St Helens Conservative councillor questions appointment of leader as scrutiny committee chairman

Council leader David Baines
Council leader David Baines

A Conservative councillor has questioned the appointment of the leader of St Helens Council as chairman of a vital scrutiny committee.

Labour’s David Baines was sworn in as leader of the council at its annual general meeting last month.

Coun Baines, who previously chaired the overview and scrutiny commission, was also unanimously voted in as chairman of the council’s audit and governance committee.

However, when the audit and governance committee met last week, Conservative councillor Rob Reynolds questioned this decision.

The Rainford councillor, who is a chartered accountant, said the council would essentially be “marking its own homework”.

Coun Reynolds said: “The role of the committee is to scrutinise the performance of the council.

“And it’s not just about being fair and objective but appearing to be fair and objective.

“And having the person in charge of the council in charge of scrutinising the performance of the council is something I think many people would see as a cause for concern.”

Caroline Barlow, deputy director for finance and HR, said it is the case that some local authorities appoint an independent chairman, but said the council does not take this approach.

She added that it has worked “quite successfully” to date.

Deputy council leader Sue Murphy said she did not think there was “any problem whatsoever” with the council leader chairing the meeting,

Coun Murphy, cabinet member for developing young people, said it had never been raised as an issue previously.

She later said that it is “really important” the council has strong governance and said the leader of the council is able to provide that.

Long-standing Liberal Democrat councillor Geoff Pearl said in the past opposition councillors chaired scrutiny panels.

However, he said this became “no longer feasible” as the number of opposition councillors went down.

Coun Pearl said he had no problem with Coun Baines chairing the committee.

Labour’s Joe Pearson, cabinet member for protecting young people, said the audit and governance committee has been chaired by the leader of the council for a “considerable amount of time”.

Coun Pearson said: “Never during my time as a member of this committee has there been any concern expressed by any member, of any party as to the impartiality and the competence of the leader of the council to chair it.”

Coun Reynolds insisted he was not trying to make a partisan point.

“I think such arrangements are rare in the private and public sector where somebody is essentially marking their own homework,” Coun Reynolds said.

“And again, no reflection intended on Coun Baines personally.”

Coun Baines said that if the Conservative group want to make suggestions as to who the chair of the committee should be, it should be done at next year’s annual council meeting.

“The right place to bring up the chair is at annual council,” Coun Baines said.

“And last week my appointment as chair of this committee was approved at annual council by every member present, including members of your own group.”