Over the years, the Commission’s key role in providing assurance that councils were spending public money correctly went largely unnoticed.
But it made headlines in the 1980s as an intermediary in sometimes highly politicised disputes between the Scottish Secretary and councils. It sought to use powers under the 1973 Act to require local authorities not to act outwith their powers such as in making payments to single miners during the 1983/84 strike or in Edinburgh District Council using public money for “political” publicity in its Improving Services, Creating Jobs campaign.
The Commission’s stance was undermined by the Scottish Office not seeking to recover “surcharges” and rulings against it by the Court of Session such as when Grampian Regional Council won a case in 1994 over contributions it had made to the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly.
The 1990s were characterised by more reorganisation (abolition of the regional councils), additional powers for the Commission (such as auditing the NHS in Scotland) and finally the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and a new body, Audit Scotland, to provide services both to the Commission and the new post of Auditor General.
From 2000 its work broadened, not simply in financial reporting but also from 2003 to ensure councils were meeting their statutory duty to secure Best Value and seek continuous improvement. This replaced the previous and controversial obligation on public bodies to contract out services to the private sector.
In recent years, it has come into public focus through national reports on local government responsibilities such as school education in 2014 and monitoring the impact of community planning partnerships
At a local level, it has invoked its rarely-used sanction of holding public hearings to get to the heart of serious failings in particular councils such as West Dunbartonshire (2006), Aberdeen (2008) and Shetland (2011). The usual result has been councils getting back to delivering much improved and more efficient key services to their communities and a return of public confidence in local government.
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