The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents

4Evidence, engagement and research


91.The flow of information into committees is central to their scrutiny work. This information is largely gathered through written and oral submissions, which is then evaluated to form conclusions and recommendations. Through engaging with diverse voices, listening to experts and those with lived-experience and by gathering public opinion, we are able to engage with the public as well as produce well-evidenced reports. The weight and influence of committees’ findings is largely due to this process. As these inputs are so crucial to our work, we asked whether select committees were getting the right evidence, and what barriers there were to them getting the information they need.

92.This chapter first sets out how a range of views or evidence could be used to help shape inquiry choices, and terms of reference. It then looks at how committees take formal evidence, including matters relating to witness diversity and the witness experience. It then considers the way in which diverse views from the public can be gathered and used to inform recommendations and conclusions. Lastly, it looks at how select committees engage with academic research evidence to inform their work.

Inputting into inquiry topics

93.In the preceding chapter, we recommended that committees take time to consider how they will prioritise issues over the course of the Parliament, engaging their stakeholders in these discussions and publishing their proposals for areas of work. The current lack of transparency about how inquiries are chosen can leave committees open to some criticism, with the Policy Impact Unit at UCL STEaPP noting that there can be “a perception that committees are selecting their own pet topics for investigation, or that they have been successfully lobbied by groups with vested interests”.94

94.Consulting on inquiry topics can be a way of deepening the relationship between parliamentarians and the public.95 The Science and Technology Committee’s My Science inquiries and the Scottish Affairs Committee’s My Scottish Affairs inquiries are examples of this kind of innovative and good practice. The House’s Research and Information (R&I) and Participation teams noted that, if the public is consulted and a committee actively pursues one of the ideas put forward, then it would demonstrate a “clear connection between consulting the public and impact on the Committee’s work”.96 By engaging stakeholders, the questions asked by committees are likely to be more pertinent to the policy community.97 Clearly, there will need to be a balance and committees should also clarify if there are areas that they do not feel are best considered by a select committee but by another body with more appropriate expertise.

95.Allocating more time to scoping and consulting on inquiry topics would also allow gaps in the research evidence to be identified. As the House of Commons R&I and Participation teams again told us, more time could be given to determining “what is already known, what the gaps are, how best to fill them, and how the inquiry process will help shape recommendations. This will better inform the scope, terms of reference and call for evidence, as well as how to identify witnesses that could fill in the gaps and initial questions”.98

96.Committees are also more likely to hear from a wider range of voices if they give sufficient time for their stakeholders to engage. We were struck by the evidence given by Ruth Chambers from the Green Alliance and Kayley Hignell from Citizens’ Advice who emphasised that their organisations needed at least four to six weeks to prepare submissions. The longer they had, the more chance there was that they could use their own networks to provide a research base for their submissions. Early notice and planning is key. Kayley Hignell told us that “[e]ven if it was a sense of a pipeline of inquiries—not necessarily tied down, just topics of interest, perhaps—it would allow us to prep earlier, or at least look at our priorities and where we are putting our resources”.99 This is a proposal that ties in with our earlier recommendation on the development of “Areas of Research Interest”. Where possible, committees should seek to build in opportunities for stakeholders to engage in their work, such as consulting on inquiry topics. Timescales should be set to enable those with limited resources to respond. This includes allowing sufficient time for them to prepare written submissions or to prepare for an oral evidence session.

Box 4: Crowdsourcing topics for inquiries

The Science and Technology Committee carried out My Science inquiries in 2017 and 2019. Using social media platforms, the public were invited, via written submissions or through video submissions using #MyScienceInquiry on Twitter, to put forward their ideas on what the committee should launch an inquiry. Submissions covered a broad range of subjects and came from individuals, universities, learned societies, charities, and civil society organisations. The Committee shortlisted submissions and invited shortlisted submitters to pitch their proposal in person to the Committee. The Committee subsequently launched some of these as full inquiries and acted on the others through writing letters to Ministers and incorporating relevant questions into future evidence sessions. The Scottish Affairs Committee used a similar method to carry out their My Scottish Affairs inquiry project in 2017.

