John's Jottings for January 2004

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 Scrutiny Function

One of the cornerstones of the recent change in political management of most local authorities in England has been the so-called scrutiny function, often expanded to overview and scrutiny, which is what we call our scrutiny committees in Medway Council.

Ostensibly these were intended by national government to give local government powers more akin to Parliamentary Select Committees, such as receiving presentations/representations and taking evidence from outside organisations and members of the public. As it happens, we were already doing much of what had been promised in the new scenario, but at least it looks as though the intentions of those compelling us to make the wholesale changes to Cabinet-plus-scrutiny were good.

Well, now that the Cabinet-based system has been operating in Medway for more than two years, now is a good time to look back and see how we have fared. I last looked at this in my March 2002 Jottings. So, how has it all worked out in practice?

Okay: for the first eighteen months, the Overview and Scrutiny committees were chaired and vice-chaired by the two main opposition groups: Labour and LibDem. They had worked out the split between those two groups equitably enough, and all seemed set fair for a reasonably useful future within these committees.

Unfortunately it was not to be, as both those political groups (though mainly Labour) used their chairmanships almost exclusively to further their own political ends and not to provide any genuine benefit for Medway or its people. It soon became very clear that their only intended use for the scrutiny committees was to "hold the Executive to account", which boiled down to trying to wreck as much as possible of what was being done because it made their political opponents (i.e. us!) look good.

What a totally selfish and non-beneficial style of behaviour!

Well, come May 2003, the situation changed, and the Conservatives achieved an overall majority on Medway Council, whereupon we took the chairs of overview and scrutiny.

Now, normally this is not the best arrangement, and the checks-and-balances approach that should have been operating prior to May 2003 would usually have been the better approach overall. Indeed, the other political groups soon started complaining that we were being unfair to them. However the overriding concern must be for the people of Medway, not for any political group or groups: we serve the public interest, not the other way round.

Clearly from what had been going on before last May, those interests had not been well served by the original scrutiny set-up, and never would be. There can be no counter-argument to that, as anyone who looked independently at what was going on would attest. Indeed, such (government-appointed) observers did study Medway's scrutiny function as part of the council's Comprehensive Performance Assessment, and concluded that: "Medway's scrutiny function is not working." You can't get it much clearer and straighter than that!

Now, though, the situation has changed markedly, and feedback from all round (well, apart from the opposition parties, of course!) has been strongly of the opinion that scrutiny is now performing a genuinely useful function. We have scrapped the white elephant that was the old co-ordinating committee, slimmed the remainding scrutiny committees down to just four—each covering the work of one of Medway Council's four directorates. The scrutiny committees are now contributing to policy development, thus giving backbenchers a real input into policy—something otherwise denied non-Cabinet members.

The choices of chairmen and vice-chairmen has been very good (though I realise I am not competent to comment on my own appointment as a vice-chairman) and the sheer professionalism and competence of these new chairmen has raised the whole quality level of scrutiny in our council. Again, this has been noticed by a number of what might be termed outsiders, i.e. independent observers.

While nothing is perfect in this world, at least a very strong, solid foundation has now been laid in the Cabinet-plus-scrutiny political management of Medway Council. May it go from strength to strength!

Next time: Mentoring