Policy Lunchbox: The Commons Library – Informing Parliamentary Debate

Posted on May 3, 2016   by Paul Richards

Having good government and policy-making relies on having well-informed Members of Parliament (MPs). Working on diverse issues, often outside their own expertise, MPs must be able to effectively hold the Government to account, suggest and scrutinise legislation, and represent their constituents’ views and issues.

So how do MPs get the information and evidence they need to do their jobs? Ed Potton, Head of Science and Environment at the House of Commons Library, answered this question at our recent Policy Lunchbox event. Those in attendance also discussed where scientific research is used in parliament and some of the ways we can help inform parliamentary debate.

The Commons Library is available to all MPs and is considered by many to be the go-to place for impartial information.
This library doesn’t just loan books – it is also a research service that utilises the expertise of 70 specialist staff working across eight subject areas, who answer enquiries from MPs and their staff on diverse topics, often regarding current legislation being debated in parliament. Ed highlighted that specialists come from a broad range of backgrounds; his science and environment team includes statisticians, a lawyer and a doctor, in addition to specialists from scientific and policy backgrounds. Importantly, even if they do not know the answer, specialists have the skills and networks to know where to find out.

In addition to answering queries, the Library publishes and updates hundreds of impartial briefing papers each year on legislation, upcoming debates and topical areas of policy, ensuring MPs have the information to hand to effectively engage in a debate and scrutinise legislation being discussed. The Library also produces briefings on issues that are likely to arise in the near future, providing policy-makers with a heads-up. Ed noted that the Library welcomes external current briefings and materials, which may be helpful to specialists.

The Commons Library exists, but do MPs use it? Reassuringly, the answer is a resounding yes. Ed told us that 90% of MPs regularly use the Library’s services, and the service overall deals with around 30,000 enquiries a year; demand is growing.

It was interesting to hear from Ed about the increasingly closer links between the Library and other in-house parliamentary research services, including House of Lords Library and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which produces POSTnotebriefings on public policy issues related to science and technology. POSTnotes draw heavily on academic literature and expertise, and are often drafted by academic and postgraduate fellows.

Ed highlighted that in-house research services certainly aren’t the only place where MPs get their information. Within parliament, there are also cross-party Select Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups. Government and MPs’ political parties are also key sources of information and advice. MPs’ constituents are also a major influence; Ed considered the introduction of a public petition service to be a big development influencing MPs and parliamentary debate.

So how can scientists help inform MPs and parliamentary debate? You can certainly contact your MP to raise an important issue, or utilise the parliament petitions service. Ed highlighted cross-party Select Committees, which scrutinise the work of government, as key points of engagement. Committees regularly call for expert evidence to inform inquiries on particular issues.

Many learned societies and other scientific organisations, including those that organise Policy Lunchbox events, also provide avenues for scientists to inform MPs and other policy-makers. For example, the Microbiology Society, often collaborating with the wider science community, consults members to submit evidence to relevant Select Committee inquiries, and proactively works to inform policy-makers and link them with scientists through meetings and producing resources, such as policy briefings.

Whichever route used to share information and issues with MPs or parliamentary bodies, Ed stressed that it is vital to effectively summarise why what you are sharing is relevant to public policy. For example, sharing an in-depth journal paper without this is unlikely to have as much impact, regardless how interesting and important the science is.

Policy Lunchbox is a series of monthly talk and networking events jointly organised by the Biochemical SocietyBritish Ecological SocietyMicrobiology SocietyRoyal Society of Biology and Society for Experimental Biology, which cover topics relevant to science and education policy. Find out about upcoming events on Eventbrite, by joining our mailing list, or follow #PolicyLunchbox on Twitter. You can also contact our Policy Officer at [email protected].