Formal “evidence”

97.The word “evidence” in the context of select committee work has a particular meaning, and we consider the use of this term in chapter 6 when we discuss the language of committees. Formal evidence accepted by a select committee, either in writing or orally, allows committees to draw on the information in their reports. It also puts the information in the public domain with the protection of parliamentary privilege—the vast majority of evidence is published on the internet, with oral evidence available to watch on Even though the uniquely privileged position select committees enjoyed forty years ago has to a degree been eroded by freedom of information legislation, open government policies and online access to data, it remains one of the great advantages of the select committee system that the committees enjoy unrivalled access to information both through the respect they command as organs of the House and the goodwill they earn through their record of influence and impact.

98.The Science and Technology Committee highlighted the issue of witness interests. Subsequent to, but not related to, an appearance of a witness to that Committee allegations were made in the media about the witness’s interests. The Science and Technology Committee now informally asks witnesses in evidence sessions and those submitting written evidence to declare their interests and called for “consistent practice to apply across all Select Committees” on witness declaration of interests:

99.In particular, it would be helpful for witnesses to be asked to make clear whether any interest (financial or non-financial) they have does, or could be perceived to, affect their evidence. This could be achieved by:

100.We recommend that by the end of March 2020 the Committee Office should make proposals to the Liaison Committee on how a system for witnesses declaring interests could work and what procedural changes, decisions of the House and guidance would be needed to enable such a process.

Written evidence—format

101.Written submissions form a large part of the evidence base of an inquiry and shape its depth and direction and the identity of those invited to give oral evidence. Any barriers at this stage in the evidence gathering process are therefore critical.

102.Currently, written evidence must be submitted in Microsoft Word, be under 3000 words and contain as few pictures as possible; requirements which, as the Web and Publications Unit (WPU) noted, have been in place for over 20 years.100 When people widely and regularly use audio, video and photography to convey information—and technology means they can do so with ease—these requirements appear increasingly out-of-date.101 They have also hampered the work of some committees, requiring staff on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee to transcribe video files received during its Fake News and Disinformation inquiry before they could be accepted as evidence. The Chair of the Committee, Damian Collins MP, said that “this diminished the impact of the evidence as it was taken out of the most appropriate format, impacted the credibility of the Committee in the sectors that it operates in, and was a poor use of Committee staff time”.102 The WPU also noted that transcription was unsatisfactory and could not convey “the full range of human communication through non-verbal means”.103

103.The Welsh Assembly accepts and publishes evidence in audio and video format and has done since 2012 when the relevant Standing Order was amended to remove the reference to “written” material.104 As a result, all material submitted to committees—including video and audio clips and images—is privileged and the public is invited to submit “digital evidence” in response to calls for evidence.105 Accordingly, the views of the public gathered through audio and video recording by their Outreach team is also formal evidence. The House of Commons’ Select Committee Engagement Team called for the same approach to be applied to the information they gather through public engagement.106 Recently, they have been conducting ‘go-to democracy’, bringing the views of the public to the committee; for example, filming fishermen at the harbourside for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and interviewing shoppers about ‘toxic chemicals and everyday life’ for the Environmental Audit Committee.

104.Select committees are now operating in a very different media and communications environment, where information is conveyed as much through audio, video and image as the written word. Whatever its medium or format, information submitted to committees which they then seek to publish by order of the House ought to be recognised as formal evidence. The House must take the necessary steps to bring about this change. We invite the Procedure Committee to identify and recommend to the House any changes in the House’s practices that would be necessary to achieve this. For our part, we commit to establishing a protocol to ensure that such material is used appropriately by select committees seeking to report it, for instance by ensuring that all parties to an audio recording have consented to the reporting of such material. We have set out a possible change to Standing Orders in Annex 2 and invite the Procedure Committee to consider it.

