Parliament is being asked to scrutinise more complex and technical policy. The Bills currently before Parliament include data protection and digital information, levelling up and regeneration, energy, electronic trade documents and digital markets, competition and consumers. The scrutiny work of MPs is already under pressure since around a third of legislative responsibility was returned to the UK in 2020, and this is in addition to the postbag of constituency issues, which range from the unique disruptions of a pandemic to the effects of soaring living costs. It’s time we looked at equipping MPs and their offices with the support they truly need.
The ability of MPs to penetrate the credibility of proposed policies and targets is essential for democratic accountability. Between elections Parliament is our primary route for holding government to account. It has the power to summon and question and to change proposed legislation. MPs test proposals against fresh evidence, and they raise new issues for legislation to reflect the changing conditions of the country and the lived lives of the people they represent.
Irrespective of an MP’s ideological stance on an issue, the question that needs to be asked is whether the policy or legislation can deliver the intended aim, and what trade-offs might be involved. How secure are the calculations of gas supply? What data is being used to calculate future transport needs or the size of the NHS – is it the right data? They need to be able to figure out things like whether automated profiling is a reliable way to assess terror risk. To do this well in the 21st century, MPs need to be connected to research and to know where new information is likely to emerge.
Voters, though, have their doubts. An Ipsos survey out this week reveals that two thirds of people are not confident that MPs are equipped to ask the government the right questions about evidence on critical policy areas such as the use of Artificial Intelligence, energy policy, healthcare, the economy and climate change. It is not unreasonable if they don’t: the research, expertise and evidence required on these issues is mind boggling, and we are asking 650 elected members – less the hundred-odd within government – with very limited budgets for support staff, to scrutinise a body of policy that takes half a million civil servants to develop, deliver and track. The budget available to an MP for staffing, which must first cover constituency costs, doesn’t begin to compete with the marketplace salaries of data analysts.
Parliament has top-notch research services in the House of Commons Library, the Lords Library and Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST), but their budgets are meagre for the task at hand and much work is given over to responding to MPs’ and peers’ enquiries, which assumes they have asked the right question in the first place. Working together with the libraries and POST this week, Evidence Week in Parliament is tackling some of the most urgent and complex subjects by bringing researchers from all over the UK into Westminster to give rapid-fire briefings to MPs and peers.
Evidence Week will also provide training to members’ staff on handling data and evidence. This year’s emerging issues include the use of ChatGPT, the feasibility of proposed net-zero solutions, how to spot deepfakes and getting local economic data relevant to their constituency in real time.
A reminder of how important it is to the public that parliament scrutinises the evidence informing life-affecting decisions is tonight’s annual livestream of constituents asking their MP about evidence behind policies from plastic pollution to pensions. This can only touch the surface of all the matters debated in the chamber however, let alone all those that cross MPs’ desks. But it does signal the urgent need for a national discussion on how we equip our parliament to scrutinise 21st century decision making.