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Jacqui McKinlay: In defence of council scrutiny

Jacqui McKinlay
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Warwickshire CC chief executive Jim Graham recently suggested local scrutiny arrangements should be replaced with a system that focuses on local people.

Mr Graham’s argument envisages a world where an average council might have 15 members exercising “strategic” functions. His argument breaks down to several connected propositions or beliefs:

  • Scrutiny is ineffective and makes work for a large number of councillors who would otherwise be twiddling their thumbs
  • Citizens are not directly involved in scrutinising their council to the extent that they could and it would be an excellent replacement for a councillor-led system
  • A natural corollary of this would be to enable a reduction in the number of councillors.

Let’s address those points.

Scrutiny’s effectiveness is a product of the commitment of everyone in the organisation, not just scrutiny members. Cabinet and senior officers must commit to putting self-criticism, reflection and challenge at the heart of decision-making.

There is a stream of examples of scrutiny bringing about transformational change in the last 15 years, because scrutiny brings non-executive councillors’ unique perspective to bear on intractable issues. Councillors’ credibility and legitimacy as elected people and scrutiny’s role as a non-partisan forum for policy discussion make the products of their work that much more powerful.

Next, public engagement. I agree we need to dramatically change the way we engage the public but enhancing the way we talk to local people will not automatically come at the expense of more traditional, representative systems.

There is no structural barrier to doing this now - indeed, the CfPS and others are working on it - but changing our approach is not just about structures; it is about culture. Mr Graham said: “Direct engagement with the public now has so many varied mechanisms and almost instantaneous information and data can be raised by those mediums.” This is true but if decision-makers are not open to that challenge, which will often be even more inconvenient than member-led scrutiny, that form of scrutiny won’t be effective either.

Finally, cutting councillor numbers. Professor Colin Copus’ view is that we have too few elected representatives. Representation is an overall a good thing, particularly given that, per capita, we are the worst-represented country in the EU. Representatives must be closely connected to their communities. That connectedness can follow through to their role on the council, where they can give voice to their constituents’ worries without having them dismissed as “political ideas rather than evidence”.

It is easy to cast aspersions over scrutiny. It is not perfect but what democracy is? I am not sure any of us want a world where councillors are not encouraged to use their voices and have formal ways to be heard. It is not the local government I recognise, nor the one that I am working to better.

Jacqui McKinlay, chief executive, Centre for Public Scrutiny

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