105.We also heard that the current requirements could be preventing members of the public from engaging with the work of committees. The WPU said that they posed “educational, technical and personal” barriers which, although easy for organisations and the ‘usual suspects’ to comply with, “denie[d] many citizens a voice in inquiries”:

Requiring written documents assumes a level of literacy that many in the UK […] do not possess […] For many people a long, written document will be an extremely daunting task, and an insurmountable barrier to entry. Microsoft’s software packages start at £59.99 per year […] Parents, carers, and people in inflexible employment patterns may struggle to find time to compose a long, written document107

Yet committees often want to hear how members of the public are affected by the matters under their consideration. The WPU suggested that an online form inviting responses via a series of text boxes could encourage people to contribute and help them structure their submissions, thereby making them easier for staff to analyse.108 Nesta also recommended having an online form which could combine survey questions as well as free text answers.109

106.To our knowledge, there has been no analysis of the extent to which members of the public submit either written or oral evidence to inquiries. From our own experience we know that they are most likely to contribute where they have direct or ‘lived’ experience of an issue or have been adversely affected by a policy in some way. Even then, they are likely to be in a minority. We note, however, that calls for evidence occasionally elicit a very large public response; for example, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry on leasehold reform which received over 800 written submissions from leaseholders. Although consultations with hard-to-reach groups conducted for us by the Outreach Team revealed a keenness among the public to engage with committees, barriers to doing so included “not understanding the jargon”, “lack of confidence”, “not knowing how to get involved”, as well as a lack of IT skills and access to a computer.

107.We recognise that we need to make it as easy as possible for members of the public to engage in our work. However, the current requirements for submitting written evidence pose barriers which prevent this from happening. An online form with a series of text boxes to help structure the submission could encourage contributions from members of the public. We recommend that this should be trialled by the Web and Publications Unit over the next twelve months.

Oral evidence

108.Hearing oral evidence is a widely recognised aspect of select committee work. It is a key tool, allowing us to gather information, delve into the details of a topic and, in the case of government officials and others in positions of power and influence, to hold them to account under sustained cross-examination. The openness of the process sends an important signal that committees are transparent, open to a range of views and operating in the public interest. In this section, we reflect on what we heard about witnesses’ experiences of giving evidence.

Experiences of giving evidence

109.Our witnesses come from all backgrounds and walks of life, but we see witnesses as falling into two broad groups. ‘Professional’ witnesses who give evidence in connection with their job role, responsibilities or area of research Some will have had significant experience in a senior role, be used to public speaking and may have given evidence before, and some will not. Alongside these, and increasingly, committees seek to hear from members of the public who are ‘non-professional’ witnesses whose expertise relates to their lived experience.110

110.Whatever a person’s background, giving evidence is challenging, described variously by our witnesses as “intimidating”,111 “tough”,112 “daunting”113 and “a big deal”.114 You are being asked to give immediate answers to often challenging questions during a live broadcast on the record.115 In addition, as Ruth Chambers of Green Alliance noted, if you are representing an organisation, you “want to do a good job […] you really feel that kind of weight behind you”.116 All this takes place in a formal and imposing setting, both within the committee room with its ‘horseshoe’ and witness table set-up and beyond.117 For many, the experience of visiting Parliament—with its armed police and security measures—let alone appearing before a select committee, can be intimidating.118 The experience will be more challenging for our non-professional witnesses who may be visiting Parliament for the first time, may not be familiar with the way committees work or have the support of an organisation behind them.

111.We heard mixed reports about witnesses’ actual experiences of giving oral evidence. UCL Public Policy said that the experience of the 25 UCL academics and researchers they contacted who had given oral evidence was “generally positive”.119 This was also the case for the staff at the Institute for Government who had given evidence.120 And, despite a significant proportion (54%) of the 410 witnesses surveyed by LSE Government Department students finding their session “very” or “somewhat intimidating”, 93% of them still found it “very” or “somewhat enjoyable”.121 Very few (under 2%) said they would avoid giving evidence again and 74% said they would actively volunteer to do so. The majority of respondents also felt that they had been given the opportunity to put their points across, that the chair guided the session well and that it was focused and well-organised.

