Working with Westminster
For researchers who want to influence Westminster, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has a dedicated Social Sciences section, funded in part by ESRC, which can provide advice and support on engaging with parliamentarians.
Debates that do not involve legislation generally take two main forms – substantive motions and adjournment motions:
- Substantive motions express a definite opinion or viewpoint. Many are initiated by the government, on subjects ranging from the Budget to foreign affairs. Others are tabled by the opposition parties, sometimes to call attention to an issue that the government has mishandled.
- Adjournment motions take place after all other business has been conducted and last for 30 minutes. These can be an opportunity for a backbench MP to raise a subject for 15 minutes and receive a reply from a government minister. The government also sponsors adjournment debates because it is not possible to offer amendments to the motion 'That this House do now adjourn'. This enables the government to debate controversial aspects of policy with no real opportunity of being defeated.
Each government department answers oral questions in the House of Commons every four weeks. Questions are submitted in advance by MPs and selected by a ballot.
During oral questions, the MP whose question has been selected asks their question, and the minister responds by reading out the answer prepared by his or her civil servants.
Because the original question has to be submitted a fortnight in advance, to allow an answer to be drafted, there is not a great deal of room for spontaneity at this stage. However, once the tabled question has been answered, the MP who asked it is allowed to ask a supplementary question, as are several other MPs interested in that particular issue.
The supplementary question must relate to the general issue raised in the original question, but it can be very specific. The minister has no prior notice of supplementary questions, so these require ministers to think quickly on their feet.
Every MP (and peer) is entitled to ask as many written questions as he or she wishes, and thousands of written questions are tabled every year. They tend to be used to elicit factual information from ministers, while oral questions are often a means of scoring political points.
If your work throws up questions about the effectiveness of a particular policy area you may want to consider alerting an MP to this and suggesting that it be drawn to a minister's attention through a parliamentary question.
House of Commons select committees
One of the most common forms of committee in the House of Commons is called a select committee. Many select committees are charged with overseeing the work of a government department.
Departmental select committees examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments. Before starting work on an inquiry, a select committee will publish a press release outlining the terms of reference of the inquiry and calling for written submissions from interested parties.
Once these representations have been received and read, the committee will draw up a list of people to give oral evidence so that they can be questioned on the points raised by their written paper. Following each inquiry, select committees issue a report to which the government must respond.
Select committees are generally very keen to take oral evidence from academics. This makes them a very useful opportunity for to influence the way MPs think about a particular issue.
Check the UK Parliament website regularly to see if any new select committee inquiries have been launched in relevant areas, and if so, submit a paper.
House of Lords select committees
The House of Lords also has a number of select committees, two of which are particularly influential. The Select Committee on Science and Technology operates primarily through its two sub-committees, each of which will be engaged in a detailed inquiry at any given time. Subjects which have been considered in recent years have included medical research and the NHS reforms, academic careers for graduate scientists, and the decommissioning of oil and gas installations.
This committee is particularly well respected, not only by peers and the government, but by academia and industry. Its reports will invariably be debated in the House and receive a written response from the government. The House of Lords European Communities Select Committee considers EU proposals.
Internal party committees
The Labour and Conservative parties both operate a series of backbench committees on particular policy areas, for example the Conservative health committee and the Labour transport committee. These committees meet every four or six weeks, usually to hear a presentation from an outside expert.
These groups are very important in terms of policy development. Organisations and academics regularly approach the officers of backbench committees for assistance in promoting an issue.
If you approach the officers of any backbench committee with an offer to address the group, you may find that backbench committees are a useful – if informal – opportunity to influence policymakers.
A large number of all-party groups exist which relate to either a subject or a country of common interest and MPs and peers of any party can join these. They include groups on AIDS, the pharmaceutical industry, Cuba, Spain, and Esperanto. All-party groups can be very receptive to contacts with outside bodies and individuals, and can provide a forum for well-informed discussion and analysis. They thereby act as a reasonably influential (although informal) pressure on ministers and policymakers. Again, proactive social science researchers will target the members of these groups and keep them updated about relevant issues.