Independent and Conservative politicians have criticised Labour for appointing its own councillors to chair scrutiny panels.
Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association leader Cllr Mick Saunders is annoyed about the move after Labour’s mayor Chris Cooke told ITV News he wanted to “make sure chair of scrutiny [panels] were completely divided across the political spectrum”.
However, Mr Cooke defended Labour’s actions and said it was a longer-term change that needed to happen.
Following the local elections at the start of May, Labour now has a majority with 25 councillors plus the mayor. There are now 15 Independents, four Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats.
Cllr Saunders said: “Scrutiny is a vital tool for good governance. However, scrutiny of Labour by Labour is not going to work, as seen at the first full council... where Labour took every chair and vice chair position. In fact, one Labour councillor (Cllr Julia Rostron) took four chair places.
“We wonder why the new Mayor was unable to deliver on this simple election promise. It would seem that he was immediately blocked by more senior members of the Labour Group as this did not meet with their approval or it’s an election promise U-turn.”
Cllr Rostron was elected for four chair positions, plus chair of the council, but only one of those is a scrutiny panel. All of Labour’s councillors voted for her to lead the health scrutiny panel going forward.
Conservative Cllr Mieka Smiles, who was ousted as deputy mayor earlier this month, has also joined the calls for opposition scrutiny chairs.
She said: “Despite the mayor promising during his campaign to work with all political groups, last night the Labour group voted to keep every key scrutiny position at the council to themselves.
“It means that scrutiny and governance at the council have been weakened with immediate effect. This is despite improvement in these areas being of ongoing concern to the Government, which is watching us very closely.”
During the last four years under the former Independent mayor Andy Preston, Independent and Conservative councillors secured the scrutiny chair positions for themselves.
Mr Cooke said: “It’s a longer-term constitutional change that will come…I told members prior that I doubt it would be achieved on [Wednesday] night.”
He added that the system was changed under Mr Preston so scrutiny chairs were chosen at a vote at full council rather than at the scrutiny panel meeting itself.
He wants to change back to the previous system so scrutiny panels could hear about councillors’ backgrounds and experiences to pick the best person for the job at the meeting.
He went on to say: “I think we are getting back to this combative way we need to get away from.”
However, since scrutiny panels will be balanced towards Labour as the largest party, it means that the party could still choose to keep all of its own members as chairs.
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At Wednesday’s full council meeting, the first since the local elections, politicians voted for chairs and vice chairs of the council committees and scrutiny panels.
Notable chair appointments include former Labour group leader Cllr Matt Storey on the Overview and Scrutiny Board, Cllr Linda Lewis on the Licensing Committee, Cllr Rostron on the Planning Committee and Cllr John Kabuye on the Standards Committee.
Councillors also voted to appoint local authority officer Debbie Middleton, the newly appointed interim director of finance as the section 151 officer, the position that assumes responsibility for the council’s financial affairs.