112.However, for some, the experience was not a positive one. Although this happened only once in ten years of appearing before committees, Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society recounted a “very bad experience […] over a lengthy period of time” which resulted in an apology from the chair and the clerk.122 Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayesha Saddiqi said that, despite appearing as “friendly witnesses”, the tone taken by committee members ranged from “respectful to the opposite”.123 And witnesses from the 2013–14 session interviewed by Dr Marc Geddes said that they had been treated in a way that was “far more political than they had expected or wanted given that they had attended to impart information”.124

113.On a separate but related point, Ruth Chambers of the Green Alliance told us that pausing the session to allow members to vote, sometimes several times in a row, was “terribly demoralising for a witness, who may have psyched themselves up to come to give evidence in a stressful environment”.125 We note how discourteous it can appear to witnesses and how disruptive it can be for them to have to pause an evidence session when the division bell rings. Many witnesses travel long distances to give evidence and the House should consider how its voting procedures could be modified to reduce this disruption, including trialling the use of electronic voting posts in committee rooms.

114.The style of questioning adopted by committee members can have an impact on the quality of the evidence gathered. Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayesha Saddiqi observed that, while adversarial “court-style” questioning can be appropriate when holding a witness to account, a “more gentle and (where possible) discursive style generates more interesting engagement”.126 The Institute for Government said that questions intended to gather information were the most fruitful, and that those aimed at scoring political points could lead to witnesses feeling more on edge and being more guarded.127 Their assessment, of which we take note, was that committee members vary in their ability to ask effective questions and elicit useful information.

115.We believe that it is entirely appropriate, and at times a responsibility, to subject certain witnesses to tough questioning in a formal setting. We want to put certain witnesses in the “hot seat”,128 for them to have to prepare for their appearance129 and to “test [their] competence”.130 But we want all witnesses to be able to give their best evidence, and to feel they have been treated with courtesy and respect. Otherwise, we risk damaging the reputation of select committees and discouraging potential witnesses from participating. It is also important for members to pay attention to witnesses and be ‘in the room’, rather than distracted repeatedly by electronic devices.

116.The UK Parliament’s Behaviour Code, which sets out shared behavioural expectations for the parliamentary community, applies just as much to the way we treat witnesses and those attending our public engagement sessions, as it does to our treatment of each other and House staff.

117.In order to improve the quality and effectiveness of questioning by select committees, further effort should be made to renew the mentoring and training for select committee members and chairs. This might include a new “chair’s mentoring scheme” run peer-to-peer but facilitated by the House. It might also be worth exploring the possibility of a 360 degree feedback scheme for committees which asks witnesses, special advisers, and key stakeholders, for honest (and anonymised) reflections on an annual basis. Members should agree in advance how they will deal with other communications, including social media, during committee hearings and be mindful of the impact on witnesses if members are not paying attention to their evidence.

Support for witnesses

118.Before an evidence session, it is good practice for a member of committee staff to offer each witness a telephone briefing covering what to expect on the day, the likely questions and answering any of their queries. We heard that witnesses valued having this briefing131 and the 25 academics and researchers contacted by UCL Public Policy about their experiences of giving evidence emphasised how helpful committee staff were in this regard.132 However, we heard that there was inconsistent practice across committees in terms of giving witnesses the questions in advance.133 Ruth Chambers of Green Alliance recommended this approach or “at least giv[ing] the broad areas […] to settle nerves and lead to better quality evidence”.134 Comparisons were made with the House of Lords where questions are provided in advance which we heard made it a “much more comfortable, less frightening environment”.135

119.Members of the public giving evidence, particularly young or vulnerable people or those with disabilities, will need more support prior to giving evidence and on-the-day. For example, the Health and Social Care Committee team said that, beforehand, they had had “detailed discussions” with witnesses who had been bereaved by suicide and briefed their committee members on the approach to take when questioning them, including the use of language.136 The Royal Mencap Society described how they had worked with different committee teams to support people with a learning disability to give oral evidence, saying that it required “preparation, support, understanding and sometimes a longer timescale”.137 The box below contains an extract from their written submission which sets out useful advice for committees on how to create an inclusive oral evidence session.

