More cuts, less scrutiny

23 Nov

Three Wise Monkeys 2010

The mayor’s vision for scrutiny in Newham

Every cloud has a silver lining and Sir Robin Wales has found a very shiny benefit to the £50 million of cuts he has to implement: the excuse to slash funding for Scrutiny.

The seven scrutiny committees, which cover all aspects of the council’s activities, from health to crime & disorder, are now supported by a single officer.

As a consequence, the number of scrutiny meetings has been severely curtailed. Some committees, including the Health and Social Care Scrutiny Commission, haven’t held a public hearing since June. This is despite the many pressing health issues facing the borough, fundamental changes in the funding and delivery of Adult Social Care and serious concerns over the quality of services delivered by our local hospitals.

Councillors who actually want to do the only real job they were elected for – scrutinising the executive and holding the mayor to pubic account for his decisions – are becoming increasingly frustrated. The lack of support means things that members want to look at have to be ‘prioritised’ as part of an overall ‘work programme’- a mysterious process that is managed by the chair of overview & scrutiny, Tony McAlmont. As Cllr McAlmont owes his position and the significant ‘special responsibility allowance’ that goes along with it to the mayor, his view of ‘priorities’ may not be entirely independent.

Even when work gets ‘prioritised’ it has become nigh on impossible for committee chairs to schedule public meetings. The mayor’s new, legally dubious ‘scrutiny protocol’ (which councillors obediently nodded through in September) requires all requests for witnesses to be made via the mayor’s office, with at least 15 working days notice. The mayor then gets to decide if the requested council officer or Executive member will attend or provide only written answers. Witnesses can suddenly become ‘unavailable’ at very short notice, or substituted with someone of the mayor’s own choosing, rendering the hearing pointless.

One scrutiny commission chair has written to the council’s chief executive and Cllr McAlmont to express their concern:

We are all trying very hard in scrutiny to work within the new regime, forced upon us by government cuts, but I feel that we are being blocked at every turn. When scrutiny of the council’s business is now more important than ever, our capacity to do our work is very constrained through lack of resources.

I must urge you to […] do everything in your power to support scrutiny before we lose all but the statutory minimum of functions.

Nothing will come it. Sir Robin hates scrutiny and holds the entire process in contempt. 

At last week’s Cabinet he threw his toys out of the pram when a scrutiny report suggested his pet ‘Every Child A Musician’ programme might have some issues with variable quality in delivery. He blasted the committee for the ‘markedly lower quality’ of their research (compared to well-funded, full-time professional academic researchers he had previously paid for!) and rejected out of hand a recommendation that the aims, objectives and expected outcomes of the programme be reviewed, saying this would be a waste of money.

If Kim Bromley-Derry and Tony McAlmont want to keep their jobs they’ll say nothing – and do even less. For the mayor, defunding scrutiny is a dream come true.

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