Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Can dinosaurs scrutinise?

There was an interesting council seminar on the subject of scrutiny last week. It would have been even more interesting if we as councillors (and I don't exempt myself from this criticism) had entered into the spirit of the proceedings.

John Dixon and a colleague from Cardiff City Council made the journey to Port Talbot to share with us their experiences of scrutiny. Although it was moderated by the non-partisan Welsh Audit Office, and the stress throughout was on a spirit of cooperation, not of instruction, not one question was directed at any of the presenters. Instead, the general attitude of senior Labour members was that of resentment that people from the capital - and, what's worse, from a non-Labour council - were daring to tell the council with the best refuse collection and the best social services in the country how to conduct their business.

It should have been obvious from the presentation that scrutiny is more than having officers present at scrutiny committee, and answering questions, which seemed to satisfy all the Labour councillors who spoke. Bryn Roblin and Steve Hunt (both independents) got the message that there was more to it than that.

But I think that the Cardiff people should have been pressed on a few points. It seemed to me that they had employed every method in the scrutiny manual. Surely such a shotgun approach had its drawbacks?

What about the back-benchers? John Dixon made much of his chafing under the pre-2004 one-party rule as an opposition back-bencher being kept in the dark (along with Labour members who didn't find favour with the leader, it should be added). Has the situation improved for Cardiff back-benchers, of whatever party?

I also had the impression that Cardiff's lively scrutiny scene had much to do with the fine balance between the political parties, but ducked out of pressing this point. The chair had already called John Warman to give a speech of thanks, and it is doubtful whether he would have accepted another contribution from the Liberal Democrat quadrant.

I would have expected at least one Neath Port Talbot member of the ruling group to have picked on Cardiff's use of pre-scrutiny as an endorsement of our county borough's early adoption of this approach.

The bright spot of the proceedings was that leader Derek Vaughan, unlike most of his party colleagues, declared himself to be in favour of pro-active scrutiny as practised in Cardiff. He had created posts for two officers dedicated to the task of servicing scrutiny. He wanted to extend scrutiny beyond council policy to services, such as the police, fire service and public transport, in which the county borough had an interest. (I, personally, would welcome the last.) He invited members of scrutiny committees, especially the opposition, to put forward proposals.

Industrial heritage comes to mind.

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