News that Lib Dem Councillor, Kris Brown, is to be nominated as Chair of the new independent Audit Committee tomorrow after agreement between Labour and Lib Dem Parties should be a sign that the scrutiny process will become more important in in all the work of the City Council.
I’ll find that immensely satisfying. Over the past decade I have raised issue after issue as have my Lib Dem colleagues. Faced with a granite wall of resistance from both officers and members in the past we have been unable to expose the many problems which were manifest within the Council. Three things happened in sequence which are leading to continual change:
Firstly, a new Chief Executive was appointed three years ago who wasn’t prepared to put up with such behaviour. He commissioned an internal audit report the results of which led to……
Secondly, the Police being called in. There are now 6 extant police investigations into the Council and I am hopeful that action will take place over the summer. This led to…..
Thirdly, the BVI Inspection by Max Caller and team. They had statutory powers of investigation and were able to delve into the Council. They provided valuable back up and information about the Council to he Police who, will all due respect, didn’t have the necessary expertise in Council procedures to look at some of the things that needed looking at. This led to…….
The production of a report with a series of almost mandatory instructions to the Council to change many of its procedures.
Of these the most important in my view is the creation of the standalone Audit Committee.
The new Audit Committee will have much wider scope than on previous occasions and the new Chair will be able to report directly to the Mayor, Cabinet and Full Council on committee findings. It is expected to be the local council equivalent of the powerful Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. In short it will be the most important Committee of the Council outside Cabinet and it alone can insist on its reports being sent to both Cabinet and direct to full council.
It will be supported by an outside expert who can guide the committee in its work who is likely to be an experienced former Chief Finance Officer of a Council or similar body. It will control the internal and external audit functions of the Council. It can look at anything it pleases subject only to common sense and budgetary constraints.
It will also be able to look at the effectiveness of processes. Clearly, we can see from the Caller Report and other reports which have been submitted to meetings that for legal reasons had to be private that basic processes which should have applied to the use of taxpayers’ resources have been absent. These processes must be improved and wherever possible absolutely transparent.
Although standalone it will clearly work closely with the Finance & Resources Committee on which our Deputy Leader Andrew Makinson is our spokesperson and the Mayoral and Performance Select Committee on which I am the Lib Dem Lead. These three Committees should be able to drive up performance providing the Cabinet Members and senior officers are supportive of changes which might be needed.
Speaking after the agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats had been reached Cllr Kris Brown said,
“I am very pleased to be accepting the role of Chair of the new Audit Committee. As we move forward as a council following the Caller investigation, the move to give opposition parties a greater say in the scrutiny of the council is welcomed. Despite my political affiliation, I will be fair and co-operative with all members of the council, as well as being robust in holding this administration to account alongside my Liberal Democrat colleagues”.
To my mind this is exactly the right approach. The scrutiny committees were called Select Committees at my instigation 20 years ago. The idea was that they would be independent and hold the Executive of Cabinet and senior members to account in a pragmatic and none-Party political way in the same way that the House of Commons and House of Lords Committees do for most of the time.
This is how they worked for much of when we controlled the Council. They stopped being that way when the Mayoralty was created in 2012. That summer an email went to all members of the Labour Group saying that the committees could only criticise the Cabinet if the Mayor agreed! All independent scrutiny of the Select Committee ceased.
Only time will tell if the current Mayor Anderson and her Cabinet are more amenable to openness and justified criticism than the last Mayor Anderson and Cabinet.
In return those of us who engage in scrutiny must be fair minded. If the Cabinet is trying hard to do things differently it will make mistakes. If they recognise that and openly agree to correct them things will be fine. If they get all defensive then we are back to business as usual.
I can only be optimistic in the short term about the changes in our practices and behaviour that might ensue. If I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.
I wish Kris Brown best wishes in this important job. I’m sure that he will do it well not for the Lib Dem Group but for the Council as a whole and ultimately for the people of Liverpool.