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OPINION - SCRUTINY STRUGGLES

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We are fast approaching the season of generosity so it is only right I should now pay a compliment to an old friend...
We are fast approaching the season of generosity so it is only right I should now pay a compliment to an old friend. Paul Wheeler is now a key figure at the Improvement & Development Agency but we met in the old Labour - in both senses - HQ in Walworth Road.

Paul was infamous for mangling the English language, especially when under pressure. My own favourites were his description of an ageing MP as 'not mentus compis', a younger colleague as a 'Johnnie come early', and his retort to a moaning party activist 'you know, my life's no bowl of picnics either'.

Paul has been a driving force behind the Centre for Public Scrutiny launched this week. The centre has an impressive list of backers, including IDeA, the Local Government Association, the Greater London Assembly and Deloitte and Touche. Its core task of getting scrutiny taken seriously and resourced adequately will not be easy. If evidence were needed, the centre need look no further than one of its other backers - the Department of Health. The department's decision to freeze out the Audit Commission in favour of its own arm's length NHS inspectorate is hardly the best advertisement for executive accountability.

Problems with scrutiny are well known. Many councillors view it as poor consolation for the loss of committee meetings. Those who do see its potential continue to complain of a lack of support and are concerned that officers are expected to act as both advisers to scrutiny panels and defenders of the executive. But perhaps the most difficult barrier is the crumbling party system. For those brought up in the traditions of party discipline, the place to question the leadership is in closed group meetings, not open scrutiny sessions. In opposition, these councillors are not interested in constructive opposition, preferring Malcolm X's advice that 'any means necessary' should be used to win back power.

Perhaps the new centre could start by advising the Labour group on Kingston upon Hull City Council to take scrutiny seriously. According to the ruling Liberal Democrats and outside inspectors, the group has responded to its drubbing in May with a combination of attempted sabotage and threats to take revenge on officers if Labour ever gets back into power.

In most councils, the Centre for Public Scrutiny will be welcomed by councillors and officers who recognise the potential of scrutiny to strengthen democracy and make services more responsive. But in places like Hull - and there are still too many of them - it faces what Paul Wheeler would probably call a 'downhill struggle'.

Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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