The case for having committees that can scrutinise outside organisations on behalf of the communities they represent.
Why is it that my brain starts fizzing with ideas (good, bad or ugly) just when I want to go to sleep? This is something I’ve been pondering for quite some time – the ability of committees of councillors to summon and cross-examine witnesses on behalf of their communities. In setting this out, I’m separating the principle from the delivery, because there are some very specific issues that need to be addressed. Problems with the latter does not necessarily mean that the former is wrong.
“You mean you want locally-rubber-stamped numpties to haul people in front of them for a show-trial?”
Not at all. The principle is simple: Allow local representatives of the people to cross-examine those that are undertaking activities that have a significant impact on the local community.
“I can see the first thing that would happen is they’d haul the local newspaper editor or correspondent before them for a show trial”
This is where the terms of reference need to be absolutely rock solid. Such committees should not be used as a platform for councillors to pontificate about how individuals or institutions judge councillors or the council. This is about councillors acting on behalf of those they represent – their constituents.
“How would committees decide which issues to debate, and which witnesses to summon?”
This is where you could overhaul how councillors interact with their communities. For a start, the impetus and initiative would need to come from beyond councillors. ie. a member of the public living in the area the council has responsibility for would have to petition the committee for an issue to be debated. It wouldn’t be for the council or the committee to decide alone on what the issue should be and which witnesses to summon. There would need to be evidence of community engagement. Secondly, a reasonable number of people/percentage of constituents would need to be in agreement (whether by petition or otherwise) for such a debate/hearing to take place. Such hearings would be held in public, livestreamed/broadcast online through social and digital media.
Clear guidance (along with training in the community) would also need to be given to ensure that people are crystal clear about what is and what is not appropriate to petition. It’s not a forum to air personal grievances against another individual. It is a forum for airing grievances about the activities of a firm, institution or organisation that is having a negative impact on the community (for which the petitioners would need to provide evidence).
Based on the merits of the petition and on the evidence provided, the committee would then decide whether to hold hearings and if so, which witnesses to summon to appear before it.
“‘Summon’? Under what powers?”
This would require an Act of Parliament – chances are an amendment to the Localism Act 2011. As far as I am aware, local authorities have no legal powers to compel individuals or organisations to appear before them. (Legal tweeple, can you confirm?) My proposal would change this. If a council properly convened/formed a ‘community scrutiny committee’, that and/or the full council would have the power to summon individuals or firms to appear before it where the actions or activities of those individuals is having a serious impact on the community.
“Define ‘serious impact’”
That would come down to case law following an assumed enactment of the powers I’ve mentioned above. But examples could include:
- Major housing or industrial developments – with developers and financiers being summoned to appear before committees. Refusing an invitation should be an aggravating factor in whether a related planning application should be accepted or not. Refusing an invitation should count against granting the planning application on the grounds the developers and financiers are showing contempt for the community
- Closure/job cuts from a major employer – The case Conservative MP and dragon-fairy-watcher Robert Halfon (Harlow) highlighted with Tesco is a classic case. The firms executives should have been hauled before a committee of the local council (Harlow) and cross-examined over their decision to close the plant concerned.
- Traffic problems caused by the day-to-day activities of institutions. Locally in South Cambridge, Hills Road Sixth Form College and Addenbrookes Hospital have been the source of ongoing parking problems for local residents for many years. Most recently this was raised at the South Area Committee, but no one from the above-two-mentioned institutions was there to answer questions from elected councillors.
Training and supporting the councillors – and the community
This isn’t something that you simply unleash on an unsuspecting local community. For a start, such committees would need a decent amount of administrative support – and even the council’s head of legal attached to them. (Similar to how the Banking Commission had senior counsel attached to it). Consideration too would need to be given around free speech – should similar powers to that of Parliament be granted?
One of the things notable about existing parliamentary committees has been their inability to pin down hostile witnesses, or to really get under the skin of issues. Hence the importance of training councillors. There’s also the issue of training communities too. This could involve workshops that take local people through their concerns so as to unpick the issues and come up with a series of very targeted questions that councillors could put to summoned witnesses on behalf of their communities.
“Should councils be able to compel summoned institutions to do anything following a hearing/when they issue a report?”
For a start, committees should issue reports following hearings – with recommendations as per parliamentary select committees. Compelling institutions to do specific things is a minefield – not least because Parliament is unable to compel anyone to do anything short of a substantive motion. The last time that happened was in 2009. That shows how rare such things are.
That said, the publicity such hearings could bring might be enough to persuade firms, organisations or institutions to change their ways. What, I imagine people would object to is such committees telling private firms how to run their businesses.
“Could such committees energise local government?”
Absolutely – for the following reasons
- For a start it would increase the range of tools local councils have at their disposal when wanting to influence other public sector organisations. Summoning the head of another public sector organisation shouldn’t be a first resort though – it should be the final one. The threat alone of a summons should be enough to concentrate the minds of such institutions.
- It would encourage more people to get involved on issues specific to their local community – providing a very clear route on how to hold other organisations to account for their activities.
- It would provide an incentive for organisations to engage with their local communities – nipping problems in the bud early on rather than waiting for their boss to be summoned to account for the organisation’s actions.
- It would provide an incentive for organisations – particularly public sector ones – to work together more productively. Again, the incentive being to nip problems in the bud rather than waiting for the boss to be hauled before the committee.
- It might encourage more people to get involved in local politics – and even stand for election. The skills needed for such a scrutiny committee are not the same as traditional grand-standing politics. Those not comfortable with grandstanding politics and major public speeches might find themselves more suited to a role that involves detailed analysis and close scrutiny.
- It provides a greater incentive for local councillors to use a range of communications methods to engage with their community. It’s not just a case of getting everyone on social media (though this will help), but exploring different types of interaction – i.e. not simply a ‘vote for me’ campaign at election time.
This is just an idea. It’s more than rough around the edges but is something I’d like to see discussed wider.
Food for thought?