You need to fully understand how parliament works to engage with it.
Working with Westminster
If you 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 also provide advice and support on engaging with parliamentarians. Contact the POST team.
Debates that do not involve legislation generally take two main forms.
Substantive motions express a definite opinion or viewpoint. They may be initiated by the government, on subjects ranging from the budget to foreign affairs, or tabled by the opposition parties, sometimes to call attention to an issue that they believe 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 and receive a reply from a government minister.
The government also sponsors adjournment debates because it allows a debate to take place without the need for the house to make a decision. 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.
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. However, once the tabled question has been answered, the MP who asked it is allowed to ask a supplementary question, as are other MPs interested in that issue.
The supplementary question must relate to 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 to parliament. 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 written 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. They will call for written submissions from interested parties.
Once these representations have been received and read, the select committee will draw up a list of people to give oral evidence and question them on the points raised by their written paper.
Following an inquiry, the select committee issues a report to which the government must respond.
Select committees are generally very keen to take oral evidence from academics. This makes them a useful opportunity 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 and should be of interest to social sciences researchers.
The Science and Technology Select Committee operates primarily through its two sub-committees, each of which will be engaged in a detailed inquiry at any given time. Subjects that have previously been considered include 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 European Union Select Committee considers EU proposals and other matters related to the EU.
Internal party committees
The Labour and Conservative parties both operate a series of backbench committees on particular policy areas. 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.
There are a large number of all-party groups that relate to either a subject or a country of common interest. MPs and peers of any party can join these.
Groups focus on everything from AIDS to the pharmaceutical industry, Cuba and Spain, to the Esperanto language.
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 act as a reasonably influential – although informal – pressure on ministers and policymakers.
It is good practice to target the members of these groups and keep them updated about relevant issues.