Posted: 29 June 2018 by
Tracey Brown's article in The Guardian reminds us that evidence is vital in public debate.
Between elections, parliament is the forum for public reasoning about decisions and the state of our society ... the houses of parliament.
Owen Riches has supported Ipswich Town since he could first stand. Or rather sit. It was being made to sit that launched him, aged 17, into an investigation of safe standing at football that has landed him in a parliamentary debate this week.
Riches looked at the evidence from the German Bundesliga league and the safety record of Celtic, where safe standing is allowed, and started a No 10 petition that passed 100,000 signatures. As a result, there will be a debate in parliament on Monday, with safe standing championed by opposition MPs and the government benches already indicating that they are coming around to the evidence.
That is how it should be. A style of government where MPs respond to our lived experiences and the emerging evidence about them and use that evidence in their role as supreme scrutineers to review how government is working. Between elections, parliament is the forum for public reasoning about decisions and the state of our society. It is supposed to be alive to shifting public concerns and to new sources of information and evidence. The trouble is, it doesn’t always work like that.
Housing, IVF treatment, species monitoring, special needs education and road safety policies are just a few of the life-defining issues where affected communities struggle repeatedly to get decision-makers to pay attention to the evidence. These groups often run ahead of government in engaging expertise, self-educating and gathering data so decisions can be reasoned on the facts. For example, by demonstrating the effects of “mini-Holland” street schemes, the London Cycling Campaign has rebuffed claims they cause gridlock. The beekeepers of Somerset have engaged Exeter University to monitor hornet invasions and build a databank.
We are not living in a “post-truth” society. We only need to look around at the many people and groups from all walks of life who are investigating claims and marshalling evidence to work out the nature of problems and how to tackle them. They expect parliament to be doing the same.
That is why the first “evidence week” in the UK parliament, opening on Monday, is not some esoteric conversation between analysts and MPs but a national victory. Community groups from all over the UK will share personal stories of why evidence matters to them and others like them. A gym instructor is raising the absence of standards in claims about supplements; Aberdeen Multicultural Centre thinks evidence on climate change has cut through its community’s differences; Men’s Shed in Sheffield is asking for better knowledge about loneliness in older men.
They are calling for parliament to make good use of evidence and expertise to shape regulations and to test them in the light of new information. To do this now, in the data age, parliament must go equipped with some new evidence tools too. Government is using algorithms, building smart cities and setting up big data projects. Assessments about which rail lines to build, deployment of troops and the likely impact of a diabetes clinic – are all based on different sources and calculations to those used even half a generation ago. How well equipped is parliament to examine that?
And not only to examine. With innovations in environmental monitoring, inequality and disease modelling, and alternative sources of data, parliament could be equipped to debate the picture of the world it has been working to. Innovations in evidence could better connect policies to the real scale and causes of problems they’re designed to tackle.
But MPs need to be able to sift and analyse, to ask the right questions and harness expertise from community and research bodies, and to use the full range of the incredible Commons library, 200 years old this year but state-of-the-art on analysis. We are better equipped than ever to make decisions based on sound science, and evidence week can help us hold politicians accountable for their decisions.