Chief executive slaps down charge that scrutiny of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority ‘starting to sound a little bit like North Korea’

Scrutiny committee of the Combined Authority found itself arguing over political proportionality. On

Scrutiny committee of the Combined Authority found itself arguing over political proportionality. One Labour councillor drew a parallel with North Korea but he was criticised by senior officers for not understanding the role of scrutiny in the organisation. Picture; ROBERT ALEXANDER - Credit: Archant

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s scrutiny committee, which questions the goings-on of the authority and the mayor, became the subject of scrutiny itself last week.

Councillors returned to the Combined Authority for the first time since the elections, with the political make-up of the county changed, and the authority's make-up changed as a result.

Councillors were assigned to committees, and new members took their places for the first time, with not all of the old guard so fortunate.

But it was on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee where the changes caused the most controversy, along with guidance issued to members.

The Conservatives lost seats across the county in the election, with their representation falling from 52 to 45 per cent. Opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats, increased their seat numbers, and the number of independents winning seats also rose.

But the proportionality of committee seats is allocated based on political party representation, and so the Conservatives retained their majority in the Combined Authority and its committees.

Opposition parties were unhappy with some of the finer points of the calculations, including former chair and strong critic of the mayor, Liberal Democrat councillor Lucy Nethsingha, who lost her place.

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She claimed she only found out on Wednesday (May 29) - the day the make-up of the committee was agreed by the board.

The authority's monitoring officer said rules on party proportionality were followed. He said in the case of Cllr Nethsingha losing her place, that decision was "based on logic" to give each party and each authority proportional representation on the committee.

Despite no longer having a place on the committee Cllr Nethsingha, now also an MEP, still made an appearance at its first newly formed meeting on Friday (May 31), acting as its first guest speaker.

She said: "I have been very concerned over the last month about the way in which this committee is being handled and the way in which the proportionality of this committee has been calculated.

"It took a long time for that [the final political proportionality on the committee] to come out.

"I am very very concerned that this committee is effectively being gerrymandered and silenced by the way in which this has been managed.

"Over the past year I have worked very hard with the members who were on this committee to try and make sure that it scrutinised the mayor properly - one of the ways that needs to happen is by having continuity of membership so members can understand the issues."

After the meeting she said there has been "significant changes" to the way the membership has been calculated.

The allocation was also questioned at the board meeting by leader of Cambridge City Council, Labour's Lewis Herbert. He said he respected the rules but questioned the fairness of the Conservatives losing seats in the council elections but not on the Combined Authority, and urged the independents to form a group.

Mayor James Palmer said it was a "baseless attack" and "necessitates once again another response through the media to vague, distorted claims".

"The position in regards to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee is quite clear," he said "and its membership is based purely on rules set down in legislation.

"The notion from Cllr Nethsingha that this is gerrymandered is yet another pathetic claim and cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. We have a fully functioning, energetic Overview and Scrutiny Committee, reflective of the political balance of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and it has a vitally important role to play in making the Combined Authority's work better."

The other development at the Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting to raise eyebrows was information provided on what the group's role is and how it might change.

"Scrutiny at the Combined Authority needs to be light touch and streamlined," it said, in a section titled "ways forward".

Conservative councillor Grenville Chamberlain said: "Frankly I couldn't disagree more with that - I think it needs to be robust. Phrases like light touch and streamlined, I think, is completely inappropriate."

"That did rather jump out to me," the new chair of the committee, Liberal Democrat Lorna Dupre responded.

Labour City councillor Kevin Price agreed with Cllr Chamberlain, and said the proposal for the "Overview and Scrutiny Committee to be more complimentary in their role" was "starting to sound a little bit like North Korea". He said: "We are here to scrutinise."

Referring to the line "The role of scrutiny is not just 'to hold the Mayor to account' - there is a general assumption that this is likely to be ineffective," Cllr Price jokingly said he would "grant you that," but added more seriously "that does not mean we shouldn't be doing it".

But joint chief executive Kim Sawyer defended the document, saying: "The words 'light touch' actually come from the centre of public scrutiny guidance."

A lighter touch, she said, was backed by a government review of public scrutiny.

And she paraphrased a point she said was raised by Ed Hammond, a director of the centre for public scrutiny, saying there are "certain traps" scrutiny committees on combined authorities fall into when they are made up of members from local authorities, such as with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

She continued to paraphrase, saying it is a strategic authority and does not deliver services like local authorities, which is one "significant difference".

She said: "As a strategic authority, therefore your role should be, he [Mr Hammond] suggests, to mirror that strategic role which means that light touch approach.

"The trap to fall into, I think he [Mr Hammond] said, is to sit on the heels of the mayor and try to question every decision that the mayor is making and think that robust scrutiny is actually to call into question everyone of those decisions, and not really look at what your role is, which is how are we as a scrutiny committee adding value to the work being done in this new strategic approach to delivery of economic growth across our area."

Cllr Nethsingha commented afterwards that, together with the changes to the committee's membership, the "advice in the training for new members that scrutiny should be 'light touch', does bring into question whether the mayor and Combined Authority are really behaving in the open and transparent way we expect of organisations which are spending large amounts of taxpayers' money".