Box 5: An extract from The Royal Mencap Society’s written submission

To have a learning disability, that is to say to have an intellectual disability, can mean difficulty in responding to questions on the spot as well as understanding complex phrases, jargon, acronyms, abstract phrases and so on. The key to addressing this is support and preparation […]

Committee members ‘sticking to the script’ is helpful, that is to say asking questions in the order people are expecting and using the same wording of the question the witness is expecting. It may of course be that a committee member wishes to ask a follow up supplementary question, but making it clear it is supplementary and not from the ‘script’ is again helpful. We have found that a ‘double act’ with supporter sitting next to the witness works well as they can help the witness find their place on the ‘script’ should the discussion stray as well as in some cases ‘translate’ supplementary questions […] An awareness among committee members is important and they are given tips and advice on creating an inclusive session—for example not using complex language, jargon etc. In some cases, it can be easier for the witness to read out more of a statement, rather than take questions as the interactive nature Q&As could still prove challenging […] We have also found that sending a copy of the witnesses’ responses ahead to committee members is helpful. This was particularly useful as one of the people we supported also had a speech impairment and we wanted to ensure everyone could engage fully with her testimony.

120.We were also told that a “practical meet and greet” on arrival could really make a difference to a witness’ experience.138 Ruth Chambers of Green Alliance recounted an example of when this had been done well by a committee in the House of Lords:

One member of the secretariat was outside the room to meet and greet witnesses. They had a little iPad that showed the seating plan and told people where to go in the room—a small thing but it makes a difference—and they talked through how the Committee session would be run. Then the Chairman came out and introduced himself […] It was really no more than setting the mood music, but […] it really made a difference.139

Although not a formal routine, we often take time speak to witnesses before or after a session to put them at ease or thank them for their time. For example, when taking evidence from young people with special educational needs and disabilities earlier this year, the Education Committee suspended the session between each panel to allow time for the young people to settle in and for introductions and to answer their questions.140 Furthermore, to thank them for their contribution, committee staff will sometimes arrange for witnesses to watch a debate in the Chamber or have a tour of the Palace of Westminster after the session.

121.Those appearing before committees in person should be supported to give the best account they can. This means offering all such people a telephone briefing and, unless committees feel that their status and the topic on which they are giving evidence should preclude it, giving them guidance on the likely questions or topics in advance. There should be no theological anguish amongst committee staff about whether or not this might trespass on the zone of contempt of the House. Chairs should also consider taking steps to put witnesses at ease before a session, greeting witnesses on their arrival, introducing themselves and setting the scene.

Format of public hearings

122.Most public sessions of committees are held with committee members sat around the horseshoe and witnesses at the table in front of them. This formal layout, reminiscent of a judicial inquiry with the focus on the witness, can aid our questioning and holding to account in certain circumstances. However, as we heard, it does “not lend [itself] to a particularly friendly atmosphere for somebody who is not at all used to it”.141 Professor Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield said that “creat[ing] a less formal and legalistic atmosphere [is] absolutely critical when it comes to engaging with younger people or individuals from hard to reach sections of society”.142

123.Committees have diverged from this format on various occasions, seating everyone around the horseshoe and table to make those taking part feel more comfortable.143 The Education Committee said that their recent roundtable session had enabled them to have an “in-depth conversation” with their interlocutors and to hear from more of them at once.144 Ruth Chambers of Green Alliance said that, in her experience, a roundtable format helped less experienced participants provide better evidence: “you feel part of a conversation and discussion, and you contribute rather differently as a result”.145

