There are some fundamental differences between select committees in the House of Commons and the Lords. House of Commons select committees, for instance, mainly shadow specific government departments (e.g. the Defence Committee, the Education Committee), whereas House of Lords’ select committees focus on broad themes that often encompass the work of multiple government departments. For both houses, however, one of the major functions of select committees is to hold inquiries into topical issues that they feel the government should respond to (e.g. through introducing new legislation). For researchers, the most relevant select committee is likely to be the Science and Technology Committees of the Lords and the Commons. Understanding the procedure that select committees follow in launching a new inquiry - particularly the points where the committees are actively looking for evidence – is essential if researchers want their message to be heard at the right time.
Alexandra also advised that we shouldn’t be put off by the word ‘evidence’; the term has a very different meaning in parliament to its academic associations (e.g. tables and graphs). “Here, ‘evidence’ doesn’t have to be the results from your lab, it can be just your thoughts and views” she said. In fact, simply directing the committee to your latest journal paper is exactly what they are NOT looking for. “A select committee won’t accept a paper: it has to be original material, although it is fine to do a summary of previously published material” she said. But do make sure your submission is relevant to what the committee wants. When an inquiry is launched, the committee will publish either a call for evidence or Terms of Reference (both phrases are used for the same thing) which describe the scope of the inquiry and set out the questions for which the committee are seeking answers. Your evidence doesn’t have to address all of these, but make sure that you mention which terms you are referring to.
If your evidence is compelling enough, the committee may want to hear from you in person and invite you to an oral evidence session, held in the select committee chambers in Portcullis House at Westminster. “Giving oral evidence is a big deal – all the sessions are broadcast live online (and sometimes on BBC Parliament) and are available online afterwards on the UK Parliament website” Alexandra said. “If you are invited, do make sure that you have enough support: your department may be able to provide training to help you prepare”.
Once they have analysed all the evidence, the committee will draft then publish their report, which the government have 60 days to respond to. “When committees publish their reports, it is a good chance to build your profile by explaining how your research links to the report conclusions and recommendations” said Alexandra. Ultimately, these recommendations could result in new legislation that impacts general society. As an example, evidence submitted by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to the House of Commons’ Health Committee’s 2015 inquiry on Childhood Obesity was instrumental in shaping the final report. This included a recommendation for a tax on sugary drinks, which the Government formally introduced as legislation that came into force in April this year.
With this in mind, here are Alexandra’s tips for submitting quality evidence for select committees:
- Keep an eye out on the current calls for evidence on the UK Parliament website to see if any relate to your research. Your relevant learned society may also have a policy email newsletter that can help with this.
- Don’t be put off if you are only an early-career researcher: select committees read every piece of evidence submitted so your voice will definitely be heard!
- Be clear if you are submitting evidence as an individual or an organisation. Also be upfront about where the funding comes from for your work.
- Remember that all accepted evidence is published online – so don’t include anything you can’t support, and certainly nothing defamatory (which the committee won’t be able to accept anyway).
- Select committee reports ultimately make recommendations for government policies so if you can explain how your evidence supports (or doesn’t) a particular policy, it will be very useful indeed.
- Even if you miss the deadline, it’s not too late: select committees always want to know if they have missed an alternative point of view.
- If you have significant standing in your field, consider becoming a specialist advisor or even inviting the committee to visit your research institute.
Article by Caroline Wood