What is overview and scrutiny?

Find out how we make sure that the decisions we and other local public bodies take are being taken in your best interests. 

Scrutiny (sometimes called overview and scrutiny) is a process whereby councillors who are not the council’s executive can play an influential role in the shaping of policy and decisions that will have a real benefit on behalf of the community they represent.

The process involves scrutiny committees monitoring performance, reviewing and evaluating services, questioning decision and plans made by the council’s executive, listening to the concerns of local people, and where appropriate making recommendations for action and change.

Four key roles for overview and scrutiny are:

  1. Holding executive, individual cabinet members and chief officers to account and ensuring corporate priorities are met
  2. Policy development and review
  3. External scrutiny, such as health care providers
  4. Performance management and best value

Overview and scrutiny committees were established in English and Welsh local authorities by the Local Government Act 2000. They were intended as a counterweight to the new executive structures created by that Act (elected mayors or leaders and cabinets). Their role was to develop and review policy and make recommendations to the council.

Today, the legislative provisions for overview and scrutiny committees for England can be found in the Localism Act 2011. Local authorities also manage processes of ‘external scrutiny’, where their committees look at issues which lie outside the council’s responsibilities, with specific powers to scrutinise health bodies, community safety partnerships, and Police and Crime Commissioners.

The powers and functions of overview and scrutiny committees, include:

  • Any member of an overview and scrutiny committee has the right to refer a relevant matter to the committee in England. This provision does not apply to matters concerned with planning and licensing, or to “any matter which is vexatious, discriminatory or not reasonable to be included in the agenda”; Overview and scrutiny committees may hold inquiries and produce reports. Meetings are subject to the normal rules for public admission;
  • Overview and scrutiny committees have the power to ‘call in’ decisions made by their executives. They may then review a decision and recommend that the council reconsiders it. This power is normally defined to ‘key decisions’, which are defined in law. The Government guidance implies that call-in would be expected to be used as a last resort when other methods of engagement have failed. Councils will normally specify a window of time after a decision during which this power can be exercised, and a minimum number of councillors to exercise it (for example, five councillors from at least two political parties); Committees may require executive members and officers of the authority to appear before them. Individuals from outside the council can be invited, but not compelled, to attend;
  • Overview and scrutiny reports must receive a response from the council executive within two months;
  • Overview and scrutiny committees cannot oblige either the executive, the council or external bodies to act upon their findings;
  • Each authority must appoint at least one ‘scrutiny officer’.

Source Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government, House of Commons Briefing Paper, 27th June 2019.