Wednesday, 18 May 2022

The Buttocracy hangs on to every little bit of power it can and even extends it - even at the expense of effective scrutiny

An attempt to loosen the  grip of the Buttocracy on Brent Council failed tonight when Labour councillors voted down an amendment that Scrutiny Committee  chairs should come from the opposition councillors so as to provide great transparency and collaborative work. Leader of Brent Council, Muhammed Butt, went further in undermining the opposition by springing a surprise decision that he would appoint the vice chairs of the scrutiny committees (from his own party) rather than the custom and practice that these should come from the opposition. 

Hithertoo that has been the case as Roxanne Mashari, former Chair of Resources and Public Realm Scrutiny said on Twitter:

Alarmed to hear of changes brought in at Brent Council to make vice chairs of scrutiny members of the majority party rather than opposition parties as has previously been the case. This change weakens democratic scrutiny with no tangible benefit to residents.

Unfortunately the legislation around local authority scrutiny is woefully lacking and allows councils to effectively mark their own homework and cut back and control the scrutiny function. It’s truly absurd. Legislative change is very overdue in this area.

Cllr Connely (Labour) will chair Resourcs and Public Realm Scrutiny Committee with Cllr Janice Long (Labour) vice chair. Cllr Ketan Sheth (Labour) continues to chair Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny  with Cllr Diane Collymore vice chair.

Paul Lorber, a previous leader of Brent Council and newly re-elected this time round, made the case for greater participation by opposition councillors. He said scrutiny should come before decision making, not after decisions had been made by Cabinet. Effective scrutiny needs real teeth and power. He said chairing of scrutiny committees by opposition councillors happened in other council. He was backed by Cllr Kasangra for the Conservatives. 

This is the moment when Cllr Butt seized more power:


Cllr Butt was having none of it. Such loss of power and patronage was unthinkable. In fact he was actually extending his patronage.

Clearly when there is heavy domination by one party a case can be made on democratic and representative gounds for enabling the opposition to be as effective as possible by appointing them as chairs or vice chairs of scrutiny.

The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (202-21) Annual Survey of Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government LINK found that in 49% of councils all chairing positions are in the hands of the majority party, and in 17% most chairing positions are in the hands of the majority. In only 20% are chairing positions occupied in a politically balanced way and in just 14% are chairing positions mostly in the hands of the opposition. Importantly it  did find that scrutiny in councils where oppositon councillors hold some chairing positions tended overall to be more effective.

Shouldn't we all be in favour of more effective scrutiny?

It is worth remembering what Barry Gardiner told the Kilburn Times in 2014 after Labout won 56 out of 63 council seats on 53% of the votes LINK:

Barry Gardiner MP for Brent North, who attended the vote count, said he was delighted with the result but issued a stern warning to the group’s councillors.

He said: “I’m thrilled, of course I’m thrilled but we need to be very careful.

“It is a huge responsibility because a majority this big for any party means that we have to look within ourselves for the sort of scrutiny that we need of the policies that we ourselves are proposing.

“All of these people got elected because they managed to persuade voters they wanted to represent them in the civic centre on the council. They must remember their job is to represent the people to the bureaucratic of the council and not to represent the council bureaucrats to the people.

“We are here to be a critical voice to say where things are wrong and to set policy to change Brent for the better.”

You don't have to look just 'within ourselves' for effective scrutiny if there are opposition councillors also able and willing to do it.



Philip Grant said...

I can see no justification for taking away the Vice Chair positions on Scrutiny Committees from an opposition councillor. Did the Council Leader provide any explanation?

The best way for the Conservative and Lib Dem councillors on Scrutiny Committees to ensure that matters they want to see scrutinised are included on meeting agendas is to use Standing Order 16. This allows any member of a Scrutiny Committee to make a written request for an item to be included, as long as the notice is given no later than 3 weeks before the meeting date.

Jaine Lunn said...

There is no effective Scrutiny in Brent, its just a box ticking exercise. Unless their is representatives from all parties, if only 1 Conservative and 1 Liberal Democrat, to ask questions and to remain impartial, either way Labour have the majority in every committee but for us residents it would appear to be a more balanced approach and would appear to give a bit more credibility.