Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by Dr Rachel Ashworth (LGA 02(a))


  Research suggests that many members remain uncertain as to the precise definition and purpose of the scrutiny role. Furthermore, in many authorities there was a confused response simply in terms of the number of scrutiny committees in operation.

  A significant area of focus for the research conducted on scrutiny has been on the range of powers available to committees and the extent to which they have been operationalised. Evidence from the survey of Welsh councillors suggested that the vast majority of respondents felt committees had the power to: call witnesses, question the executive, determine their own programme of investigations, instigate full council debates and request a response to their reports from the executive. However, when questioned on the extent to which these powers had been enacted, the responses were less positive. This was particularly the case for powers to instigate council debates and request executive responses to investigations/reports. Members suggested that this could be explained by the embryonic nature of scrutiny operations in Wales and a lack of clarity in the Local Government Bill.

  However, the current survey of England and Wales is revealing similar trends in relation to the enactment of scrutiny committee powers. Responses to date suggest that the power to instigate council debates and request responses from the executive to investigations/reports are still not being operationalised even in authorities where scrutiny operations are well established. This is a concern as these two powers are key to the impact and effectiveness of scrutiny investigations. It is hoped that the next stage of the research (in-depth case study observation and interview work) will further illuminate these findings.


  Research findings suggest that the level of resources allocated to support scrutiny operations is minimal in most, if not all, local authorities. This, in my view, currently represents a further impediment to the effectiveness of local scrutiny. Clearly, local authorities experience considerable resource pressures and many are finding it difficult to resource scrutiny training and investigations adequately. Consequently, this affects the manner in which committees are able to undertake enquiries and the extent to which they can seek external independent and technical support. It should be noted that the DTLR have recently established a "Chambers Fund" of £15 million to "enable the chambers to enhance their scrutiny role" and "strengthen regional accountability", thereby acknowledging the resource implications of scrutiny at the regional level.

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