Engaging with Parliament: A How-to Guide

Dr Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. This article was originally published by the Economic and Social Research Council.

In this piece, Dr Flinders reflects upon the opportunities and challenges offered by parliamentary engagement for social and political scientists, however we also felt it was of interest to natural scientists and engineers looking to become involved.

You can read Dr Flinder’s top ten tips for engaging with parliament at the bottom of the page.

Introduction – the opportunity of ‘impact’

The forthcoming REF’s increased emphasis on demonstrable ‘impact’ is a source of some concern and confusion for many academics. It is, however, more of an opportunity than a threat in the sense that the Politics and International Relations Panel has clearly signalled its intention to adopt a broad and creative approach to the definition and assessment of ‘impact’. The Panel Criteria and Working Methods that were published in January 2012 also suggest that a softer approach to impact has been adopted than might have previously been expected from some of the initial REF documentation.

The impact ‘case studies’ submitted by most departments of politics – and indeed, most social science departments – are unlikely to focus on a specific piece of research which can be clearly and unequivocally proven to have led to a change in policy or law but is more likely to knit together a range of research-driven impact-activities that, taken together, provide a compelling case that a given research team or strand has had a significant social impact. It is in exactly this latter vein that the ‘stimulation of public debate’ and ‘contributions to public understanding’ are explicitly given as examples of impact within the REF2014 guidance documentation.

As such one valuable element of an ‘impact case study’ might be an appearance before a select committee or, at the very least, the inclusion of a submitted memorandum of evidence as part of the published evidence surrounding a report. ‘Documented evidence of policy debate (for example, at a parliamentary select committee)’ is therefore included as a central example of ‘Evidence and Indicators of Impact’ within the latest REF2014 panel criteria.

It is in exactly this climate that appearances before parliamentary select committees, in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, provide an incredibly valuable opportunity for social scientists to influence government and policy-makers, while also disseminating their research more broadly.

The problem is, however, that select committee clerks frequently find it hard to: (firstly) identify academics with the expertise to help inform a specific inquiry; (secondly) identify academics with the relevant expertise who are also willing to engage with an inquiry; and (thirdly) find academics with the expertise and willingness who are also able to talk about their research in a concise and accessible manner.

The aim of this article is therefore to outline how and why more political and social scientists can and should make parliamentary engagement part of their ‘research impact plans’ and also to provide some advice about what to expect if called to appear in person before a select committee.

Identifying Select Committees

The first step in the journey towards engaging with a select committee obviously involves monitoring the inquiries of the committees that deal with the areas of research you are working on. There are twenty-two select committees that are basically charged with monitoring and scrutinising a specific ministerial department. In addition to this there are a number of cross-governmental committees (Public Accounts, Public Administration, etc.) and specialist committees in the Lords (Constitution, Science and Technology, etc.).

The Campaign for Social Sciences publishes a monthly Policy Monitor that lists all the current inquiries, reviews and consultations across Whitehall, Westminster and even within the institutions of the European Union and is an invaluable resource for anyone wishing to develop their research profile in relation to policy-relevance and impact.

[Note from editor: There are a number of science and engineering-specific committees across these areas, for example:

House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee
House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee
House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee
House of Commons Health Select Committee
House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee

Details of upcoming consultations and enquiries are compiled by CaSE and listed on our monthly e-bulletin. You can receive the e-bulletin by signing up here.]

Submitting evidence

Most committee inquiries will begin with the publication of an ‘Issues and Questions’ paper on a specific topic. The aim of this document is to explain why the committee feels this topic warrants an inquiry and also to set out the themes and issues around which it would welcome responses (formally referred to as ‘Submissions of Evidence’) from interested experts, groups and sections of the public. This is the main gateway through which information (including summaries of recent academic research) will be collected by the clerks and fed into the inquiry process. Responses to select committee calls for evidence should be short, sharp and concise.

There is no need to address questions and issues about which you know little and the emphasis is very much on quality and not quantity. Set out in a series of numbered paragraphs I would not expect a submission to ever be longer than three sides of A4.

One of the commonest complaints of committee clerks is that academics tend to bombard the committee with long esoteric research papers but fail to provide a relatively short statement about why their research relates to the topic of the inquiry. Committees are particularly looking for responses that raise significant issues and debates that have not been raised in the initial committee scoping document. The convention is that all submissions of evidence will be made public on the parliamentary website and some particularly useful submissions may be published as an appendix to the main report.

Most select committees are staffed by just one clerk and one assistant clerk and to a greater or lesser extent these are the individuals that, under the guidance of their chairman, will select who should be called to appear in person before the committee and which questions deserve to be asked by members.

Giving evidence in person

The vast majority of respondents to the initial call for submissions of evidence will not be called to appear in person before the committee but all the evidence will be read, reviewed and published in an auditable form (i.e. the ‘impact audit trail’) on the committee’s website. For those who are called to appear a rather nerve-wracking, sometimes slightly odd but always incredibly rewarding experience lies before them. Appearances before a select committee generally take place on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday morning and most sessions last around ninety minutes and may involve three or four witnesses appearing together.

The aim of an appearance is not for the witnesses to justify their invitation or compete with each other in terms of contributions but is really an opportunity for members of the committee to focus on very specific issues and themes that may have been raised in your specific submission or by other witnesses.

