I have now heard rumours from two sources that Cornwall Council's executive is planning to cut the number of scrutiny meetings for councillors. This will severely inhibit the ability of elected representatives to hold the Cabinet and officers to account and achieve the best for the people of Cornwall.
At particular risk, I understand, are the various scrutiny and policy panels which have been set up to do the most forensic work.
There are three types of panels
- there are very short-lived 'task and finish' panels such as the CCTV group which is meant only to exist for one or two meetings, look in depth at a particular issue and then report back to scrutiny.
- there are panels set up to look at services which are of concern because of their past performance. An example is the Fire Working Group - which I sit on. Seven councillors meet about once per month to make sure that the work to improve the Fire Service is being done properly. The scrutiny of the fire service was once criticised but we have just had a peer review which praises our work.
- there are longer lasting panels looking to create new policy on very complex areas. These include the Parking Panel and the Planning Policy Panel. In both cases they are trying to bring together six different sets of policies and make recommendations as to what is right for the whole of Cornwall.
Each main scrutiny committee currently has just four meetings a year and, even with the ability to set up two panels each, they are struggling to cope with the workload. Today's Children's Scrutiny meeting ran out of time to deal with the whole agenda and wants to be able to meet more often.
If the number of panels is cut and scrutiny committees have to do all the work in just four meetings a year then accountability will suffer. We will see decisions taken by just 10 cabinet members led by officers who will become broadly unaccountable. I know that most members will view the prospect of losing their ability to scrutinise properly with horror.