Councillors ‘undecided’ on how to provide scrutiny for public in Sandwell

Sandwell Council has discussed ways it could be more transparent for the people of the borough it serves.

At a budget and corporate scrutiny management board meeting on Friday, councillors discussed how the council could improve its transparency and openness for its residents across the borough.

In a report issued to councillors, the council admitted it had “not undertaken a comprehensive review of its overview and scrutiny arrangements for a number of years”. It concluded it would take guidance from the Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to improve how it scrutinises its own operations.

Recommendations approved by councillors include new scrutiny roles, such as a chair to have “personal responsibility to represent the whole of Sandwell at scrutiny meetings” and a new framework to understand how to improve relationships between officers and councillors.

Suky Suthi-Nagra, an officer at democratic services within Sandwell Council, said it would take up to two years to see how the scrutiny review will take effect.

She said: “Scrutiny must be elevated and respected in the same way that the executive is and is equally as important and adds values. So we’re also looking to address that poor culture and some of the proposals before you hopefully will address that.

“We’re mindful that this is something that will take eighteen months to two years to development to make sure that we have effective scrutiny. This framework we have developed encourages that healthy culture.

“We’re talking about empowering the members, clarifying expectations, and get councillors to turn up to meetings to ask questions.”

Labour councillor Ellen Fenton asked why Sandwell Council does not webcast all meetings for members of the public.

She said: “Why aren’t we recording and webcasting scrutiny meetings? I have spoken about it at my own scrutiny meeting. If we want to engage with the public, surely you want to be up there.

“The West Midlands Combined Authority records all its meetings and uploads onto the internet so the public can go back to it. It just seems we are missing the trick here.”

Surjit Tour, head of legal and democratic services, said there was an “appetite out there” for more meetings to be made public, but said streaming facilities were limited to the council chambers.

But councillor Fenton claimed committee room one had recording equipment, adding: “It’s not a large jump to put it on the internet so people can see it.”

It comes after Sandwell Council agreed a governance improvement plan (GIP) in January this year, after external auditors Grant Thornton released a damning audit into the council’s operations.

The report followed an intervention by the DLUHC under the instruction of then secretary of state Michael Gove, to bring in commissioners to tackle long-standing culture issues in the council.

In June, the council agreed on a single improvement plan which addresses the recommendations from all the external reviews and the Government’s statutory advice. This superseded the original GIP.

The plan will be monitored monthly and reported to Sandwell Council’s cabinet quarterly until all changes have been embedded into business as usual.

Labour councillor Jackie Taylor said the Sandwell Herald, an information leaflet delivered to Sandwell residents, could be used to show scrutiny at the council.

She said: "I actually feel that we can utilise it bit more in how to communicate and have sections of the Herald, where you can talk about scrutiny there and having different editions of key things that we do in the council.”

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