Some thoughts on ECC Standing Order 17 – Scrutiny of Executive Resolution (Call-In)

While researching the Exeter “Conventions” that were discussed at a Special Executive meeting and an Extraordinary Council meeting this week, I refreshed my knowledge of our Constitution, which sets out how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people. Some of these processes are required by the law, while others are a matter for the Council to choose.

In particular I’ve been studying Standing Orders, and with specific reference to ‘call-in’ of Executive decisions – Standing Order 17

(a) A special meeting of a relevant Scrutiny Committee shall be called to consider a decision made by an Executive Committee or Executive member published in accordance with Standing Order 13(1) provided the reasons for Call-In fall within the criteria set out in paragraph 5 of the Executive Procedure Rules.
(b) Any such Call-In shall require notice in writing delivered to the Corporate Manager Democratic/Civic Support not later than 10.00 am 5 days after publication of the decision by at least one third of the Members of that Committee.

(2) The special meeting must normally take place within 5 working days of receipt of such notice.

(3) The Chair of that meeting may call the appropriate Executive member/s and/or officer/s of the Council to attend to answer any questions regarding the matter called in for scrutiny.

(4) A member of the Scrutiny Committee may ask any Executive member with relevant portfolio any question on an item which has been called in under Standing Order 17(3).

(5) After consideration of a decision, the Scrutiny Committee may:-
(a) resolve to take no further action.
(b) refer the matter back to the Executive for reconsideration, setting out in writing the reason for its request.
(c) refer the matter to Council who may refer the decision back to the Executive for reconsideration setting out in writing the reasons for its request. (Amended April 2014)
Provided always that where the decision is required to be made by the Executive, the Executive may or may not amend its decision.

(a) Where notice in accordance with Standing Order 17(1) is not delivered to the Corporate Manager Democratic/Civic Support, any decision made by the Executive and/or officer with delegated authority for a key decision shall be final.
(b) A decision made by the Executive and/or officer with delegated authority for a key decision may only be called in once for re-consideration.
(c) The Call-In procedure set out in this Standing Order shall not apply:-
(i) to any report/item already considered by the appropriate Scrutiny Committee prior to the decision being made by the Executive or officer with delegated authority for a key decision; or
(ii) where the decision taken is urgent.
A decision is urgent where the interests of the Council or public require immediate action and any delay caused by the call in process would prejudice the interests of the Council or the public.

The call-in procedure is a provision of the Local Government Act (2000) which allows the appropriate Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC) to compel the Executive to reconsider any decision by its members, or a key decision by an officer of the council (limited in some authorities to non-urgent decisions, and decisions outside the policy framework or budget) made but not yet implemented, of which it considers there to be compelling grounds for review. Intended to be used only “in exceptional circumstances”, the procedure is seen as a last resort through which an OSC and/or councillors may demand scrutiny of a decision they believe to be contrary to the authority’s decision making principles (Article 13 of theAct). As such it is a mechanism which necessarily causes delay, and can be confrontational in nature. In practice, however, it has been little used.” [Centre for Public Scrutiny, Research Report The Call-in Procedure March 2006].

Call-in provides a mechanism for councillors to intervene when they feel that a decision being made by the executive needs to be revisited (or possibly changed). It provides a key check and balance in the leader/cabinet system of governance – a long-stop that, in theory, prevents the overweening exercise of power by Cabinet.

It should, however, be regarded as a measure that is only needed in exceptional circumstances, rather than day-to-day. It sits in the context of a range of other tools at scrutiny’s disposal to influence decision-making.

At the Executive meeting, new-elected Cllr John Harvey (CON, Alphington) made his maiden speech and pointed out that Under Standing Order 17, a third of the members of any Scrutiny Committee could secure a call-in on a decision of the Executive. Such a call-in could only be achieved with the backing of a third of Scrutiny Committee Members. With Scrutiny Committees having 13 Members and, as the opposition had no more than four Members of any of the Scrutiny Committees, it would be impossible for them to secure the necessary Members for a call-in of any Executive decision.

I too have an unease at the method of ‘call-in’ as no Scrutiny committee has the requisite number of opposition members to ‘call-in’ a decision of Executive.

Hopefully this should not be a serious problem, as most Executive decisions are subject to a discussion at a Scrutiny meeting prior to that decision being made. I would expect that this process would help identify other potential avenues for members to make their concerns known, without needing to resort to call-in.

However, if the opposition members of Scrutiny:Resources feel that an Executive decision relating to that committee’s remit  needs to be called-in, I make this offer – as Chair of Scrutiny: Resources I will give the benefit of doubt to those councillors and sign the necessary paperwork.

But to be clear,  I would hope that opposition members bringing call-ins should put some thought into why they are doing it.

I would expect that call-in is used responsibly – it is important that the call-in cannot be invoked too easily in terms of the justification specified for the call-in.

The call-in should NOT be invoke solely to cause political embarrassment –  there really should be a pressing and urgent need to call a decision in rather than just political disagreement.  To me, “to get the decision quashed” is not really acceptable except in exceptional circumstances. The councillors would need to demonstrate that the initial decision if potential flawed in some way.

Examples of suggested criteria for call-in are set on on p22 of CfPS Party Politic and Scrutiny in Local Governement: Clearing the hurdles:
– decision outside the policy/budgetary framework
– inadequate consultation relating to the decision
– relevant information not considered
– viable alternative not considered
– justification for the decision open to challenge on the basis of evidence considered

The same document suggests that it is for Monitoring Officer to assess whether the justification is valid, with the benefit of doubt being given to those submitting the request.

So with a spirit of openness and transparency, I will re-iterate that offer:
As Chair of Scrutiny: ResourcesI will give the benefit of doubt to opposition councillors who can show a valid reason for a call-in and sign the necessary paperwork 

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