Local and national scrutiny: challenges in common
In this guest blog Mark Sandford, senior research analyst at the House of Commons Library, takes a comparative look at scrutiny on a national and local level.
The Municipal Journal published an article on 1 July 2021, from a former head of communications of the London Assembly, calling for its abolition. This was advocated on the grounds that the Assembly is “the only political entity in the UK that has no legislative, executive or service delivery power”; that it has made poor choices of subject matter for scrutiny; and that the legislation establishing it is unfit for purpose.
The nature of the case made here for abolishing the London Assembly highlights the uncertain and contingent place of ‘scrutiny’ within political governance structures. Scrutiny, or overview and scrutiny, is one amongst many tools that can strengthen the quality of governance. Its effectiveness depends on the features of the wider governance ecosystem, such as the transparency of decision-making; access to information; structures of governance; and political relations between representatives and decision-makers. The quality of accountability in a system of governance does not emerge from a single one of these, but from the balance between them in practice, as Marc Geddes points out in respect of Parliament.
Furthermore, local overview and scrutiny has never been purely concerned with accountability. It is common for ‘overview’ to take priority over ‘scrutiny’. Committee structures have been used to encourage participation in policy-making or reviewing of complex issues, by members of the public, interest groups, or multiple political actors. That approach has been particularly common with ‘external scrutiny’ – where local authority committees inquire into matters that their council does not control.
In each of these cases, committees use a mixture of political leverage, transparency and trust to extend the reach of their council’s influence. This can be a rational response for a council where party political debate is muted, or local press coverage is limited, or public concern emerges about a cross-cutting issue. Governing parties in local authorities may have more appetite for this approach than they do for investigations into failures or questionable decision-making. And some types of failure are more appropriately investigated by, for instance, auditors, service specialists or the police.
This amounts to arguing that some aspects of overview and scrutiny do not really work in local authority settings, if councillors do not want to undertake tough scrutiny processes, and staff resources are lacking. It is easy to imagine that Parliamentary select committees would not face this type of challenge. A typical Parliamentary select committee has 5-7 staff and access to a wide range of resources within Parliament. Their status allows them to draw in large quantities of evidence on any subject they choose to investigate. And the scale of both Houses of Parliament, and the direct election of select committee chairs, allows committees a degree of political independence that local authority committees might struggle to achieve.
Do these differences lead to the conclusion that the Parliamentary select committee system provides ‘more’, or ‘better’, accountability than local authority overview and scrutiny systems? This is not necessarily the case. In practice, both systems face many similar challenges. First, no scrutiny committee system in the UK is able to reverse decisions within its authority, or impose sanctions on politicians or officials where failures are identified. Regular media coverage of the latest report from “an influential group of MPs” omits the fact that select committee reports, whilst generating attention, cannot themselves force policy changes.
Second, that scenario impacts on the influence that scrutiny systems can have within their structures of governance. Relations between Parliamentary select committee chairs and Government departments are remote, mainly consisting of regular exchanges of letters. Select committees have no right to disclosure of documents and no right to call named civil servants to appear before them. Closer political relations in local councils, at a smaller scale and with the right to interrogate officials, may in fact strengthen the hand of a committee chair.
Third, both systems live or die by profile and exposure: bringing matters to the attention of ‘the court of public opinion’. Select committees have frequently sought to boost their profile by examining high-profile or celebrity witnesses. Dominic Cummings’s seven-hour appearance on 26 May 2021 was the latest in a number of such appearances in the last decade, including Rupert Murdoch (2011), Russell Brand (2012), Katie Price (2018), Hugh Grant (2012), and Mike Ashley (2018). These types of appearance almost inevitably attract more attention than the routine examination of financial statements, reviews of arm’s length bodies, and investigation of failures from previous years that make up much of the work of select committees.
The London Assembly is an unusual example, being a body established purely to carry out scrutiny. There is a strong separation of powers within the Greater London Authority: the Assembly cannot take decisions or influence the Mayor of London directly, and the Mayor has no political or electoral need, or legal imperative, to take its views on board. That is very different to the web of political and operational relationships that are crucial to making scrutiny work in ‘parliamentary’ systems. Local and national governance systems alike face many similar challenges in holding decision-makers accountable. The example of the Assembly highlights that both legal structures, and how structures are operated, influence the degree to which scrutiny can take place.