The Green Party Group on Norwich City Council wishes to state our dissatisfaction with the so-called scrutiny process that was undertaken on the issue of the pink pedalway on 17th March.
Overview and scrutiny is a vital part of the functioning of any public body. It exists to hold the executive to account and make sure that decision-making is transparent. The Local Government Act 2000 states that:
"Executive arrangements by a local authority must ensure that its overview and scrutiny committee has power (or its overview and scrutiny committees, and any joint overview and scrutiny committees, have power between them)—
(a) to review or scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken, in connection with the discharge of any functions which are the responsibility of the executive,"
We believe the meeting of the Scrutiny committee on 17th March did not allow proper scrutiny of the pedalways project and demonstrated in several ways that Norwich City Council's overview and scrutiny procedure is not fit for purpose.
Members of the public were invited to submit comments prior to the meeting. More than 100 responses were received. However, committee members did not see these comments in any form until the start of the meeting, when a one-page summary of responses was distributed. No reference was made at any point during the meeting to these responses from the public.
Norwich City Council's Constitution (Appendix 6, 16.2) states that:
"When considering any matter in respect of which a member of the Scrutiny Committee is subject to a party whip the member must declare the existence of the whip and the nature of it before the commencement of the Committee's deliberations on the matter. The declaration, and the detail of the whipping arrangements, shall be recorded in the minutes of the meeting."
Members of the Labour group arrived with a list of more than 60 pre-prepared questions, divided among the Labour members who sit on the scrutiny committee, which appeared to have been designed to forestall any real scrutiny of the less successful aspects of the pedalways project. These included questions on whether 20mph limits make roads safer, and other leading questions inviting officers to reiterate that the scheme had been a success.
This undeclared application of the party whip breaches the terms of Appendix 6. Furthermore, the planting of deliberately unchallenging or self-congratulatory questions shows a blatant disregard for the overview and scrutiny function and therefore for the proper democratic functioning of the council.
Appendix 6 (clause 17.2) states: "Where the Scrutiny Committee or Select Committee conduct investigations (e.g. with a view to policy development), the Committee may also ask people to attend to give evidence at Committee meetings which are to conducted in accordance with the following principles -
a) that the investigation can be conducted fairly and all members of the Committee be given the opportunity to ask questions of attendees, and to contribute and speak;
b) that those assisting the Committee by giving evidence be treated with respect and courtesy; c) that the investigation be conducted to maximise the efficiency of the investigation or analysis.
In a meeting where it was clear that time was limited and there was a lot to discuss, officers were given more than half an hour to present the project. This was excessive and should not have been given priority over considering the public responses. We believe this is in breach of part c) of clause 17.2 above, since allocating so much time to an officer presentation impeded the efficiency of the investigation.
The chair took questions in the order hands went up, but did not allow any follow-up questions. Follow-up questions have previously been allowed at Scrutiny and form a crucial part of being able to properly scrutinise decisions. Without follow-up questions, it becomes impossible to pursue lines of questioning; information given in an answer cannot be challenged; and clarification cannot be sought.
The Constitution states (Article 6.1.1) that Scrutiny committee "will consist of 13 members of the Council who are not members of the Cabinet." Since the purpose of Scrutiny committee is to hold the cabinet to account, it is logical that cabinet members should play no active part. Their only role in Thursday's meeting should have been to provide evidence in response to questions. However, two cabinet members (Councillor Bremner and Councillor Stonard) were seated at the front, close to the chair, giving the impression that they held some authority within that meeting. On a number of occasions, Cllr Bremner asked the chair for permission to speak, which was granted. In one instance, Cllr Bremner referred to an opposition councillor "who is here in this room", implying to those present that the councillor in question had a right of reply, when in fact, not being a member of the committee, he had no opportunity to speak. The two cabinet members then approached the chair and vice-chair while recommendations were being formulated, and spoke to them privately, giving the appearance of attempting to influence the committee's recommendations. This breaches clause 3.1 of Appendix 6 of the Constitution, which states that "no member may be involved in scrutinising a decision with which he/she has been directly involved."
We believe the behaviour outlined above is an unacceptable abuse of the cabinet members' position, when they should merely have been answering questions and not taking the opportunity to attack others or make political statements.
The above points clearly demonstrate that the Scrutiny committee is not currently effective in carrying out the overview and scrutiny function as required by the Local Government Act 2000. We request that a review of the overview and scrutiny function be carried out, and recommend that the following points become part of the Scrutiny committee's terms of reference.
1. The chair of the Scrutiny committee will be a member of the largest opposition group.
2. The length of any presentation by officers will be limited to no more than 15 minutes.
3. All public responses to any consultation on an issue to be discussed at Scrutiny will be made available to councillors when they are received. Public comments will subsequently be made available in full to the public.
4. Each member of the committee or member of the public who asks a question will be permitted to ask one supplementary question.
5. Where any meeting is held between officers and the chair of the Scrutiny committee to discuss business prior to a Scrutiny meeting, a representative from each party group will be invited to be present at that meeting.
6. Cabinet members should attend Scrutiny meetings only as witnesses, in order to answer questions put to them by the public or members of the committee. They may not request to speak at other times, and must not contribute to the committee's recommendations.