Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A special meeting of Finance and Resources Scrutiny Committee

This blog entry is not going to be very well read, I realise that, the technicalities of scrutiny will leave most people cold, and even the most enthusiastic of scrutineers will find Finance not really to their taste, but that was the subject under discussion this evening. However, for the tiny few anoraks in the blogosphere who might be interested, I thought I would say a few things about tonight's committee meeting.

We held another special meeting of the Finance and Resources Scrutiny Committee on Liverpool City Council, which I chair.

Its purpose was to look at the next round of proposed budget cuts in some detail. This municipal year for the first time in my memory, although surely not for the first time in history, budget decisions have been scrutinised and brought to council in a staged way, rather than all at once at the end of the year in March. This means that we have been agreeing the cuts we need to make as a council in stages, easiest first, in order to balance the books, and to work out how the dramatically decreasing cake can be most fairly shared out. This will give council officers (the staff) the opportunity to start to plan cuts (I refuse to call them "savings") as soon as possible,  so helping our partners and ourselves to be as prepared as possible.

Tonight was our second special meeting, we held one on December 5th too. It was agreed after discussion with my committee clerks and with the Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources, Councillor Paul Brant who it is our role to scrutinise that we hold this meeting in the Town Hall to facilitate the maximum possible attendance. It is a much bigger venue than the committee rooms we usually use in Millenium House on Victoria Street.

Unusually, we invited all 90 councillors in case they wanted to get into detail ahead of the Full council tomorrow, and we anticipated some keen members of the public and those in campaign groupings to perhaps also come to hear more of what they could expect tomorrow. But really I suspected that most people would prefer to turn up tomorrow night to a much more charged atmosphere where decisions would be made rather than picked through, and in the end that was pretty much the case. We could have managed in our usual room, but at least we facilitated their opportunity, should they have wanted to take it up.

For those of you who operate outside of the minutae of Local Government, a scrutiny committee meeting is designed to be an opportunity for councillors and members of the public to pick over the options and suggest alternatives, to ask questions and to draw the maximum understanding of the detail before we go into the council meeting.

The difference between the two meetings is that tonight gave councillors the chance to ask simple questions and engage in a one-to-one with the Cabinet Member for Finance, the Leader and the Finance team, where in the Full Council meetings, only a limited number of people can speak because of sheer numbers and they tend to make political speeches rather than ask about line three of the table at paragraph 2.4 etc.

Generally speaking a Scrutiny Committee meeting should be apolitical, or at least polite, and there should be no grandstanding, it is an opportunity to probe and question and challenge the detail rather than to point fingers. But it is inevitable that on such a huge issue as massive cuts to public services, passions will be raised and some of the contributors do blur those boundaries. Obviously above all things, councillors are politicians and this is a very political subject, deciding what needs to be cut and what might be cut instead, so tempers do sometimes flare, but attendees do try to keep it measured and so it was tonight by and large.

What was interesting for me was that because the meeting was held in the Town Hall, rather than the usual committee rooms, we were very tempted on several occasions to fall into Town Hall mode. So there were a few moments when I had to remind members and myself that we were not in a council meeting, despite the Leader of the Council accidentally calling me "Lord Mayor" at one point. The Lord Mayor - who chairs all meetings of the full council, was present in the chamber at that point and we exchanged grins.

So there was a bit of a muddle about whether we were taking amendments and counter amendments and addendums, but then attendees (and I) were able to grasp that we were not debating, we were discussing and we managed to stay broadly on track. Thank heavens for being sandwiched between my Deputy, Councillor Pam Thomas and Dave Jones, the Committee Clerk, so that we could keep whispering to each other about the right way to progress...

I do find chairing these meetings a bit of a challenge sometimes. Not by any means because of the subject matter, passions can and should rise at the Full Council meetings, and believe me they do beat strongly within me on those occasions, but because councillors need to be facilitated and supported into feeling that scrutiny is a real opportunity to delve, and to feel the confidence to do that. And that is not always easy. Sometimes it becomes a little heated and I feel my chin dropping towards my chest.

The ordinary business of the committee is very easy to deal with, it is the novel and the new that can be more tricky. I could understand in my own mind how it was sensible to invite the councillors of the opposition parties to talk about the budget amendments that they planned to introduce at the Full Council tomorrow and to use those alternatives as an opportunity to engage in the discussion about the options on the table. But I found it hard to articulate that in a way that everyone would understand and buy into so there was a bit of confusion in places.

As a new Chair I clearly need more lessons and I am actively seeking that out.

Anyway the good news is that nobody died and we all came out of the meeting hopefully feeling that we had ample chance to ask whatever we needed to ask, or to delve into those areas that merited it.

I still wish I was the Chair of my lovely City and North Liverpool Neighbourhood Committee instead, but I am siezing the thorny, prickly holly bush of scrutiny all the same.

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