124.Video link is another way of enabling witnesses who might otherwise find it difficult, for example due to personal circumstances or limitations on their ability to travel, to give oral evidence. Dr Danielle Beswick said it held “significant promise as a technology for engaging a more diverse range of witnesses […] allow[ing] committees to take formal oral evidence from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in other countries, and from uniquely qualified and experts and practitioners overseas”.146 Despite the potential benefits, her research revealed that its use by committees has been “sporadic”.147 The International Development Committee, which has used video-link in the past, said it was “perceived as being difficult, expensive, vulnerable to glitches and/or complicated”, suggesting that this was a barrier to its wider use among committees.148 They called for video-conferencing technology to be made permanently available in a dedicated room on the Estate along with interpretation facilities.

125.Committees’ needs must be considered in both the design of the temporary House and planning our future return to Parliament. We need flexible spaces which can be easily adapted so we can take evidence in different formats and there must be ready access to reliable, and preferably permanently situated, video-conferencing facilities.

126.We currently use private seminars as a way of increasing our understanding or delving into the technicalities of a particular topic. Professor Meg Russell suggested that this could be a less intimidating way of taking evidence from non-professional participants, reversing the presumption that such “evidence” should be taken on the record.149 She suggested that we consider this a “trade-off between quality of evidence and transparency”. Hansard does not currently transcribe informal proceedings, but having a record of such sessions is extremely valuable. We recommend that Hansard be resourced and therefore enabled to provide this support.

Witness diversity

127.Witness gender diversity was a common theme of the evidence we received and an issue which this Committee has a particular and recurrent interest in. The gender data we publish each session shows that far fewer women are witnesses, only 37% of discretionary witnesses in 2017–19.150 This proportion is, however, growing, rising from 29% in 2015–16.

128.The increase in the number of female witnesses is likely to be attributable to the efforts of committees, as well as hopefully to wider changes in society. These efforts include placing witness diversity statements on webpages and in communications with witnesses and offering extra spaces on panels to organisations if they can improve the diversity. In addition, the convention agreed in our recent report, Witness gender diversity, has set a specific goal that, by the end of this Parliament, at least 40% of our discretionary witnesses should be female and that a panel of three or more discretionary witnesses should normally include at least one woman.151 We restate this aim and encourage committees to continue their efforts and share good practice on the steps they have taken to increase witness diversity. We also have further to go on BAME representation and this should also be an area of focus.

129.The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee said that, despite their strong encouragement, it was often difficult to secure gender diversity among their witnesses due to the energy sector being male-dominated at senior levels.152 They said that companies and organisations also had a duty to consider witness diversity and the public image of “regular unremittingly male panels”, recommending that the guidance for witnesses153 be updated to reflect this.154 We wholeheartedly agree. When deciding who to put forward as witnesses, organisations should share and respect our commitment to diversity and consider how a lack of diversity among their representatives might appear to the wider public and reflect on their sector.

130.Returning to the data we collect, we note its weakness in that it does not capture witness’ self-declared gender but is instead based on the judgement of the committee team. Also, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the category of ‘non-discretionary’ witnesses (people who appear because they hold a particular position, namely Ministers and key office holders) is interpreted differently by different committees.155

131.Moreover, we fully appreciate that the data we currently collect is very limited. We were told that committees should also be monitoring age, ethnicity, disability status, nationality, geography and income,156 and Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayesha Saddiqi suggested that this could be done by giving witnesses a form to fill in when they give evidence.157 This could also be a way of collecting feedback on oral evidence session, as currently happens in the Scottish Parliament.158 We recommend that steps should be taken by the Committee Office to gather wider data on witness diversity and witnesses’ feedback on oral evidence sessions, possibly by way of a questionnaire sent to witnesses after a session.

