MPs must make policy decisions based on evidence
The demand for MPs to justify their voting choices is hardly new, but the pandemic further accelerated an already growing public demand for greater transparency of decision making in the House.
Many of us now regularly receive demands from constituents not just to change our minds – although inboxes remain full of those – but questions about the basis on which decisions are made, and the evidence used to justify them. Unfortunately, however, a recent survey by Sense about Science and Ipsos found that around half the public still think we pay too little attention to evidence (53 per cent) and expert opinion (48 per cent) when making decisions.
Being open to changing our minds in the light of new evidence can only enhance our integrity as Members
So it was heartening to see so many members participate in Evidence Week in Parliament last week, answering their constituents' questions during the opening livestream or meeting researchers bringing new findings relevant to current policy issues to Westminster. Now in its fifth year, I am pleased to co-sponsor the event run by Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) and Sense about Science, which was created in response to the public’s interest in policy evidence. Providing training for parliamentary staff as well as briefings for MPs and peers, it is important we show our commitment to evidence. Currently only 23 per cent of people think politicians base their decisions more on evidence than what they think is right, compared to 40 per cent who think the opposite.
Evidence matters to people and the survey of 1,061 British adults shows that lack of transparency is not just of concern to financial markets and political commentators: 61 per cent of the public think it is important the government shows all the evidence used to make important policy decisions, compared to just 16 per cent who do not.
In between elections, MPs are the publics only direct source of accountability for how government uses evidence, arguably a heavy burden of responsibility falling on Members, and our staff, to scrutinise evidence well. Dozens of staffers participated in training sessions run by the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, Ipsos MORI, Sense about Science, POST, and the House of Commons Library during the week to do this better: greater scrutiny of evidence increases the quality of that used in policymaking, resulting in better decisions for our nation.
Those of us frustrated by polarised debates on nuanced issues should also be encouraged and reassured to watch the opening event, where people from all walks of life from across the UK came to ask their MP questions about how decisions are made, what evidence is available to us (and what is unknowable) and how Parliament measures the success of policies. Efficient chairing by Tracey Brown saw them get responses from attending constituency MPs and technical responses from, amongst others, the government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, statistician Sir Ian Diamond, and committee chairs from both Houses, including Greg Clark, Philip Dunne, Sir Robert Goodwill, Baroness Armstrong, Lord Krebs and Baroness Brown.
What resonates through the diverse questions – ranging from transport to sports, safety to NHS recruitment, renewable energy to pensions and to Covid (of course!) – is that people are open to differences of opinion if they can understand the basis of decisions being made. This appeal for transparency is best answered by openly setting out all available research, being honest about how compelling it is and, where appropriate, simply owning decisions as our own moral value judgement. It is worth noting thought that 45 per cent of people say we pay too much attention to what we “think is right”. They are more confident politicians are making the right decision if they change their course of action because of new evidence or the view of experts than because of popular opinion or debates with other politicians.
I hope all those who made it to the Jubilee room last week are keen to take new findings shared on how to improve policies tackling fuel poverty, health inequalities, homelessness (and the myriad of other issues that we face every day) into the Chamber and committee rooms.
Asking penetrating questions and being open to changing our minds in the light of new evidence can only enhance our integrity as Members. MPs do not need a scientific background to scrutinise evidence, but we should take a scientific approach and be ready to ask the right questions – helping to identify what works, what does not, and where vital information is missing.
Stephen Metcalfe, Conservative MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock.
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