Local authorities and health scrutiny
When Labour came to power in 1997 they were pretty certain that local government was broken. Old men sat in committees which nominally ran the departments they presided over. The system didn’t provide real leadership and becuase everyone on the committee was sort of tied to every decision didn’t really lead to any opposition or challenge within the council.
I was a young man when this syetm was in place so have no idea whether it was succesful or not. It strikes me a recipe for disaster but over time the one thing I’ve learnt is that people make systems work for them so it is entirely possible that the committee system actually functioned quite succesfully in it’s day.
Anyway, I digress: In replacement of this system the Labour Government brought in the leader and cabinet system with one councillor ‘in charge’ of each portfolio (they formed the cabinet which made collective decisions) and the rest of the councillors forming backbench scrutiny committees designed to provide opposition and challenge to the Cabinet.
After ten years of this system being in place it is still probably too soon to judge whether this model will be a success. However, I can state one thing without doubt; at the moment the scrutiny function in local authorities is weak. And it is weak over an area where they have direct influence and collegial relations with the main players. It is weak in an area which directly effects their chance of re-election and on issues that most councillors have a working knowledge of.
In my humble opinion the succesful monitoring of the health spending of GPs is well beyond their abilities right now. (Indeed, health scrutiny has been going on for three years and has so far been singularly unimpressive).
So when the Liberal Democrats proudly pointed out that they had made the Tories shift ground on this policy by agreeing to health scrutiny all we can conclude is that it is the most pyrric and hollow of victories.
However, as mentioned above humans have the tendency to ignore the system and rise to the occassion and so I say to all councillors out there: now is your chance. This is a big challenge and a huge responsibility; are you up to it?
Even if they are it’s still a huge Tory gamble!
LBig P Politics, The future of Local Govt