Thinking about elected chairs

Posted on 26/06/2018 by Ed Hammond. Tags: , , ,

One of the recommendations made by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee when they investigated overview and scrutiny was that councils experiment with the idea of directly elected chairs of overview and scrutiny committees.

Of course, in a strict sense, this already happens. Councillors vote on appointments to scrutiny committees, including chair positions, at council AGM. What the Committee were after was something a little different – something that echoes similar reforms in Parliament in 2010, reforms which are generally seen as having led to something of a renaissance in the impact and effectiveness of Parliamentary select committees.

To unpack what the Committee are looking for, then, it is probably:

  • Chair positions allocated using political proportionality. In the Commons, the overall allocation of chairs by political party happens first.
  • Elections for scrutiny chairs using a secret ballot. Members of the council could nominate themselves with an accompanying election statement; at council AGM voting slips would be issued to councillors (other than those elected to the executive) and the election would follow.

Nominations under this model would naturally follow on from the party to whom chairs would be allocated.

So if a council had four scrutiny committees and was fairly evenly balanced between Labour and Conservative, Labour members could stand for two of the committees and Conservative members for the other two, but all backbench members would be entitled to vote. This would avoid elections being an entirely political contest.

This would represent a departure for local government, where councils are free to appoint chairs of committees without reference to political proportionality if they wish. In Parliament departmental select committees have always been chaired by a mix of MPs with reference to the overall political mix of the House. Indeed, since 1861 the convention has been that the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by an opposition MP. 

In its response, Government said that they would give further consideration to this recommendation. This does sound as if the issue is being kicked into the long grass. However, from conversations I’ve had with civil servants I have confidence that active consideration is, in fact, being given. Government is interested in the idea.

The recommendation to Government is also addressed to us, and the LGA. We have recently had some conversations with the LGA about how we might “pilot” this. We’re too late for the municipal year 2018/19 now. But we would be keen to talk to some councils about trying this out for 2019/20.

We are not planning to design some complex evaluation technique or framework for the pilot. What we do want to do is to identify a couple of (a few, even) councils interested in this idea, help them to agree tweaks to the Constitution to make it happen, help them to run the election – and then we want to watch and see what happens.

We should stress that absolutely no restrictions exist in law to prevent councils from doing this now – all it requires is a commitment at local level. We recognise that it may involve a leap of political faith to do it, and that on its own it might not change things – but it could be a catalyst for wider change, and we want to at least give it a go if the Select Committee think it is worth a try.

So, are you interested? If you think that your council might be up for this next year, please let me know, and we can talk about it.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.