Public engagement: listening to those with lived-experience


132.We are convinced of the value of and need for public engagement—both face-to-face and digital—seeing it very much as a listening activity rather than an occasion to “broadcast” about the work of Parliament.159 As well as allowing us to hear how members of the public are affected by the issues we are exploring, it creates a much richer, more diverse information base, balancing what we hear from professional stakeholders who most often contribute to inquiries.160 The Petitions Committee, which frequently undertakes public engagement, said that it led to “better informed debates and inquiries”, providing them with the expertise of people with lived experience.161

133.The amount of public engagement undertaken by committees has risen sharply in recent years, from 18 face-to-face events or activities (with a total of 575 attendees) arranged by the Select Committee Engagement Team (SCET) in 2016–17 to 36 (with 1227 attendees) in 2018–19.162 Committees are continually innovating in their approach, moving beyond the familiar roundtable and ‘town hall’ methods to deliberative workshops, using voting pods and ‘go to democracy’. Committees also make frequent use of digital engagement, launching web forums or online surveys around 3 or 4 times a month to find out more about the public’s views on an issue.

134.As demonstrated by the case studies accompanying this section, committees, the SCET and the Web and Publications Unit are using public engagement to gather the information they need in a way that suits their audience. Furthermore, by harnessing the support of the Outreach Team, the SCET have been able to access ‘hard to reach’ audiences.163 However, the assessment of Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues at the University of Leeds was that, while there was “much to celebrate”, there was “still further work to do”.164 The evidence from the SCET and others also highlighted various ways in which current practice could be developed and enhanced.165 We consider these in the sections below.

Box 6: The Science and Technology Committee: using multiple channels of engagement to hear from a hard-to-reach audience

In 2018 the Science and Technology Committee ran an inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health. The nature of the topic area meant that it was important for the committee to hear the experiences and views of young people directly. In order to do this, the committee used three different engagement methods.

A deliberative workshop between committee staff and a visiting school to Parliament (the school were already booked in for a visit to Parliament’s Education Centre). This consultation allowed the committee to hear directly from 25 students aged 13–16 about their views on social media and screen use.

Through the use of voting pods, 942 young people (aged 8–16) visiting the Education Centre at Parliament and those being visited by Education and Engagement Outreach Officer across the UK, were anonymously polled. Using Turning Point software, questions and multiple-choice answers related to the inquiry were displayed on the screen, the participants then gave their answers anonymously via their own voting pod. The aggregate data from the multiple groups taking part was collected and combined and used by the committee as part of their inquiry.

The Committee and the Select Committee Engagement Team worked together to create and publicise a distributed dialogue pack, a lesson plan designed to capture the views of young people on the impact of social media. The distributed dialogue packs were publicised through the Education and Engagement newsletter, Teacher Ambassadors, Twitter feeds and visiting groups to the Education Centre. The Committee shared the pack with MPs and encouraged them to share it with schools in their constituencies. The pack was used and completed by 21 schools, providing the Committee with the views of over 3000 young people.

By using three different methods of engagement, the committee was able to gather both quantitative and qualitative information from a wide range of young people from different areas of the UK. Another benefit is that these methods taught young people, who may not otherwise have been aware, about the value of select committees and their work. Moreover, it empowered the participants to actively feed into the work of Parliament; after learning about it, they then had the chance to be part of it.

