Overview & Scrutiny Committee
This week councillors voted to approve an amendment to Woking Borough Council’s constitution which removes the requirement that the Overview & Scrutiny Committee should be chaired by an opposition councillor. The Overview & Scrutiny Committee is responsible for examining the effectiveness of the council’s functions and policies. It acts as a forum for debate and discussion on all aspects of the council’s work. It selects its own topics for review and can ‘call in’ decisions by the Executive for further scrutiny.
Previously the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny was nominated by the opposition party on the council, with a councillor from the ruling party acting as vice-chairman. Under the new arrangements, the chairman and the vice-chairman will be elected to their position by all councillors on the committee, regardless of party affiliation.
This change has been strongly resisted by the Liberal Democrats, who have used emotive and intemperate language to suggest that the council is ‘abolishing scrutiny’ or ‘getting rid of democracy’. One Liberal Democrat councillor even likened the council to the apartheid regime in South Africa, which is not only offensive but trivalises the genuine suffering and abuses that occured under minority rule.
While I understand the Liberal Democrats might feel discomforted at no longer being automatically entitled to nominate the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny, I believe their concerns are misguided and that the time is right for the council to make this change. The original requirement that the chairman should be an opposition councillor was written into the constitution at a time when the council was much more finely balanced and when there was a shared Executive between the two main parties. Over the past few years the Liberal Democrats have lost significant ground, going from a high of 18 councillors in 2006 to 11 at the recent local elections. Meanwhile, the council has become more politically diverse with Labour winning a seat in Maybury & Sheerwater and the election of an independent councillor in Byfleet. It is therefore right that the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny should not be restricted to a shrinking pool of councillors from just one party and a much broader range of talent should be considered for the role.
Unfortunately the Overview & Scrutiny Committee in Woking has not always been as effective as we would like. Most of the committee meetings in recent years have involved councillors receiving reports and questioning outside bodies or organisations over which the council has little control. The committee has not taken forward vital work where the knowledge and expertise of councillors could really make a difference in scrutinising areas such as procurement, our financial strategy or the cost of borrowing. Some Liberal Democrat councillors have in the past used the chairmanship of Overview & Scrutiny in an overly party political manner, including one incident in 2012 where an important agenda item was withheld from Conservative councillors before the meeting to prevent us from being able to contribute to the debate.
The new arrangements which have been adopted are not unique to Woking. Almost every other borough in Surrey allows the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny to be elected from any party. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat councils have constitutions which state that their Overview & Scrutiny Committee can be chaired by a councillor from the ruling party. The London Borough of Sutton is a majority Liberal Democrat council and has a Liberal Democrat chairman of Overview & Scrutiny. It is therefore hard to have sympathy with the claims that this is some form of cynical attempt to freeze out the opposition or rein in proper scrutiny or accountability in the decision making process.
I believe that allowing the chairman of Overview & Scrutiny to be elected by the whole committee will give the person chosen for the position a much stronger mandate to hold the Executive to account and ensure that the interests of residents are strongly represented. I am sure that Cllr Saj Hussain will, as the newly elected chairman of the committee, work well with his Liberal Democrat vice-chairman Cllr Denzil Coulson over the year ahead and demostrate that the opposition’s criticism and hysterical claims that democracy has been undermined will be shown to be groundless.