In some ways councils are subjected to some pretty robust scrutiny. Although local newspapers have declined, the army of tweeters and bloggers are probably even more challenging. The greatest achievement of the Labour Government under Tony Blair (and which he regards as his greatest failing) was the Freedom of Information Act. It has been used with impressive results by such outfits as the Taxpayers Alliance. Then, under the Coalition Government we had an array of transparency requirements – notably on town hall spending – giving rise to the era of armchair auditors.
However, the effectiveness of the formal process of scrutiny committees is another matter – and one which the MPs Communities and Local Government Select Committee has recently reported on – an exercising in scrutinising the scrutineers.
The Committee’s Chairman, the Labour MP, Clive Betts, began one session of their deliberations by asking Marcus Jones, the then Local Government Minister:
“When the idea of local authority scrutiny first came about, it was during the change from a committee system to a cabinet system. There was almost a feeling of, “What do we give Back Benchers to do in this new system? I know; we’ll invent something called scrutiny, and hopefully that will keep them quiet.” Do you think we have moved on since then?”
While the reply was diplomatic, the truth is that we have not. Just because an arrangement arose by accident does not prevent it being of value. But so far the process lacks rigour. It is also very expensive. The “Governance and Scrutiny” department of my Council, Hammersmith and Fulham costs nearly half a million pounds a year.
Yet the select committee comes up with the predictable theme that the answer is more spending – with some euphemisms about “resources” or “greater priority”. The call goes up for “more training”. There is a demand for more “dedicated scrutiny officers”. Yet the ones already employed must be bored witless they have so little to do – essentially book a room, send out agendas and take the minutes for half a dozen meetings a year.
There is a complaint that fewer staff are employed due to budgetary pressure. But has it made any difference given that so little was being achieved in the first place? We had the epic scrutiny failures at Rotherham or Mid Staffs when the employment bonanza for Overview and Scrutiny Officers was at its height.
Where the report is closer to the mark is when it comes to patronage. The Centre for Public Scrutiny states that:
“Legally, the Chairing and membership of overview and scrutiny committees is a matter for a council’s Annual General Meeting in May. Practically, Chairing in particular is entirely at the discretion of the majority party. Majority parties can, if they wish, reserve all committee chairships (and vice chairships) to themselves … the practice of reserving all positions of responsibility to the majority party is something which usually happens by default, and can harm perceptions of scrutiny’s credibility and impartiality.”
The committee suggests there would be “great merit in exploring ways of enhancing the independence and legitimacy of scrutiny chairs such as a secret ballot of non-executive councillors.” That might be a bit a fun. Something to gossip in the pub about after the meeting, a way of enhancing the soap opera aspect to municipal life. Yet I suspect partisan loyalties would tend to be maintained even in private. A candidate from the majority party would be put forward against an opposition candidate and the majority party candidate would usually win.
A more effective way to improve scrutiny would actually be to save money by scrapping the extra allowances.
I suspect my own Council is pretty typical. Five Labour councillors are each paid to chair a committee. Each committee meets half a dozen times a year for an hour or two. For agreeing to chair these meetings each of the councillors gets an extra £5,000 a year. So £833.33p a meeting. A staggeringly large sum for so little work.
Those “special responsibility” allowances are effectively handed out by the council leader. Any real scrutiny from any of those councillors would put them at risk of losing their £5,000 a year. Those rewarded are those who don’t make trouble by asking awkward questions.
Thus a perverse outcome emerges. It is not merely money that is wasted. It is spending which diminishes the amount of scrutiny that might otherwise occur. It is counter scrutiny spending. Hush money. It is spending to silence criticism.
There is a broader case for abolishing all councillor allowances but these Special Responsibility Allowances are particularly insidious. Getting rid of them will be tricky though. The MPs on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee didn’t mention the vulgar topic. Understandably so. They all have councillors in their constituencies that they have no wish to antagonise. I’m afraid that means that their report is stronger on identifying the problems than on coming up with solutions.