Labour could back Tories' bid for more scrutiny of Sunderland's children's services
Sunderland's Liberal Democrats have been accused of shirking their responsibility to help improve the city's struggling children's services.
Labour and Conservatives councillors have both condemned the opposition party after it chose to leave its seat on the children, education and skills scrutiny committee vacant.
It comes after its representative on the panel, Coun Stephen O’Brien, resigned in protest at the chairmanship of Labour’s Coun Pat Smith – despite having failed to attend a single meeting of the body since being appointed to it in May.
Now, the Conservatives have argued they should be allowed to take up Coun O’Brien’s seat.
And they have been backed by Coun Michael Mordey, the Labour Party’s deputy leader of the council.
He said: “If the Lib Dems will abdicate their responsibilities, as it’s an opposition seat I can see no reason why that shouldn’t be taken by another opposition member.”
He added: “As an executive member I have to be careful in meddling with scrutiny, but we always welcome a probing scrutiny function and that requires a full committee.”
The Conservatives have also raised objections to Coun Smith heading the scrutiny panel, as she was the lead councillor responsible for children’s service in 2015, went the department received its first damning Ofsted inspection.
A report released last month found some improvements, but still rated the service ‘inadequate’ overall.
Conservative leader Robert Oliver said: “The Liberal Democrats are not doing their duty as opposition councillors by walking away from Together for Children at the very time opposition councillors need to be involved, asking questions and challenging the council.
“Sunderland Conservatives have always opposed the appointment of Councillor Pat Smith to the chair of the committee, as she is now in charge of examining mistakes that were made when she was responsible for children’s services.”
“The vacant seat on the committee should be given to a Conservative councillor who, unlike the Liberal Democrats, will do what the people of the city expect and turn up to meetings and offer a strong opposition.”
Council rules currently prevent the Conservatives from taking over the vacant seat – even though the Lib Dems have said they will not fill it in the foreseeable future.
A requirement to maintain political balance means the full council would need to agree to override the regulations to permit a non-Liberal to take their place on the panel.
And the minority opposition party have not said they would necessarily support such a change.
Lib Dem leader Niall Hodson said: “The Conservatives seem to be satisfied with the status quo in Sunderland’s children’s services.
“We are not, and we don’t think there is going to be any progress in this struggling department until there is some real accountability and the politicians who have overseen its failure are removed from the scrutiny committee.”
James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporting Service