Claims some West Sussex backbench councillors ‘idle’ and ‘coasting’

West Sussex County Council's council chamber
West Sussex County Council's council chamber

Some backbench county councillors in West Sussex have been described as ‘idle’ and ‘coasting’, according to one Tory member.

A review of scrutiny arrangements at West Sussex County Council is due to be carried out in light of a damning report into children’s services.

The service was rated inadequate by Ofsted last month and a commissioner has been appointed by the Department for Education to monitor improvements.

Scrutiny came in for criticism from the inspectors, who described the process as not ‘sufficiently rigorous’.

The report said: “Consequently, chronic instability at all levels of the organisation, poor practice and a culture of noncompliance is evident.

“This leaves children at continued risk of significant harm and with their needs unmet.”

On Monday, the governance committee agreed to set up a seven-member standing panel to review scrutiny arrangements at the council, taking into account new national guidance and best practice to improve effectiveness.

Several councillors suggested the scrutiny committees were ‘overloaded with data’ and welcomed the idea of inviting more expert witnesses to present evidence.

Louise Goldsmith, leader of the council, said it was clear scrutiny was not quite working right ‘for whatever reason’.

Both Labour’s Michael Jones and Lib Dem James Walsh felt the major scrutiny committees would benefit from having some opposition chairmen, rather than them all being from the controlling Tory group.

Mr Jones (Lab, Southgate and Gossops Green) argued this was ‘fundamental to changing the culture of this council’.

Dr Walsh, leader of the Lib Dem group, described how committee chairmanships have been used as a ‘tool of political patronage’.

It was also suggested chairmanships were used as stepping stones for eventual promotion to the cabinet.

Bill Acraman (Con, Worth Forest) said: “The perception is there is a chain of promotion and a chairman of a select committee is a corporal waiting for a promotion to sergeant and goes into the cabinet. That is a reality, that does happen.”

Referring to the children’s services report and the inspection of the fire and rescue service, Mr Acraman said the council was ‘in trouble’ and had some ‘very serious problems’.

He felt that too many backbench councillors were ‘coasting’, adding: “There are some idle backbenchers out there.”

Janet Duncton (Con, Petworth), chairman of the council, replied: “We only have a certain amount of power or clout to persuade everyone to work as hard as we do.”

The standing panel is set to report back to the governance committee in November, with a view to recommendations being adopted by full council at the end of 2019.

However for Dr Walsh (LDem, Littlehampton East) this timetable was too slow and he proposed the panel report to governance in late September instead.

This proposal was defeated by Tory members who felt this was too tight to allow input from an all-member day scheduled for early September to be included.

Richard Burrett (Con, Pound Hill), cabinet member for education and skills, said: “You will not get scrutiny right by rushing a report and rushing recommendations.”

Mrs Goldsmith denied the suggestion she was ‘kicking the can down the road’ as they were now in late June, while some officers and members would be unavailable for parts of August.

She explained: “It’s urgent but I’m just bearing in mind a few realities.”

Meanwhile Bob Lanzer (Con, Maidenbower), cabinet member for corporate relations, pointed out how alongside the scrutiny review the council also had to focus on improving children’s services and fire and rescue.

He added: “I think it’s a reasonable schedule.”