Political moves imperil scrutiny

27th March 2009 at 00:00

Attempts to reduce the burden of inspection faced by Scottish public bodies are being compromised by Government ministers, according to the chair of the Accounts Commission.

John Baillie conceded last week that political moves, such as the creation by Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon of the new Care Environment Inspectorate to scrutinise hospital action on MRSA and similar infectious diseases, could affect the drive to consolidate scrutiny bodies.

"It presents difficulties when trying to measure the effect of going through phases of reduction if we are simply replacing them with others," he told delegates at a conference in Edinburgh, Scrutiny Scotland: Improving Inspections and Monitoring by Public Sector Agencies.

Nevertheless, inspection agencies would begin to take a more co-ordinated approach this year, in line with recommendations by the Crerar review of 2007, which was tasked with reducing the burden of public scrutiny.

That said, the "sheer volume of change involved" meant it was unlikely to be a "big bang", said Mr Baillie, whose organisation has responsibility for implementing some of the key Crerar recommendations. It would instead be a "steady progressive reduction" in scrutiny.

Any moves to streamline the level of scrutiny in the education sector will be welcomed by headteachers and education directors, who told the Crerar review that over-inspection was drawing away scarce resources from the delivery of frontline services.

Last week, Bernadette Malone, chief executive of Perth and Kinross Council, echoed that message when she said the burden of scrutiny made some council chief executives feel they were "under siege".

Ms Malone, who is also vice-chair of SOLACE Scotland (the Scottish branch of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers), warned that over the next five to 10 years, budgets would "flatline" and the services being inspected could be under threat from reduced funding.

"It is going to become increasingly difficult to maintain the front-line level - teachers, social workers, housing and key functions people depend upon," she said.

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