The role of Scrutiny

Overview and Scrutiny was introduced by the Local Government Act 2000. Merton operates a Leader and Cabinet model, where the Cabinet makes the executive decisions of the authority on behalf of local residents.

Overview and Scrutiny’s main roles are:

  • holding the Cabinet to account
  • improving and developing council policies
  • examining decisions before they are implemented
  • engaging with members of the public
  • monitoring performance of the council and its partners

Scrutiny can look into services provided by other agencies and other matters of importance to the people of the borough. Scrutiny has legal powers to monitor and hold to account local health services (Health and Social Care Act 2001) and to scrutinise crime reduction and community safety issues (Police and Justice Act 2006).

Introduction to Overview and Scrutiny

Rosie: Hi, I'm Rosie McKeever. I am one of the scrutiny officers at Merton Council.

Caroline: I'm Caroline Holland, I'm the director of Corporate Services.

Peter: Hello, I'm councilor Peter Southgate, soon-to-be-former Council Peter Southgate.

John: Hello, I'm John Bosley, I'm the assistant director of public space for Merton Council.

Chris: Hello, I'm Chris Lee, I'm director for Environment and Regeneration here at Merton Council.

Rosie: Overview and Scrutiny committees were introduced by The Local Government Act 2000 to ensure that members of an authority that are not part of the executive have the opportunity to hold the executive to account for their actions and decisions that affect the local community.

Peter: Why is scrutiny important? It's really, it's fundamentally about trying to make our residents’ lives better.

Chris: Scrutiny fulfills an essential part of the democratic process. It almost acts like daylight, exposing those things that the public need to be aware of. It cleanses, it acts as an antiseptic. Government works much better under the full glare of public scrutiny. Without it abuse can happen and it works very well in Merton. It fulfills at least three very key roles, the first being reviewing before and after cabinet makes decisions, and we build that into the process so that there is a pre-decision process which can look under the car boot, the car Bonnet if you like, in terms of what the decision is about, how it was arrived at, and why it's a good decision. That can also take place after the decision has been taken by cabinet through a calling process, and that's been used extensively in the areas of service that I'm involved in. The second area is more around policy development, and that, through task and finish groups, is an essential part of ensuring that the council develops and adopts good policies, and that's been used over many years now, in my area of work in particular, in helping us to develop a better approach to the services we deliver, whether it's around our approach to commercialization, whether it's about issues such as wheelie bins, or more recently whether it's about how we revitalize our high streets and ensure that places people want to visit. The third area is more general really, and that's about curiosity and questioning both performance policy and service delivery.

Peter: It should be very much about reflecting the voice and the concerns of our residents um and just being sensitive to what their needs are. The other thing that scrutiny should do if it's going to work well is make an impact on the delivery of council Services. We do that by asking officers, and indeed external agencies too like the NHS, to come in and provide us with the opportunity to question them on Services, how they're working, particularly if we have concerns that they are not working well enough.

Rosie: An effective scrutiny committee will make valuable contributions towards policy development and decision making.

Chris: I often feel that scrutiny is working really well where I'm feeling a bit hot under the collar, where members are probing and questioning the areas of service delivery, areas of customer standards, areas of performance generally, and not just me but the scrutiny, the cabinet members should almost feel a bit hotter under the color as well, because that's where we're being held to account. That's where, as a public servant, I feel that public money is being well

used, because people are questioning how it's used, people are questioning the service standards that we're delivering, and I should feel, as a public servant, a little bit hot under the collar in terms of being made to prove that what I'm doing is the right thing to the right standard, and that that scarce public money is being well used.

Rosie: Scrutiny is not, and should not be, party political. Within Merton effective scrutiny is achieved by collaborative working, members adopting an outcome focused approach, and offering a mix of support and challenge to cabinet members and officers.

Caroline: [One of the most] important areas of school is clearly the budget process, but don't worry, we will give you additional training on the budget to help you understand what the budget's all about, but then if you're involved in the budget scrutiny, you get a chance to look at the service plans, the performance indicators, and the individual budgets, the savings. You get an understanding of the services, what we're providing, and the impact of what the changes will be for services for residents as well.

John: Scrutiny allows officers to focus their attention to areas of concern that there may be of the service, as well as recognizing achievements that have been delivered through our relationships with service providers.

Rosie: Scrutiny offers a very real opportunity to make a difference to the lives of residents.

Peter: Scrutiny is very much member driven and member owned, so it is you, the elected members, not they, the officers, that determine what gets brought to scrutiny, what the topics are that they're investigated in debt, and how the meetings are run. Indeed, I would encourage you to think of scrutiny not just as something that happens here, in the council chamber and committee rooms, but something that happens out there too. Now, go and see what residents are telling you about - if a particular park has, let's say, play equipment that needs improving, go and have a meeting there and talk to the parents and the children about what they need to to make their park better. So, it should be at that level, it should be local, it should be engaging residents, finding out what they want.

John: Officers within the public space division find scrutiny an important part of their day-to-day management of our service providers, and we welcome your input into the scrutiny process. Thank you.

How Overview and Scrutiny works in Merton  

Merton Council has an Overview and Scrutiny Commission, which acts as a coordinating body supporting three Overview and Scrutiny Panels with individual areas of responsibility:

  • Children and Young People
  • Healthier Communities and Older People
  • Sustainable Communities

Commission and Panel meetings take place throughout the year and members of the public are welcome to attend.