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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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The importance of policy scrutiny

5 min read

The challenge of scrutinising government legislation and staying abreast of innovations is becoming ever harder for MPs. Lord Willetts argues that teamwork, along with the UK’s world class research community, can help MPs give policy evidence the attention it deserves

During my years as an MP from 1992 to 2015, I experienced how much busier we were becoming. There was a massive growth in the range of media used by our constituents and the wider world to approach and challenge us. And since I stood down those trends have continued. MPs are under more pressure than ever. The expenses scandal, the sharp divisions of Brexit, and the loss of social contact during Covid have all increased the strains and stresses too. 

MP are faced with a cacophony of advice, demands and opinion on every subject under the sun. Even in the House of Lords where I now sit, more and more “evidence” is thrown at us by different outside groups with views on a particular issue. Greater access to data, the use of social media and the ability of more people to interpret data means parliamentarians are often left to work out what stacks up and what doesn’t. When you do have the time to look into a specific issue, you often find that “survey” evidence comes from a group of self-selecting participants, or that a commercial interest lies behind some rather tendentious information apparently proving the need for some intervention or other. 

The Lords may have its faults, and of course we have to accept the primacy of the elected chamber, but we do provide detailed line-by-line scrutiny of legislation with a rigour that doesn’t necessarily happen in Commons committee stage. That is our role as the revising chamber. The government is entitled to get through its core legislation based on its electoral mandate. But there are always peers with real, deep expertise on any issue. That can help in ensuring acts of Parliament deliver their intent and are consistent with wider policy.  We can propose amendments that improve legislation and make it more practical in the real world. 
MPs as a group don’t always score highly in public attitude surveys, but often people are more positive about their own constituency MP. Their actual experience of dealing with their own MP can be a lot better than the media narrative about MPs in general.

MPs can’t possibly be experts on everything. MPs need to be pragmatic and focus on what is most important to their constituents. They tend to look to the colleagues who are trusted in the tea room as knowing a lot about any particular issue. However, MPs cannot do this alone. Whenever possible, parliamentarians can use the United Kingdom’s amazing research capabilities, or excellent conduits like the House of Commons and House of Lords Library and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST), to inform our thinking.

It was great that one in ten backbenchers took advantage of this year’s Evidence Week in Parliament, organised by the POST and the independent charity Sense about Science, either by getting a timely briefing from one of the UK’s leading researchers or by staff availing themselves of training on hot issues including the use of ChatGPT, deepfakes and data visualisation. The research community has a responsibility to reach out to inform politicians, forming a core part of their social responsibility (especially for publicly funded research). Evidence Week is a good example of how to do this.

Researchers providing three-minute briefings on issues on the horizon such as ammonia fuelled ships arriving in UK ports or the risk of social inequality in digital health provision showed their understanding of the biggest resource constraint facing MPs – time!

Parliamentarians and ministers are more like GPs than hospital consultants: they need to make decisions based on available evidence and often don’t have the luxury of waiting for additional test results before needing to act. Critical for that is being able to avail ourselves of trusted sources of information. High on my list is POST, with their knowledge exchange programme and UKRI fellowships ensuring Parliament can tap into the brightest and best that UK research has to offer.

We can also do more to strengthen our own teams. I have just benefitted from the support of a parliamentary intern from King’s College, London. Other universities offer similar schemes.

They can be incorporated in an undergraduate course or even a doctoral programme. Joining an MP’s or peer’s office is a fantastic training opportunity for a young person motivated by public service, and many come with strong politics beliefs. But researchers are then required to “analyse, evaluate, and interpret data to ensure the MP is accurately informed on key issues”, meaning that as well as interpreting evidence based on political principles and values, they need to be able to judge its quality, handle uncertainty and decide how much weight a particular source can bear. 

Last November the Members’ services team took on responsibility for staff training. Key research skills, including handling misinformation and disinformation, considering what evidence is missing and understanding what questions science can – and can’t – answer, are included in the curriculum. Better investment in education and training for staff is now available for parliamentarians. The final report by the Speaker’s Conference published in July noted however that less than a quarter of the budget allocated to Members for training and welfare provision for staff was being used. So there is a fantastic opportunity here for MPs to get more and better support and for young recruits to get more training while they work in Parliament. 

Perhaps, then, the most precious gift a Member can give their staff is that scarcest of resources – time – to properly partake of training opportunities. To strengthen the skills and performance of individuals delivering a vital function for their MP, and hence for Parliament, with many likely to take prominent roles in important organisations in the future, can only be to the benefit of us all. 

Lord Willetts FRS is the president of the Resolution Foundation. He served as the Conservative MP for Havant (1992-2015), minister for universities and science (2010-2014) and previously worked at HM Treasury and the No 10 Policy Unit.

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