Should local councils have ‘community scrutiny committees’ modelled on Commons’ select committees?

Summary

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?

5 thoughts on “Should local councils have ‘community scrutiny committees’ modelled on Commons’ select committees?

  1. Maybe…
    I would certainly add to the examples of who could be ‘hauled’ in front of the committee, irresponsible owners who are leaving important buildings to rot (or worse).

  2. Cambridge’s North Area Committee has already done this kind of thing in the past. They had to ask and where necessary repeatedly pester, people to come rather than formally summoning them though.

    In August 2008 Tesco’s Area Manager for its Express stores attended a meeting of the committee. Andy Campbell, Managing Director of Stagecoach in Cambridge, has attended more than once I think, and two local headteachers have also appeared at the committee.

    In all cases questions have been asked by councillors and members of the public.

    I think these have been interesting and valuable sessions. I think local councillors should represent their constituents’ views to whoever their constituents need them to engage with whoever that is, if it’s supermarkets, bus companies, housing associations, utilities providers or anyone else with a public role. If necessary councillors should use calls for senior figures to appear at public council meetings as part of their approach.

    Some matters are suited to local area committees; others need a wider view. I am encouraged by the County Council’s Scrutiny Committees increasingly taking such an overview rather than focusing on what the council itsself does. The Safer and Stronger Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committtee for example says it : “holds senior public sector figures to account for their performance”.

    Last year I asked the County Council’s Health Scrutiny Committee to look into ambulance response times and they called in our local ambulance service managers and asked them about their performance.

    I am hoping the Police and Crime Commissioner and Chief Constable will regularly appear in front of councillors over the next year too.

  3. Just to add… you mention in the article the problem of the County Council not being available to answer questions at meetings in the City.

    This is a major problem; and one I’d solve by having a single council for Greater Cambridge.

    It is particularly a problem in planning meetings where there is no one present able to answer questions on the highways representation and recommendation which is very often key to a planning decision.

    On subjects such as the impact of the busway and general highways matters for example the North Area Committee has been good at inviting senior County Council officers and councillors to attend its meetings and face questions. Perhaps residents of other areas in Cambridge could encourage their area committees to copy this example?

  4. Oh, this is a subject close to my heart. Back in 2010 we managed to have a raft of amendments submitted to the Public Bill Committee for what became the Localism Act (through the opposition) which would have given scrutiny committees the power not only to investigate any issue affecting the local area (which they can already do) but the power to require attendance and information from a wide range of partners, along with requiring that those partners have regard to recommendations that committees might make.

    To an extent some of these powers already exist in Wales – there is a class of “designated person” who is required to engage with scrutiny committees in the way I’ve described. The Welsh Government is consulting on who should fall within this class of person and I’d encourage you to have a look at it.

    A lot of this, however, falls down on the ability of DCLG to persuade other departments that services for which they’re responsible should be subject to local scrutiny. We have had conversations with civil servants in the past about things like bringing JC+, academies (!), the Highways Agency, bus and train companies and public utilities under the purview of local O&S – as well as (importantly) any organisation providing a service that is publicly funded. As you might expect this went down poorly because there is no cultural or structural understanding of local government at national level, which leads to an automaticaly defensiveness from a Whitehall that thinks that such an arrangement would be de facto bureaucratic. But the argument, I feel, is still there to be made.

    I like, up to a point, the idea of linking work to local petitions but councillors need to retain the ultimate responsibility for deciding what does and what doesn’t get investigated, otherwise we have scrutiny by plebiscite, which might reflect the things that people shout loudest about but which might not necessarily be the most important things (like children’s services, for example).

    Finally, I’d say that (as my comment implies) these powers should rest with the “scrutiny function” of the council generally rather than with a “scrutiny committee” – a policy wonk’s point perhaps but one that reflects the need to break away from this fiction that formal committees are the be all and end all of local accountability.

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