Part 1: Scrutinising Scrutiny

In the world of government, you can either be a direct part of it or a scrutiniser of it. While the government gets on with governing, the scrutiny side examines their governing, probes it against a set of values, inspects it for wrong doing. If it works effectively, scrutiny shines an honest light on proceedings, forces accountability of those involved, and improves the government’s governing.

In the UK, I think we rely mostly on the following groups and institutions for scrutiny, to varying degrees:

  • MPs in the House of Commons
  • House of Lords
  • Journalists
  • Parliamentary Select Committees
  • Pressure groups
  • Think tanks

Forgive me some paragraphs of cynicism, as I jump through why I think these make up an ineffective scrutiny system.

The output of the House of Commons seems completely influenced by the government - their strength of majority and internal cohesiveness will drive what happens, even if many MPs protest and grandstand in opposition. Government whips do a great job in whipping everyone on their own side into line, such that those with arguably the most power to de-rail government plans - MPs on their own side who make up their majority - feel like questioning government plans could cost them their career. Those in opposition normally don’t have the numbers behind them to make their argument carry through to anything binding.

Meanwhile, journalists are battling against a broken business model, which worked in print-only days but has struggled to adapt to the advent of the internet. Now, data from online ads make it abundantly clear to the advertiser how effective their advertising is. So clickbait-y, always new, always now content is prioritised - this brings in the most advertising revenue - and suffocates out the longer-form, more investigative pieces of government scrutiny. Unless you have a subscription based model, there simply isn’t the time these days.

Pressure groups and think tanks do interesting, high quality work. They often house the expertise needed to really grill a government plan, and boast the time to do so. But without effective MPs and journalists, and without their own route to forcing the government to consider their work, I worry they are far too easy to dismiss. I’m not convinced that report after report creates political will to implement their amendments to government plans, though they sometimes will be able to give the government an off-the-shelf plan for a new’ issue. They’re not really directly in the scrutiny game per se; maybe they sit more in idea generation.

Based on my current understanding, there are two shining lights - the House of Lords and Parliamentary Select Committees.

The bad rep that Lords get is somewhat justified, but it houses several dedicated experts too. Their political position, set back from the frontline, allows for more considered debate, and more detailed scrutiny. Crucially, they follow and ultimately must agree to much of the government’s legislative programme. It’s not a perfect set-up - their powers to amend plans are clipped in places, they need to navigate their lack of democratic mandate carefully, elements of partisanship can creep in. But it certainly gives government work a more thorough rundown than it would ever receive in the Commons. If it is ever replaced, we must make sure that level of scrutiny in the halls of power is not lost.

Parliamentary Select Committees are perhaps lesser know. They bring together a cross-party group of MPs and Lords, often for years at a time, to interrogate government activity in certain areas. They call on actual experts and witnesses’ on policies to help. It seems that they have a fairly good hit rate of the government paying attention to what they’re doing (the government often needs to respond to their outcomes); it also seems that they are deeply valued parts of MPs’ experiences of the jobs. The only shame is that there probably isn’t enough MP or staff time going around to have more of them.

If the above is to believed, it leaves us with a patchy system of scrutiny, which catches some problems on some timescales in some areas, and can force or influence government change in places. I have a hunch we should want a tighter net than this.

June 19, 2024