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FEATURES - POWERFUL POSITION

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Commons select committees have no real power, but as Bryn Griffiths and John Saunders discovered, they can teach th...
Commons select committees have no real power, but as Bryn Griffiths and John Saunders discovered, they can teach those involved in council scrutiny a great deal

Just as the mayor and cabinet model was supposed to be local government's version of prime minister and Cabinet, scrutiny was soon labelled as local government's answer to select committees.

While attention focused on similarities - select committees scrutinise the executive, provide gainful employment to back-benchers and are independent of the executive - two questions remained unanswered: is the Commons' system a good model to follow? And if it is, what can we learn from it?

To help answer those questions, councillors and officers from the London Scrutiny Network visited the House of Commons to conduct their own unofficial scrutiny exercise. We heard from committee staff and a committee chair, and saw a committee in action. We have produced a report, Common threads - local government scrutiny and parliamentary select committees, containing learning points and questions for local government scrutiny colleagues.

While the formal powers of select committees are quite limited, they do have a great deal of influence. Their investigations bring issues to public attention and their hearings can highlight the views of experts who may, for example, cast doubt on the direction of a policy. They have a valuable role to perform in the public analysis of policies that may have been drawn up less publicly. Committees also comment on draft legislation, something we can echo in local government.

Inquiries usually fall into one of two categories - general scrutiny of the work of the department and agenda setting. Agenda setting inquiries can help the executive by looking at subjects too sensitive for ministers to raise. In local government this type of scrutiny could feed into policy development.

Good terms of reference are the key to successful inquiries. They allow the committee to be specific about the evidence it wants to consider. T he focus of an inquiry can be sharpened by identifying key questions the inquiry should address. The committee's final report can be structured around the questions. This is another useful model for councils.

We cannot equal the prestige select committees have, but there are two ideas local government scrutiny can borrow to attract witnesses - appointing an expert adviser to an inquiry opens the way to the relevant networks of people, and publishing evidence on the internet prompts others to follow suit.

There have been parliamentary rows when ministers have obtained detailed information on the questions they are to be asked by a select committee. But while select committees do not release questions in advance, they do find that briefing witnesses yields positive results, especially witnesses from outside the Westminster/Whitehall 'family'.

It is not in the committee's interests to question a minister who does not have the facts to hand. Therefore ministers are givenan outline of what is to be asked and they are prepared by their civil servants before giving evidence. These 'rehearsals' have an additional benefit: they can help make the minister more aware of a particular issue. Could council cabinet members benefit from this approach?

Staffing arrangements were another area of interest. Committee staff are employed by the Commons, not the executive, which gives them freedom from any fear that working on an unpopular committee will affect their careers.

We came away with a strong feeling that although parliamentary scrutiny committees have their limitations, their influence in many ways exceeds their formal position in the democratic process. The achievements of scrutiny at a national level shows us that we in local government can influence change and, on behalf of our communities, throw a spotlight on important issues.

www.newham.gov.uk/democracy/scrutiny

Bryn Griffiths and John Saunders (LAB)

Head of overview and scrutiny, and deputy chair, overview and scrutiny, Newham LBC

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