Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report


Government Replies

30. We made some criticisms last year of both the timeliness and content of Government Replies. This year we can record significant progress. Six of the eight Government Replies published during the year were received in line with the established two month deadline and no Reply was more than two weeks late. The average time taken to respond was therefore reduced from four and a half months last year to a shade over two months in 2003. We were also consulted in advance over any slight delays. We welcome this improvement.

31. In general, the Replies we received were thorough and constructive. However, there was a tendency for these Replies to restate existing policy and set out those measures already being taking rather than responding directly to any criticisms made in the Reports. We would rather that the Replies focussed on new measures and developments since the Government gave evidence or our Report was published. This has not always been the approach. We hope that the Government will use Replies to engage with the arguments, signal new developments and progress debate rather than simply restate existing policy.

32. We have noticed an increasing tendency for Ministers and departments to respond instantly to Committee Reports rather than wait for the formal Government Reply. We accept that in an age of rebuttal and "pre-buttal" the Government will seek to minimise the impact of any criticisms made. But on occasion these instant responses have misrepresented the Committee's Report or given wrong information. Following the publication of our Report on the scientific response to terrorism the Home Office Minister, Beverly Hughes, responded directly to the complaints we had made about Government co-operation with our inquiry. Her assertion that the problems had been resolved by a meeting between the Chairman and the then Minister responsible, Lord Falconer, was simply wrong: the ODPM sought to withdraw witnesses from a subsequent evidence session at the last minute. Such blatant attempts to rewrite the record, whilst not in themselves hugely significant, serve to undermine relations with committees and also to underline the benefits of reserving judgement until the properly considered response in the formal Government Reply.

Relations with OST and Government departments

33. We have enjoyed good relations with OST throughout the year. We are under no illusions that good scrutiny generates a considerable amount of work for Government. We make no apology for this. OST is a small part of the DTI but, as we said last year, it is up to the Minister to ensure that there are sufficient resources to cope with our demands. We are pleased to report that there has been an improvement in communication with the Committee over the year. We have generally been kept informed of forthcoming announcements and have been supplied with the information on performance we need to carry out our job. We are also grateful to OST for providing rapid answers to our questions prior to our annual session with the Science Minister. We look forward to this higher level of service being maintained.

34. Unfortunately, the high levels of co-operation have not always been matched by other Government departments. Our Report on The scientific response to terrorism records the difficulties we experienced with the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in securing witnesses to give evidence during the inquiry.[27] Our inquiry was significantly impaired by the actions of the Government. The Chairman of the Committee has taken up this issue with the Liaison Committee. We understand that it will consider Government co-operation with select committees as part of a wider look at the lessons to be drawn by select committees from the Hutton Inquiry.

Working methods and innovation

35. We have taken as many opportunities as possible to engage with the science community and promote a dialogue between politicians and scientists, both during and outside the context of our specific inquiries. During our inquiry on light pollution we were pleased to be able to pay a night time visit to the Royal Observatory Greenwich to observe the stars and to meet members of a number of astronomical societies. This visit gave us a real flavour of the issues involved and enabled far more amateur astronomers to put their concerns directly to us than would be possible in formal oral evidence sessions. At the end of the inquiry, instead of holding a single press conference to publicise our Report, individual Committee members launched it at appropriate constituency venues to emphasise the local as well as national impact of light pollution. These launches contributed to a large amount of publicity, both local and national, for this Report.

36. We are holding an online consultation exercise at the outset of our inquiry into human reproduction and the law. Our inquiry seeks to establish how the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act 1990 needs to be amended to take account of new developments in reproductive medical science since then. The e-consultation exercise is designed to attract the comments of both experts in the field and people with relevant personal experiences who perhaps would not normally submit formal evidence to a select committee. We hope that this approach will flush out all existing and some future problems with the current legislation and identify areas which we need to pursue further in the inquiry. This will be the first time a select committee has used an online consultation exercise to frame the terms of reference of a subsequent formal inquiry.

27   HC (2002-03) 415-I, paras 226-8 Back

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