm grip and how to break it god only knows.
Michael James Felse wrote
at 7:45:00 AM on Monday, January 8, 2018
I welcome the Parliamentary Report. It makes a lot of sense but does not go far enough. What's needed are teeth, by devolving scrutineers into regions with the statutory power to effectively communicate between local council and devolved Parliaments where the scrutineers have access to UK professionals on each subject. This enables local people to raise concerns about their local council by an open door policy (including a new whistle-blower and compensation system that fines any unfair Council). I thank Clive Betts MP for a good start towards answerable local governments. If I was Salford's Mayor I would accept the MPs report and implement it by setting up the first Region Parliament in the Salford Crescent Police Station. The initiative could pull in £millions to renovate the property into a key pubic space, police heritage museum and centre for political studies and social value excellence in training Councillors and future post Brexit's young MPs.
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