Horsham District Council’s cabinet has come under fire for its independence and influence outside public meetings.
Independent councillor David Sheldon (Denne) has claimed an email exchange involving leader Ray Dawe revealed the cabinet ‘considers itself above scrutiny’.
The exchange followed a meeting of the Scrutiny and Overview committee’s Social Inclusion Working Group about HDC’s provision for people in financial hardship.
Chairman Kate Rowbottom (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley) said the group had had a ‘very constructive meeting’ but concerns by some Tory members caused her to ask Mr Dawe if it were better to ‘stop and reconsider’.
In the thread shown to The County Times he gives his view while stating that as leader it was ‘absolutely not my call as regards anything scrutiny members choose to do’.
He writes: “It is that beyond anything the council has to do (ie the statutory), while it may be relatively easy to come up with a topic that someone may feel is interesting to examine, there should always be assessment of the amount of member (time and mileage cost) and council resource (time spent by officers) that would be consumed by going down any particular avenue measured against the outcome (ie the benefit of gain) for the local taxpayer.”
He adds members should consider if it ‘would in reality make any difference or enable us to change anything’.
What concerned Mr Sheldon was not Mr Dawe’s view, but the principle of openness.
He said: “Whilst it is true to say there is no protocol to say that Scrutiny should be free of party influence, I’m certain that discussions on Scrutiny issues take place in political group meetings. This email exchange re-emphasises the level to which the cabinet at HDC considers itself above scrutiny.
“In this particular case the review in question was not one of policy nor one that might have an impact on the finances of the district council but a broad view across the work that both the council and its partners undertake in supporting members of our local communities who are in financial crisis.
“The main Scrutiny committee had discussed this and agreed it would be a good topic to review and it had also been discussed twice at the Social Inclusion Working Group and yet still the leader was seeking to stop the work taking place.
“He is effectively saying that the review is not worth doing because it won’t find out anything new and that HDC won’t do anything different about it even if they do.”
He added it made ‘a mockery’ of the process of Scrutiny.
An HDC spokesman said: “The role of Scrutiny is to act as a ‘sister’ committee to the council’s cabinet.
“The role is described in guidance as that of a ‘critical friend’. One of the main functions of the scrutiny committee is to help shape policy by making recommendations to the cabinet to take forward.
“There is no protocol to say that a scrutiny committee should be free of party influence and whilst members of the cabinet should not sit on the scrutiny committee there is nothing preventing members of the committee sounding out cabinet or even cabinet members attending and giving their views to the scrutiny committee.”