Overview and Scrutiny

Overview and Scrutiny is a function of local authorities in England and Wales. It was introduced by the Local Government Act 2000 which created separate Executive and Overview and Scrutiny functions within councils.

Councils operating executive arrangements are required to create an Overview and Scrutiny Committee which is composed of councillors who are not on the Executive Committee, or Cabinet, of that council. Overview and Scrutiny Committees are required to meet the rules on proportionality defined in the Local Government And Housing Act 1989 (i.e. the committee must reflect the respective sizes of the political groups on the council). Councils in England which use the committee system are not required to establish an overview and scrutiny committee, but may do so if they wish.[1]

There is no national standard or prescription on the committee structure that councils adopt to satisfy these legislative requirements. A wide variety of designations and structures are in use, ranging from single committees to multiple committees with sub-committees. Structures have no significant impact on the overall effectiveness of the scrutiny function in individual authorities.[2]

The law relating to overview and scrutiny is slightly different in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, councils all operate under the committee system, although some incorporate policy development groups which perform similar functions to overview and scrutiny committees.[3]

Overview and Scrutiny in England

Scrutiny may under the Local Government Act 2000 make recommendations to the council's executive, and under other legislation may also make recommendations to other local bodies. Such bodies are under various obligations to respond or have regard to these recommendations. Many scrutiny functions have a process by which recommendations are monitored to check on their implementation. This is seen as one of the principal ways to ascertain the impact that scrutiny has on local services.[4]

Holding decision-makers accountable

Overview and scrutiny committees are empowered to question elected members who sit on the council's Cabinet and council employees,[5] and representatives of certain other organisations,[6] and to make recommendations to those people. Committees are able to investigate any issue which affects the local area, or the area's inhabitants, whether or not it is the direct responsibility of the council's Cabinet[7]

By law, Overview and Scrutiny must have the right to 'call-in'[8] decisions - i.e. ask the decision-maker to think again, or to refer the decision to the full council if it is believed that the decision-maker has taken a decision in contravention of the council's budget or policy framework.[9] To be called in, decisions usually need to be "key decisions".[10]

There is usually a window of five working days between the notification of the decision (when it is placed on public deposit) when a call-in can be requested. Again, this varies from authority to authority.

Overview and scrutiny in Wales

The Local Government (Wales) Measure sets out governance requirements for Welsh authorities. Welsh councils must operate executive arrangements and therefore must have overview and scrutiny committees. The powers of those committees are similar to those in England, although there are some differences, particularly in respect of powers over partners (termed as "designated persons").

Overview and scrutiny in Northern Ireland

The Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 2014 will on coming into force allow new councils to choose between a number of governance options, one of which involves an executive/scrutiny split. Powers for these committees will broadly reflect the powers of overview and scrutiny committees in England and Wales.

General issues

Some themes are common to all jurisdictions where overview and scrutiny systems operate.

Pre-decision scrutiny/in-year monitoring

Many councils have a procedure for detailed inspection of proposals by members on Overview and Scrutiny committees before the Executive brings final proposals to council, a process known as "pre-decision scrutiny".[11]

Scrutiny often has a role in in-year performance and finance monitoring, which it undertakes alongside the audit function of the authority.[12]

Policy development and review

Overview and Scrutiny Committees in many councils undertake in-depth reviews of particular issues of relevance to local people.

This work is carried out in order to influence the council's Cabinet, and other local partners. Work like this is usually carried out in informal "task and finish" groups. These look at topics defined by a formal committee on the basis of that committee's work programme,[13] gathering evidence from a range of internal and external witnesses (including the public) before reporting back to the commissioning committee, and ultimately the council's Cabinet, with formal recommendations. The Cabinet is under a duty to respond to recommendations made by scrutiny committees. A number of external partners must "have regard to" such recommendations.

Task and finish groups can take place over many months, or they can be much shorter. Some councils choose to conduct significant amounts of policy development work 'in committee', and/or at one-off meetings.[14]

Scrutiny work which aims to develop and review policy tends to constitute the bulk of work considered most effective.[15]

Scrutiny of public services delivered by external organisations

In England and Wales scrutiny committees have wide powers of scrutiny over certain organisations.

