Wednesday 15 February 2012


Back once more to last week's meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council and the review of the annual Improvement Report submitted by the Wales Audit Office.

The report caused quite a lot of disquiet on the opposition benches for a whole variety of reasons, and the WAO's proposals to reduce the number of scrutiny committees on the council was heavily criticised by some of the most respected and experienced councillors there.

From what we could read in the WAO report, a reduction in the number of scrutiny committees is part of a package of constitutional reforms and changes being cooked up for this spring. What those reforms and changes to the council will be is something the public can only guess at. To date, no proposals have been published and no discussion in any public forum has taken place. Whether the public will be consulted on changes to what after all is supposed to be our county council would also seem unlikely. All we know, apart from the glimpse given by the WAO, is that the package will be presented soon.

Several times during her presentation to councillors, the WAO officer claimed that Carmarthenshire has the largest number of scrutiny committees in Wales. How true is that?

Currently, there are 7 scrutiny committees which meet just once a month. They correspond broadly to each of the main departments of the council (e.g. Regeneration, Education and Children's Services, Health and Social Care), and they each have 12 or 13 members appointed in proportion to political representation. By contrast, Ceredigion has 6 scrutiny committees, and Pembrokeshire has 5; both are much smaller authorities.

The WAO officer also claimed that some of these committees had "attendance issues", although a few spot checks of recent meetings shows that attendance is actually very high. Sometimes, it is true, substitutes stand in, but not to an unusual extent.

Whether some of the councillors who currently sit on those committees should be entrusted with anything or have the intellectual tools to ask the right questions and hold council officers to account is quite another matter. But that's democracy for you.

So what was the WAO up to? The harder you look, the harder it is to escape the conclusion reached by some opposition councillors that the report was written for the Executive Board and a handful of senior officers, and that it reflects their agendas rather than the wider interests of the council and public.


Tessa said...

Certainly in my experience (a former employee of the then named District Audit/Audit Commission) the auditors were in the pockets of the officers of the client - whether council, police or fire service. Had the client been overly upset, they could simply change their auditors - which would mean job losses amongst the aforementioned. All I saw from the DA/AC was continued congratulation of the clients, with any negative findings skimmed over or, in the case of my findings during the course of my work, completely ignored and omitted from the final reports. So I'm very inclined to agree with the conclusion reached by the opposition councillors - I have neither to read the WAO report or the detail of the opposition to believe this.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

The Remuneration Panel for Wales has made recommendations to Local Authorities on the numbers of Special Responsibility Allowances that is paid, there will be a reduction which is why most councils are looking to reduce their SRA's which is part of the issue here. In Wrecsam there are 5 Scrutiny Committees but they have 2Co-Chairs both of whom get SRA's + 8 Lead Members on the Exec Board and Chairs of Planning and Environmental Licensing. Legislation requires an Audit Committee and Crime and Disorder Committee + 1 other. To be fair to the WAO, 7 Scrutiny Committees does seem excessive and it obviously dependes what they do, ours were criticised for 1) not holding Lead Members to account and 2)Insufficient pre exec board decision scrutiny. It seems therefore the WAO have a 'bee in their bonnet' over Scrutiny.