John's Jottings for March 2002

John Ward

Please note: these Jottings are purely personal comment, and do not necessarily or directly represent the policy of either the Conservative Party or the Conservative Group on Medway Council.

The Cabinet system—how is it working?

Medway Council launched its new style of political management on 1st October 2001. In common with other local authorities, we were obliged to do this under central government legislation. Now, more than four months later, how well is the new system operating?

Well, it's a completely different way of working, and is intended to be similar to central government's Cabinet and Select Committees along with Parliament's House of Commons.

In the new local government version, we have a Cabinet of up to ten members (we in Medway have ten) and several so-called Overview and Scrutiny Committees which act vaguely like Select Committees. Our equivalent of the Commons is the full Council of all eighty members.

The problems we foresaw with the new system included a lack of ability for real input by members who are not in the Cabinet, of whom there are seventy. In a Council with no overall control (like Medway Council) the situation would be even worse, with opportunities for opposition groups to force through their own agendas rather than the administration's policies: this would go against the local people's majority wishes. Overall, it has been perceived by many as a far less democratic system than the set-up it replaces.

In practice much of our (and others') concern has turned out to be well founded, though the Cabinet itself is doing sterling work, after a slow start. They have certainly handled more agenda items—and often very heavy ones too, in terms of their gravity and the sheer volume of paperwork they involve—than any of the Overview and Scrutiny Committees. I go to Cabinet meetings whenever I can, and have witnessed the commitment, dedication and sheer professionalism of its members at work.

So they at least are determined to make the new system work well.

We have five Overview and Scrutiny Committees that are intended to monitor the Cabinet's decisions and "call-in" any they believe fall outside the (published) Policy Framework, as it's called. Such decisions have to be taken by the full Council, as does the setting of budgets; but our Cabinet know their stuff and generally refer such decisions to the full Council anyway. There are all manner of referrals back and forth, and it's something of a "pass the parcel" arrangement, it seems to me. The scrutiny side of things seems still to be floundering and all those committees seem capable of doing is spawning various so-called task groups for various very specific topics.

There is also another body called the Overview and Scrutiny Co-ordinating Committee. This is in effect just another layer of bureaucracy: it doesn't have a real rôle to play, though the Labour group (whose idea it was) have tried to invent one. I think they believe it to be a kind of power base for their group.

In reality it has so little purpose that its meetings keep being cancelled owing to (and I quote) "lack of business". There have been at least four such cancellations already, and we're less than five months into the new set-up.

The whole system is due to be reviewed after six months of operation, and I rather hope that this white elephant "Co-ordinating" committee is scrapped at that time—it really is just about completely pointless.

Overall, the new system is working at Cabinet level, Overview and Scrutiny still has yet to find its feet, and the co-ordinating committee (on which I have substituted, just once and that was quite enough) seems unlikely to come up with a convincing reason for its existence.

Next time: Boundary Review—the new wards and Council membership proposals.