Scrutiny in Federal Council – why we are not there yet

Federal Council is not yet a productive committee. In fact, given I’ve had to skip at least one canvassing session to attend it, I might go as far to say that it’s been a net negative in terms of achieving the party’s goals of getting liberals elected.

It has so much promise. In the handy visual diagram of the party’s committees provided in the conference handbook, it’s shown as equal to Federal Board, so is a committee that if effective yields important power. But so far, we have little to show for our time.

Much has been said about our power to call-in and overturn Board decisions, but for me, the call-in power should only be one of last resort—an Emergency Stop to the workings of the federal party only to be used in extreme circumstances. Our other power, that of asking the Board to respond on any issue, has barely been used. We have had Q&As with the president, but if all Federal Council can aspire to be is another forum for Q&As, indistinguishable from those asked of the Board at Conference, then we are failing in the responsibility to Conference when the Federal Council was created as the compromise for a smaller, more agile Federal Board.

Scrutiny in local government is something we have plenty of experience with in the party. We were fortunate enough to have Lisa Smart in our first session giving the same introduction to scrutiny as she would give to newly elected councillors. The LGA’s workbook on scrutiny describes effective scrutiny as one where the scrutiny committee acts as a critical friend to whom they are scrutinising, with an effective work programme and with both sides approaching the opportunity positively, and not adversarially. These seem like sound principles.

Sadly these are not attributes that we currently have. Unfortunately a small number of my council colleagues seem unable to place personal politics to one side for our work in council, and approach board scrutiny adversarially and from a position of distrust. Conversations outside of meetings are regularly derailed by niche interests, draining energy that could be spent more constructively in getting our own house in order, and in scrutinising the board.

We have been slow to get going, taking months to set up our standing orders and to elect vice chairs. More assistance from the federal party to set this up might have helped, but all of us must share some of the blame for this slow start.

We still do not have an effective work programme.

In setting our meetings to be after board meetings we did so under the assumption we’d have something to call in. This was an error, as our agendas are now set by the board and it has introduced an expectation that we’re chasing the board, rather than feeding into it. We must switch round that relationship, come to a consensus on where we would like to scrutinise and then ask the board to bring papers and presentations to us, whilst things are still evolving and we have a chance to scrutinise the shape of them, not just after the fact.

In Manchester, I sit on the Economy & Regeneration overview and scrutiny committee. It is common for officers to bring updates on strategy, progress reviews or draft papers to scrutiny, for them to be scrutinised ahead of their adoption by the executive. It is time for Federal Council to reset our ways of working to one not where we’re led by the board, but to one where we are leading and helping, acting as that critical friend that can bring about needed change, and help make sure the Federal Party is going about the goal of electing liberals in the most effective way.

Now we have our standing orders and vice chairs, setting up a work programme, and setting ourselves up to make those scrutiny sessions effective must now be our top priority. Only then can we be doing the job expected of by Conference.

* Chris Northwood (she/her) is a councillor in Manchester, deputy group leader of the Manchester Liberal Democrats and member of Federal Council.

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3 Comments

  • Mark Johnston 28th Sep '23 - 7:40pm

    While agreeing with most of this, I’ve not seen any evidence of the pursuit of “personal politics” or “niche interests”. The legal compliance and financial solvency of the party are vital interests and remain areas where in some aspects Board actions are in my view deficient. If anything the issue holding the Council back is that too many members appear to be inactive in the scrutiny process, which involves a lot of reading and identifying key issues ahead of meetings. More widely, I discover this year that party governance has held some other bad habits for a long time. I am also one of the 40 Council members listed here:
    https://www.libdems.org.uk/members-area/federal-committees/federal-council

  • “if all Federal Council can aspire to be is another forum for Q&As, indistinguishable from those asked of the Board at Conference, then we are failing in the responsibility to Conference when the Federal Council was created as the compromise for a smaller, more agile Federal Board.”

    I certainly hope Federal Council is better able to ask questions than Conference.

    Starting this Autumn, and without any warning, some questions are now being “composited”, which has actually involves massive truncation and the complete disappearance of major elements. So the questions you have actually asked are never published or seen by Conference.

    Only a few questions are actually dealt with during each Report session, and for each of these you are now limited to a single 60-second follow-up question (and this would have been 30 seconds if my amendment to FCC’s motion had not been succesful).

    And of course all other questions just get a written response, published in Reports From Conference months later, which the overwhelming majority of conferencegoers are not even aware of.

    If Federal Council’s powers were really as limited as that, our party would be in very serious trouble.

  • Stephen Harte 1st Oct '23 - 5:51pm

    As a Federal Council member, I agree with much that you say and I agree that we have had a few members appear to be fighting other battles and address other grievances.

    The one thing that I need clarified in my head is the difference between the scrutiny role of the Federal Council and that of the Federal Audit and Scrutiny Committee. It can have been intended that we replicate each other so what ia the difference between us?

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