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How to Advise Parliament? Routes into the policy making process

3 December 2015

UCL and the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London, teamed up to host a public event with parliamentary insiders and evidence experts, exploring how academia could engage the world of government, particularly through select committees. 

Time: 6:00pm
Venue: University College London, Archaeology G6 LT - 31-34 Gordon Square London WC1H 0PY

This event, jointly hosted between The Mile End Institute and UCL Public Policy, is part of a series - Translating knowledge to expertise: Routes into the policy making process.

Scientists and researchers from across academia are engaged in research that could make a difference to the world, but until you take it beyond the University doors its impact and reach will remain low. 

The question on everyone’s mind was ‘can this type of academic-government engagement generate real world impacts?’ 

Speakers:

Chris Clarke, House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology

Prateek Buch, Sense About Science,

Rebecca Purvis, The Royal Society

Professor Michael Kenny, Queen Mary University of London, The Mile End Institute (chair)

Why consider engaging with select committees:

According to a range of experts, including lobbyists, researchers and Parliamentary insiders, engaging with Parliament can get your expertise and knowledge in the public domain. 

According to Prateek Buch from Sense About Science, a UK based charitable trust that campaigns for the transparent and accountable use of evidence in public life, “engaging with parliamentary scrutiny is a chance to change the world. Researchers have the answers to some of the world’s biggest problems, but politicians can only put them into practice if they consider the evidence.”

Scientific experts can enlighten a debate and inform MPs about issues they are not experts in. Becky Purvis from the Royal Society provided the example of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 on its passage through parliament, where a Select Committee Report informed by robust research was presented to Parliament. 

For many MPs, this would have been their first exposure to the complicated scientific concepts they had to vote on: they needed the input from researchers at the committee stage.

And politicians do care about evidence: research by Sense About Science and Ipsos MORI shows that 67% of MPs support the use of controlled trials to test areas of government policy. 

Meanwhile an increasing number of MPs agree that we’re going to see much more of this scientific type policymaking in the future.

Committees have been a feature of the parliamentary landscape for centuries, but at the moment, Select Committees are going through something of a renaissance. 

Inquiries have become increasingly high profile, with inquiries into phone hacking, the banking industry and the Police Federation being subject to intense scrutiny. The combination of an opposition that hasn’t yet organised itself and some well-known MPs as committee chairs means that they are poised to gain more prominence as they hold this government to account.

Practical tips for giving evidence

According to Chris Clarke, Clerk of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, it’s surprisingly straightforward to get on the radar of senior parliamentarians. 

His committee has only 3 members of staff managing it and an on going ‘long list’ of possible inquiry topics is constantly being updated. He’s therefore very happy to receive ideas for future inquiries, saying that, “if the proposed inquiry seems plausible then it will be presented to Members for consideration when they periodically examine the long list.”

A parliamentary inquiry will always include a formal call for evidence. These can be found on every committee website and are open to the public. After reviewing the evidence, the Clerks, directed by Members, will invite the authors of particularly interesting, authoritative, well-reasoned submissions into Parliament to present ‘oral evidence’ and be asked questions by peers (or MPs, in the Commons). 

In general, Clarke suggests writing a sharp, direct submission to get a committee’s attention and using clear, language pitched at the level of a very intelligent sixth former; a select committee is a public forum and the issues should be plain to see for all. 

He also stresses the importance of avoiding endless acronyms, as they are something that can easily put off parliamentarians. Chris says, “In a submission, you want to say in effect, ‘I have more knowledge, come and ask me to give oral evidence and I’ll tell you all about it'.”

Not all agreed, but Prateek Buch stressed the importance of showing your working; MPs and peers want to know how and why you arrived at your conclusions.

Oral evidence can be daunting for scientists and researchers, but Clarke reassured potential ‘witnesses’ not to be afraid. Parliamentarians genuinely want to find out information and they don’t want to give you a hard time. 

He described the style of the House of Lords, particularly, as ‘collegiate’. There is guidance online and the Clerks are always happy to talk to witnesses about the processes, which helps to steady the nerves

Indeed this was the case for Professor Peter Jones, a UCL academic who offered up reflections on his experience of giving oral evidence, suggesting, “it was a conversation for information exchange rather than being adversarial or judicial.”

Becky Purvis from the Royal Society highlighted that committees may at times play a campaigning role. 

Purvis issued a couple of warnings to those hoping to see a linear link between engagement with Parliament and impact. Suggesting that the timing and shaping of committee reports may in some cases be used politically. This shouldn’t stop you contributing though- as long as you are confident in your facts, and you can set them out clearly and succinctly.  

The timescale of parliamentary committee inquiries can be incredibly short. Sometimes the window of opportunity is just three weeks and so often single-issue groups find it easier than researchers to meet these deadlines. This risks leaving the committee’s inquiry skewed and possibly missing a vital voice. 

It’s important to keep an eye on potential issues as they go through the parliamentary cycle and make time for possible submissions of evidence - the benefits make it all worth it.

Other ways researchers can engage

Becky Purvis highlighted other ways to influence parliament, leaving select committees aside.

  • All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are cross-party groupings of MPs with an interest in a specific topic. They vary wildly in quality and level of engagement, but many are now becoming more select committee like in their approach, for example by producing reports, and contributing to national debate.
  • Individual MPs have their areas of interest and can raise an issue in parliament. Those who are interested in your cause may pursue it even more fervently.
  • You can write to your local constituency MP- it’s important to tell them why your research is important and how it is relevant to current political issues: what problems can it solve and how much will it cost.
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