Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Dr Rachel Ashworth (LGA 02)


  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 system—this 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 of 2002.

  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.

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Prepared 22 April 2002