Scrutiny review panel “satisfied” councilors and council officers acted appropriately

A scrutiny review group is “satisfied” with the process that led Perth and Kinross Council to petition for a judicial review of the Scottish Ministers’ call-in notice for Abernyte Primary School.

The review was conducted in private by five members of the council’s Scrutiny Committee.

The Scrutiny Committee will meet publicly on Monday, April 25 to discuss the findings of its review group.

In a report published this week ahead of Monday’s meeting, the review group concluded it was “satisfied” due process was followed.

The group heard from three council officers – PKC’s head of legal and governance service, a legal manager and the executive director of Education and Children’s Service – and Lifelong Learning Committee convener Cllr Caroline Shiers and council leader Murray Lyle. The review group heard from them over the course of seven meetings in sessions totaling approximately three hours.

The report said: “It may be viewed as a relatively comprehensive form of a light review.”

The group – led by the scrutiny committee’s convener Sheila McCole (SNP) – comprised fellow SNP councilors Andrew Parrott and Ian Massie and Conservative councilors Frank Smith and David Illingworth.

In November 2021 PKC’s Scrutiny Committee voted to hold the review panels in private “to allow more openness”.

Labor Carse of Gowrie councillor Alasdair Bailey – who attended the November meeting as a substitute – was “really concerned” the sessions were not open to the public and press for scrutiny.

Putting forward an urgent motion for the meetings to be held in public – seconded by Conservative councilor Colin Stewart – he said: “It would be a shame if we could not do this in a transparent and accountable way.”

They were voted out by nine votes to two and the meetings have been conducted over the past few months behind closed doors.

SNP councilor Sheila McCole – who agrees to the scrutiny committee – told councilors holding the sessions privately “allows more time and flexibility” and “allows more openness.”

The findings of the review group will be presented to the Scrutiny Committee on Monday.

In August 2020 the Lifelong Learning Committee was presented with a full report of the decision process which led to the committee voting to close Abernyte Primary School, the Scottish Government then calling in the decision and PKC then petitioning a judicial review of the call-in notice .

The judicial review cost amounted to £96,838 from the public purse – due to the council being able to reclaim VAT.

Supreme court judge Lady Wise did not uphold the council’s legal challenge and the Scottish Ministers’ call-in notice remained in force with the council decision to close Abernyte Primary School overturned.

Lifelong Learning Committee agreed Caroline Shiers recommended the PKC report of the decision process be referred to PKC’s Scrutiny Committee who then decided to conduct a review.

Following this week’s publication of the review panel’s report Cllr Shiers said: “I am pleased that this paper will be considered at the final Scrutiny Committee of the 2017-2022 council term.

“I proposed the recommendation in the paper that came to Lifelong Learning in August 2020 and had been concerned that the review would not be concluded before the end of the council session.

“The cross-party members of the Scrutiny Review have concluded that both officers and elected members acted appropriately in relation to the decision to petition for a judicial review of the Scottish Ministers’ call-in notice in relation to Abernyte Primary School. I welcome this conclusion.

“In my role as agreed, I have always ensured that decisions were taken based on evidence and legal advice was sought where needed to ensure that we complied with all the legislative requirements which are, quite rightly, placed on us. No elected member or officer ever takes these decisions lightly.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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