How Well Does Parliament Scrutinise?

By Dr Ben Worthy

One of the key tasks of any Parliament is scrutiny. But what is scrutiny? What makes it effective and how does it work?

Jessica Crowe from the Centre for Public Scrutiny gave us an insight as part of our Parliamentary Studies course. Parliament has recently altered its scrutiny powers but what effect has it had? Many things can hold back Parliament from scrutiny from party loyalty to lack of resources or lack of tools. Jessica measured Parliament’s performance against the CFPS’s own key principles of good scrutiny: that it serve as a constructive ‘critical friend’, amplifies the voices and concerns of the public, is led by independent people who take responsibility for their role and that it drives improvement in public services.

In Parliament, scrutiny comes in different forms, from formal arenas to informal pressure. We often see the high profile, attention grabbing scrutiny, such as the recent questioning of the heads of MI5 and GCHQ. This grabs the headlines and can initiate change. Yet it can also be counter-productive. In a highly political and adversarial place like Parliament, such scrutiny may look like, and may be, an attack. The danger is that ‘political theatre’ and point-scoring can replace proper scrutiny that ‘voices concerns’. Moreover, such behaviour can provoke resistance rather than change.

Yet there is more informal, more subtle scrutiny. This may be picking up on gaps or pointing out mistakes. It is what the Centre calls the ‘critical friend’ approach-questioning but constructive. The legislative change around mobile homes in 2013, calmly pressured for by the Communities Select Committee, was a nice example of a more soft but successful approach. This is also an area where the House of Lords performs well, though it usually gets little attention, as Lord Norton points out here.

The Wright reforms of 2010 have strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny powers in numerous ways, giving backbenchers and Select Committees more power and control. However, problems remain, particularly in the involvement of the public where the new e-petitions site appears to have evoked sound and fury without too much to show. Other Parliaments such as the German Bundestag may offer a model.

Jessica pointed out that, closer to home, one place Parliament could learn from is local government. Since 2000 a series of reforms have sought to make local government scrutiny better (see this report). Local government is typically less partisan, managing to successfully balance voicing concern while remaining a critical friend. As with many areas, local government is also a site of experiments and public involvement. Jessica pointed to the success of Boston, where the controversial local issue of immigration was confronted through a wide ranging local government discussion with residents (see here and other examples here). Perhaps the future of scrutiny is local.

The department would like to thank Jessica for an interesting and thoughtful talk. Thanks also to Dr. Meg Russell for her help and input.  You can see Jessica’s blog and slides here and visits the Centre for Public Scrutiny here.

Margaret Hodge on inappropriate conversations and fingering civil servants

By Professor Philip Cowley (originally published on his blog, Revolts)

Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life hosted a very enjoyable seminar yesterday with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge.  The ‘conversation’ ranged widely, covering her transformation from loony left Islington councillor to her current role as defender of the taxpayer battling multinational tax dodgers (‘they love you now, said the chair Tony Wright, ‘but they used to hate you’).  It included her contest with Nick Griffin in Barking in 2010, an experience she claims has transformed the way she now does local politics, to make more of an effort to connect and engage.

There was, as you would expect, lots of her time chairing the PAC, a job a former chair David Davis once described as the ‘second best job in Opposition’.  She rejected the charge that she ‘grandstands’, although there was an acceptance that she does need to be high profile. As she put it: ‘I don’t grandstand, but… I have few other tools’.  But she’s aware that other select committee chairs get annoyed with the PAC for treading on their toes. Members of the PAC seem distinctly unbothered by this. ‘We can go anywhere’ one of them said.

Professor Tony Wright and Rt. Hon. Margaret Hodge MP. Image credit: Total Politics/John Russell

She complained, as most select committee chairs do, about a lack of resource – although most other chairs would look enviously at the massive resource of the National Audit Office which backs up the PAC.  It took about a year for Hodge to establish a good working relationship with the NAO, who were not initially keen for her to investigate HMRC’s tax deals, for example.  She was full of praise for whistle-blowers and investigative journalists, who provided her with much of the material she needed; the Impetus for the tax-dodging inquiry came from an HMRC whistle-blower and a Reuter’s journalist. And she was full of praise for the work done on the issue by Private Eye.  Before each major evidence session, she spends lot of time MPs coordinate questioning by members of the committee. The BBC enquiry, for example, with multiple witnesses, would have been a ‘train crash’ otherwise.  In those sessions where that has not been done, the quality of questioning usually dropped.

She was less full of praise for civil servants, who ‘never become accountable for anything’.   She gave the example of a witness from HMRC, with whom the committee was getting nowhere, when one of the Conservatives on the committee (from her description, I assume Richard Bacon) had the idea to put him on oath.  The only problem was that it took Commons officials 20 minutes to find a bible.

On Universal Credit, she was exasperated: ‘I haven’t a clue who’s telling the truth’, and complained of ‘inappropriate’ conversations from both senior civil servants (trying to get her to blame ministers) and ministers (trying to get her to blame civil servants).  But a remark that Hodge should ‘finger’ the responsible civil servants proved too much for some in the audience, and giggles began to break out.