Row over level of scrutiny at Lancashire County Council

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The merging of two Lancashire County Council committees has reignited a row over the degree to which the authority’s decisions are subject to scrutiny.

A meeting of the full council backed a move to bring together the education and children’s services committees.

Cross-party scrutiny groups probe County Hall’s policies and operations in particular departments, with senior officers often appearing before them to make presentations to – and answer questions from – county councillors.

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Conservative cabinet member for children and schools, Phillippa Williamson, said there was “considerable overlap” between issues within education and children’s services, the latter of which deals with matters including social care.

Scrutiny committees examine the work of the different departments at County HallScrutiny committees examine the work of the different departments at County Hall
Scrutiny committees examine the work of the different departments at County Hall

“That’s an inefficient use of members’ and officers’ time and effort – and it’s actually undermining the effectiveness of the scrutiny that’s taking place.

“One committee will enable members to focus in detail on the issues and we’ll get a more in-depth and wider scrutiny process as a result,” said County Cllr Williamson, adding that the committees only became separate entities after an “inadequate” OFSTED rating of children’s services under the previous Labour administration in 2016.

The new committee will meet the same number of times per year as its predecessors did combined. However, deputy chair of the children’s services committee, Labour’s Nikki Hennessy, said that its discussions provided an opportunity to “drill down” into important subjects facing vulnerable children – including mental health, poverty and neglect.

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“These are huge issues that need to be kept on top of,” she warned.

The changes set the stage for a re-run of a debate about scrutiny at County Hall which erupted the last time the authority reviewed its constitution twelve months ago.

Chorley Central county councillor Steve Holgate said the process had become “the poor relation” in recent years and added that he was minded to write to the government to warn that the scrutiny system at the county council was “broken”.

Meanwhile, Penwortham West Liberal Democrat county councillor David Howarth put forward a motion demanding that members should have an automatic right to speak at any decision-making meetings “where matters are being considered solely concerning [their] division”.

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“I find it incredible that we seem to be distancing our public, who we are supposed to represent, rather than trying to improve representation on their behalf,” he said, referring to a decision in 2018 to stop permitting any members addressing cabinet meetings except for the leader and deputy leader of the main Labour opposition.

However, Conservative county councillor Charlie Edwards said that that move was the result of the actions of Lib Dem group leader, David Whipp.

“Every single time [I attended cabinet], [he] was causing mayhem – his attitude is to cause trouble and to divert.

“The way you act as a divisional county councillor is to write to cabinet members and request meetings – that’s how you get your case work done and be a good county councillor, not by grandstanding in public and wasting officers’ time,” County Cllr Edwards said.

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