RE: Use of pre-meetings
Mark is correct - effective pre-meetings are central to the success of the commons select committee process.
When you watch a select committee on TV and think, "gosh, those are good questions", this is owed entirely to the members getting together beforehand to decide what their line of attack is going to be. This is the only way to effectively carry out properly forensic questioning.
The usual danger of doing this in the context of council scrutiny committees is:
1) Members already have group-based pre-meeting that they do not want to give up.
2) Members misunderstand the point of the pre-meeting and treat it as an opportunity to try and discuss the issues substantively.
3) Problem 2) is often compounded if the relevant officer is present at the pre-meeting, which means that it actually turns into the meeting itself. (This is, however, the usual and accepted position in respect of cabinet).
4) Members take umbrage (often rightly) at being "presented" by officers with a detailed brief and a set of questions.
Sorry to be so relentlessly negative. I think if their purpose is very clear they can be crucial, but members have to agree that they are a sensible way forward otherwise they end up being misused.