Health scrutiny

Since 2003 in England, scrutiny committees may call in witnesses and make recommendations to NHS bodies. In particular, they may take a part in making a reference to the Secretary of State for Health, where they feel that a proposal to substantially vary local health services has not been adequately consulted upon.[16]

In Wales, scrutiny does not have these powers of reference, and scrutiny of health services is carried out by Community Health Councils. There is, however, a general power to investigate health issues.[17]

Scrutiny of crime and disorder

Under the Police and Justice Act 2006 councils in England may hold to account community safety partnerships operating in their area, and make recommendations accordingly.[18]

Scrutiny of flood risk management

Following the Pitt Review, scrutiny was given powers to investigate councils' activities around flood risk management.[19]

Scrutiny of partners more generally

Since 2003 there has been a marked trend towards more scrutiny of partnership work, to the extent that this has now been fully integrated in many scrutiny functions which do not make a distinction between "internal" and "external" work.[20]

The further development of partnership working in local government (in England,[21] but particularly in Wales[22]) has provoked scrutiny functions to think about their wider role to investigate issues of importance to the local community, and to join up with neighbouring councils, as well as other non-executive bodies such as Police and Crime Panels.

Criticisms and shortcomings

There have been numerous criticisms of overview and scrutiny since its inception. Former Secretary of State John Denham described it in 2009 as "the lion that has failed to roar".[23]

The Francis inquiry[24] into the Stafford Hospital scandal revealed that concerns expressed to the local scrutiny committee with responsibility for health issues had not been taken up and investigated. The inquiry report suggested that scrutiny needed to be properly supported to carry out a central role in a more robust accountability framework within the NHS, to prevent those events recurring.

Scrutiny is not well resourced in a number of councils.[25] It relies on the council's Cabinet for its budget (there is no independent funding mechanism).


Local support

Scrutiny committees are assisted by council employees (officers), often called "scrutiny officers". These officers are generally tasked with providing policy and research support to councillors. Sometimes they are also responsible for organising and administering meetings. The average number of scrutiny officers per council has been steadily declining since 2010.[26]

National support

The Local Government Association provides a grant to the Centre for Public Scrutiny[27] to provide advice, guidance and support to local authorities around scrutiny and good governance.

See also


  1. s9JA, Local Government Act 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/schedule/2/part/1/enacted
  2. "2012/13 Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government" (CfPS, 2013), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=7334&offset=0
  3. For example, Edinburgh, http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/meetings
  4. "2012/13 Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government" (CfPS, 2013), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=7334&offset=0
  5. s9FA(8) and (9), Local Government Act 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/schedule/2/part/1/enacted
  6. s9FF, s9FI, Local Government Act 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/schedule/2/part/1/enacted
  7. s9F(2)(d) and (e), Local Government Act 2000, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/schedule/2/part/1/enacted
  8. s9F(4), Local Government Act 2000
  9. s9F(4), Local Government Act 2000
  10. Ones which have a particularly significant financial impact or which affect several council wards, Regulation 8, Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2012/2089/regulation/8/made
  11. "2012/13 Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government" (CfPS, 2013), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=7334&offset=0
  12. "Putting financial and performance information to good use" (CfPS, 2011), http://www.cfps.org.uk/domains/cfps.org.uk/local/media/downloads/L12_380_CIFPS_putting_financial_FINAL_WEB_VERSION.pdf
  13. "A cunning plan", (CfPS, 2011), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=113&offset=0
  14. Such as in Hertfordshire, http://www.hertsdirect.org/your-community/havesay/scrutiny/
  15. "Successful scrutiny 2013" (CfPS, 2013), http://www.cfps.org.uk/domains/cfps.org.uk/local/media/downloads/L13_419_CfPS_Successful_Scrutiny_final.pdf
  16. Explained in note written by HealthWatch England, http://www.healthwatch.co.uk/sites/default/files/130509hosc_final.pdf
  17. ss59-61 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 created a category of "designated persons" who were to be accountable to overview and scrutiny. A Welsh Government consultation (http://wales.gov.uk/consultations/localgovernment/designated-persons-order-number1/?lang=en) included health bodies in the list
  18. "Statutory guidance on ss19-21 of the Police and Justice Act 2006" (Home Office, 2009), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=6951&offset=0
  19. "Scrutiny of flooding toolkit" (LGiU/LGA, 2011), https://knowledgehub.local.gov.uk/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=5264a544-8e99-44c0-8984-66818fd58fac&groupId=5919398
  20. "2009 Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government" (CfPS, 2010), http://www.cfps.org.uk/what-we-do/publications/cfps-general/?id=123
  21. "Between a rock and a hard place" (CfPS, 2010), http://cfps.org.uk/publications?item=99&offset=50
  22. http://wales.gov.uk/topics/improvingservices/footprint/?lang=en
  23. http://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2009/07/denhams-transfer-of-power-disappoints-local-government/
  24. http://www.midstaffspublicinquiry.com/report
  25. "2012/13 Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government" (CfPS, 2013), http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=7334&offset=0
  26. CfPS Annual survey 2013 showed a drop of 18% in scrutiny officer numbers for the municipal year, http://www.cfps.org.uk/publications?item=7334&offset=0
  27. http://www.cfps.org.uk

External links

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