The Centre for Public Scrutiny describes local government scrutiny as an independent function led by local elected councillors that works with local people and other local bodies to help improve services. Scrutiny committees make recommendations to the council's ‘executive’ (the Leader and Cabinet) and others to bring about these improvements.
Essex County Council has four scrutiny committees:
These committees are chiefly made up of elected county councillors and are composed so as to reflect the political proportions of the council as a whole. However, they are expected to operate independently of party politics.
Much of their work is done by smaller 'task and finish' groups of councillors which report back to the main committees. In either case, a scrutiny exercise broadly consists of the committee deciding what subject to look at, gathering evidence and investigating the matter through research, workshops and written or spoken reports, and pulling the findings together into a public report to the committee.
Scrutiny committees' reports usually include recommendations to members of the executive or other local bodies (for example, in the case of the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, to commissioners or providers of local health services).
These recipients are expected to respond to those recommendations indicating whether and how they will do something differently as a result. The committee will usually track what actions are taken as a result of any recommendations which are agreed.
Scrutiny committees usually conduct scrutiny on a topic either in advance of a related decision (to try and influence it) or sometime afterwards (to monitor how it turned out). However, they can also occasionally be asked to look at a topic during the decision process, through a ‘call-in’.
When a decision is made by the cabinet or a cabinet member, there follows a three-day window during which it can be ‘called in’ by a member of the scrutiny committee. If this happens, the decision is halted for up to 10 days until that call-in has been either withdrawn or dealt with at a meeting of the relevant scrutiny committee. The committee cannot overturn the decision, but they can refer it back to the decision makers for a second look.
For more information on how call-ins work see the ECC constitution. Where a decision has been brought to a committee due to a call-in, you will see this marked on the table of scrutiny topics.
For more detail about how scrutiny works in Essex County Council you can consult the council’s constitution which specifies the committees’ responsibilities, remit and procedures.
Scrutiny functions at district and borough councils in Essex