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MPs need more support and resources to improve parliamentary scrutiny

(Alamy)

4 min read

Scrutiny of government on behalf of the people is an MPs primary function, amongst the many other responsibilities involved in representing our constituents.

In a given day, we can be asked to consider measures to curb air pollution, tax reform, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to detect fraud, the feasibility of proposed net-zero solutions and initiatives to reducing homelessness or increase literacy. Those of us serving on committees are tasked with scrutinising and examining the work of government and to gather written and oral evidence, while all MPs are expected to make informed decisions on votes in the House.

The public care about evidence, and it is our duty to ensure policy and legislation are informed by the best available data and research

Withdrawal from the EU has added thousands more pieces of legislation in need of review, but even without this we need to recognise that scientific and technological advances mean we are having to make judgements on ever more complex issues. But which of us has got to grips with the evidence on what carbon reduction solutions are feasible and scalable, or the reality of every new car being electric by 2030? Who is challenging ministers and departments about the impact of AI and algorithm led decision making in finance, security, education and welfare?

This year’s Evidence Week in Parliament was a timely reminder of why it is so important we get these decisions right. The public care about evidence, and it is our duty to ensure policy and legislation are informed by the best available data and research. As one of the MPs who responded to constituents’ questions during the livestream opening, I can vouch for the diverse issues that people look to Parliament to take an evidence based approach to – from vaping, plastic pollution and healthcare, to immigration and climate change.

MPs’ research staff are expected to be across all these issues, and required to analyse, evaluate, and interpret data to ensure the MP is accurately informed on key issues. But office budgets simply do not pay for the requisite skills and experience to do this. Frequently it falls to one person, often a fresh graduate who is passionate about politics but has received no formal training in making critical decisions when evaluating data and evidence. Excellent support is of course provided by the House of Commons Library and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), although arguably these too are under resourced. Even when briefings and support exist, they still require relevant skills to be understood and are not used consistently across offices.

Little wonder then that a work culture of excessive pressure and conflict is reported in many MPs’ offices. The final recommendations by the Speaker’s Conference, issued just before the recess, to improve welfare provisions for staff can only be welcomed, but it looked at the treatment of staff without questioning the volume and complexity of work they are being asked to do.

A recent Ipsos survey revealed that that six in 10 people are not confident that MPs are equipped to question government appropriately about evidence in key policy areas including energy, the economy and AI. Evidence Week goes some way to fix that, with about one in 10 MPs or their staff attending quickfire briefings from leading UK researchers of the latest findings on current hot issues, and staff offered training on everything from data visualisation to spotting deepfakes. But a more systemic approach is needed to empower more MPs to ask the right questions – helping identify what works, what doesn’t, and where evidence is missing.

MPs have a vast range of responsibilities as representatives and legislators, and it is unreasonable for them to deliver this without substantive support. Professionalising offices can only enhance staff welfare, and is essential in enabling MPs to provide the level of scrutiny needed for a vibrant democracy.

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