The general approach is that each of the MPs on the committee has a number of pre-arranged questions that they have been allocated and there are usually, after some generic introductory questions by the Chairman, specific questions for specific witnesses. The Palace of Westminster, and even Portcullis House, are intimidating buildings and for many academics having a panel of well-known politicians and former ministers in front of them and a host of clerks, officials, journalists and other observers taking notes behind them can be a daunting experience.

One way of making this experience slightly less stressful is to stay in close contact with the committee clerk in the days before your appearance. It is quite normal to be given a list, or at the very least a fairly detailed account, in advance of your appearance of the questions you are likely to be asked by the committee.

It is also well worth spending a little time reading around any previous reports by the committee on (or related to) the topic of your appearance (the clerk will be able to send you these documents) and also very quickly familiarising yourself with the biographies of the MPs on the committee. All select committees work around a set of eight ‘core tasks’ and produce an annual report at the end of each parliamentary session to explain how they have fulfilled each of the tasks. These annual reports (available on the committee’s website) are an incredibly quick and easy way of getting up to speed with the work of a committee.

Political world

That said, select committees are curious beasts and one of the most frequent frustrations for witnesses is the manner in which MPs tend to constantly walk in and out of hearings. This reflects the fact that MPs are often expected to be on several committees (select, standing, all-party, etc.) at the same time and will therefore sometimes need to jump in-and-out of sessions. It is also not unusual for some evidence sessions to be held with a fairly small number of MPs present due to the pressure of overlapping commitments.

There is also the unfortunate fact that on some occasions and depending on the topic, context and timing of the hearing, some MPs will use select committee hearings to try and either boost their own media profile or to draw witnesses into party-political debates.

If faced with a rather aggressive line of questioning – or a question that you feel is for one reason or another inappropriate – the best response is generally to suggest that the question is possibly one for the committee rather than witnesses. In reality, however, the professionalization of select committees has increased significantly in recent years and committee chairmen (the term used to describe both male and female incumbents) are generally grateful to and protective of academics who appear before their committees.

It would, however, be naïve to suggest that an appearance before a select committee does not involve at least a little risk on behalf of those called to appear – they can be dangerous liaisons. Not least for the simple fact that evidence sessions take place within a highly charged political context and sometimes witnesses can become lightning rods for broader tensions. One experienced committee clerk recently admitted how remarkable he still found it when the atmosphere of an evidence session suddenly ‘turned’ almost without warning. The aim of making this point is not to deter academics from engaging with Parliament because the benefits of doing so far outweigh the risks but there is much to be said for ‘playing it safe’ in terms of following some of the tips outlined below.

In summary – Ten Tips for Engaging with Parliament

1. Review the landscape – Monitor the work of the select committees regularly and build it into all stages of the research process. Building some means of continuous engagement with a committee throughout a research process can be an incredibly attractive feature for funders.

2. Be Creative – Select committees are constantly looking for new pools of expertise, fresh ways of looking at perennial topics and innovative ways of engaging with new audiences. Political theorists have much to offer Parliament.

3. Be Proactive – If you feel an important topic is being overlooked then write to the chairman or clerk of the relevant committee and explain why the topic warrants investigation. Horizon scanning is a critical element of any committee’s work.

4. Build Relationships – A lot of parliamentary communication and engagement takes place through informal channels so do spend time talking to members of the committee, liaising with the clerks or even offering to hold informal evidence sessions (or to host committee visits).

5. Hold Realistic Expectations – Parliamentary engagement is very much a slow-burn activity that very rarely delivers direct results. It is about feeding into a broader consultative process and being willing to liaise with a range of bodies.

6. Expect Momentum – The great thing about engaging with select committees is that it very often leads to completely unexpected opportunities simply due to the fact that your name, research or department has ‘bleeped’ on the Whitehall/Westminster radar. This might involve media requests, invitations to participate in departmental reviews or simply calls to work with other select committees.

7. Do Your Research – Read around the topic of the inquiry and try to ensure that your evidence reveals an awareness of the bigger picture. It is also worth knowing if the committee has investigated the same topic before, whether the government has made any recent announcements or commitments and which members of the committee are driving the inquiry.

8. Stay Close to the Clerks – If it is the role of the chairman to ‘steer’ their committee then it is most certainly the role of the clerks to do the day-to-day ‘rowing’ in terms of research and administration. Parliamentary clerks tend to possess not only the strongest intellectual minds in Whitehall and Westminster but also the sharpest political antennae. Stay close to your clerk.

9. Thick Skins Helps – A small number of MPs do take the adversarial and combative style of questioning that is customary in the Chamber up onto the Committee Corridor. If you feel that at an MP is deliberately twisting your answers, is being overly-aggressive in style or is clearly intent on using your appearance to make a party political point simply stay calm, look to the Chairman for support and don’t take it too personally.

10. Enjoy the Experience – Give yourself plenty of time to get through security, make sure you know exactly where you are going but then simply enjoy the experience. Parliamentary engagement can be one of the most rewarding and worthwhile elements of an academic’s job.

One Comment

  1. Sarah Coe
    Posted 16/10/2012 at 15:07 | Permalink

    An insightful piece stressing rightly the importance of communicating with committee staff – don’t forget also most committees also have specialists working on inquiries who are close to the policy issues and often come from academic backgrounds themselves. These full time permanent staff augment the work of clerks and sit within committee teams so know the ground well.

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