Memorandum by Dr Rachel Ashworth (LGA
A major component of the Local Government Act
(2000) concerned the introduction of new council constitutions.
The legislation offers local authorities four alternative models
of political structure to be supplemented with at least one "overview
and scrutiny committee" consistent with the aim of the reform
which is to enhance local democracy and accountability. Thus,
council operations are split into executive and scrutiny functions
with the executive determining and implementing the policy agenda
and scrutiny committees holding the executive to account. The
government believes that the concentration of power will provide
leadership benefits but clearly scrutiny must operate effectively
if local accountability is also to be enhanced.
Research being undertaken at the Local and Regional
Government Research Unit has been exploring the implications of
the emerging scrutiny function in English and Welsh local government.
A pilot study was conducted in local authorities in Wales which
aimed to determine councillor perceptions of scrutiny operations.
A questionnaire survey was distributed to all Welsh councillors
with a 37 per cent response rate. The key findings were:
Evidence suggests that there is considerable
confusion amongst members concerning the scrutiny function. This
ranges from uncertainty regarding the number of committees in
operation within authorities to a lack of clarity and understanding
of the role and purpose of scrutiny.
Responses indicated that the majority
of councillors believe that scrutiny committees do have a considerable
range of powers available to them. However, when questioned on
the extent to which committees were prepared to use these powers,
most acknowledged that they had not yet been enacted, possibly
as scrutiny had only just become operational in many authorities.
Scrutiny committees have access to
a range of technical support both from officers within the authority
and from external organisations. However, there was a consistent
view that whilst Scrutiny Officers were dedicated, competent and
supportive, they were not of sufficient status to support the
scrutiny function fully.
There was some evidence to suggest
that scrutiny committees exercised a budgetary influence, and
that they were in receipt of advice from external bodies such
as the Audit Commission and District Audit in order to do so.
However, some respondents referred to the budgeting process as
a "rubber-stamping" exercise.
Results indicate that the process
of appointment to scrutiny committees is clearly understood in
over three-quarters of authorities and consists of nomination
from the party group or leadership. Furthermore, a fifth of respondents
suggested that the party whip had been applied to scrutiny arrangements
in their councils.
Respondents was broadly positive
in terms of the relationship between scrutiny and the executive
with just over half of respondents rating co-operation from the
executive as either "excellent" or "good".
The response to specific survey questions
was positive but the "Further Comments" section of the
questionnaire prompted negative views on scrutiny and new political
management arrangements from over three-quarters of members. Many
councillors offered a gloomy prognosis for local democracy and
accountability with a significant number suggesting they would
not be standing for re-election.
Although conducted in Wales, the evidence suggests
that the findings of this comprehensive questionnaire survey correspond
with the scrutiny experience in English local government. They
are, for example, corroborated by recent case-study research on
selected English authorities (Snape et al 2000, Cole 2001). Elected
members identify the principle impediments of effective scrutiny
as "technical support and resources", "one-party
dominance" and "the relationship with the executive".
I would also add that there is a significant psychological barrier
which needs to be overcome as councillors and officers adjust
to a very different role within a new constitutional systemthis
currently represents a further impediment to effective scrutiny.
A second, more comprehensive study is now being
undertaken with funding from the Economic and Social Research
Council. We are attempting to evaluate the impact of scrutiny
operations in twenty-seven authorities across England and Wales.
The project combines quantitative and qualitative research methods,
with a survey of members, officers and stakeholders underway and
interviews and observation work to be undertaken during the summer
A report of the study should be available in
the autumn of 2002. It will explore the outcome/impact of scrutiny
investigations from a range of different perspectives and thereby
enable an evaluation of the effectiveness of scrutiny committees.
By then we should be in a better position to judge whether this
element of the Local Government Act is working as well as it was
intended and also under which conditions scrutiny operates effectively.