Enhancing current practice

Taking a more purposeful approach

135.As we discussed in chapter 2, a strategic or “purposeful” approach to public engagement, which entails taking the time to plan or “fram[e]” public engagement in the context of an inquiry and consider how best it could contribute, is needed.166 Involve, a leading public participation charity, highlighted the benefits of having a “clear brief”, setting out a series of questions which, if considered at the outset with sufficient lead-in time, would help to ensure public engagement generated useful evidence.167 These included asking what the committee wants to learn, who the committee wants to hear from and by when and in what format the findings should be presented.168 We also heard that giving more thought to when public engagement should take place within the inquiry process would be helpful. Some of the committee chairs interviewed by Dr Danielle Beswick for her research reported that it came “frustratingly late in the process when much of the formal evidence had been taken”.169

136.It is also important to emphasise that, for public engagement to be successful and generate useful information, consideration needs to be given to the method used.170 Thinking about the “brief” described above,171 as well as the audience’s needs and how they could best input their views,172 will help committees and their staff to identify the most appropriate method. We believe that committees are doing this effectively with advice and support from the SCET. For example, the evidence from the Petitions Committee demonstrated their use of a wide range of methods—face-to-face and digital—chosen to suit the particular audience.173

Increasing accessibility

137.The timing and location of events, the financial implications of attending and the use of complex language and jargon are factors which can limit the accessibility of public engagement to participants.174 We were concerned to hear the SCET say that the timing of our events, usually on weekdays, and the fact that participants were volunteering their time meant a wide range of people were being excluded.175 The many competing demands on our time, and the need for us to be in Westminster on certain days of the week, do limit our ability to travel, and while we cover participants’ travel expenses, particularly those with caring responsibilities, we are not able to reimburse them for their time. Nor do we have a budget at present to help people attend our more informal engagement activities beyond Westminster. We recommend that the Committee Office explores the costs and constraints on widening the scope of the “witness expenses” arrangements to embrace a wider range of events both in Westminster and beyond and brings forward costed proposals for enhancing this capacity.

138.The alternative proposed by the SCET is for them to go to the public and gather their views via filming and audio recording. As discussed earlier, this approach would be greatly facilitated by recognising film and audio recording as formal evidence.

Other outputs

139.Some committees also use topical letters to respond flexibly to topical issues, for example publishing correspondence with Ministers and other stakeholders. We welcome this, and encourage committees to supplement the standard process of inquiries and reports by other less formal initiatives.

Box 7: The Environmental Audit Committee: going to where people are

Select committees are exploring ways that engagement can be designed to best suit the audiences they are trying to reach. Engagement methods have been used by the Environmental Audit Committee, whereby information is collected from people where they are rather than expecting them to make the journey to Westminster.

In May 2019, the Environmental Audit Committee used a form of ‘go to democracy’. Staff from the committee together with engagement staff went to an IKEA in London and a shopping centre in Leeds to gain insight into the public’s awareness around issues to do with their inquiry into ‘toxic chemicals and everyday life.’ Staff spoke to 160 people as they shopped, using a survey as the basis for conversation and writing notes on key comments from these discussions. Some of these participants were filmed and these clips can be shared with Members of the committee or on social media to promote the inquiry. By using this method, the committee gained the public’s true and instinctive opinion on the issue. Moreover, it allowed them to hear directly from their target audience of ‘consumers’ and engaged with people who probably would not have got involved in the inquiry but were given the option to do so by the committee going to where they already were.

Some individuals may feel uncomfortable discussing their experiences of sensitive topics in front of a group. Equally, they may feel uneasy about the lack of anonymity provided with filmed interviews. To overcome this barrier to engagement, the Environmental Audit Committee used a Dictaphone to record informal interviews as part of their Sustainable Development Goals in the UK follow-up inquiry. In November 2018, committee staff and engagement staff visited social supermarkets and community hubs in London and Yorkshire. During these visits they conducted interviews with users of these services and volunteers at the centre. The recordings of these interviews allowed the committee to consider evidence from those actually experiencing hunger in the UK providing a stronger sense of the human impact of food insecurity.

140.Good facilitation of public engagement also promotes accessibility, helping participants to put forward their views with confidence and ensuring those with louder voices do not dominate the discussion and that everyone feels they have been listened to. Committee members generally facilitate discussions, but sometimes it falls to committee staff. This is a role which requires specialist skills and can be difficult, particularly when the subject under discussion arouses strong feelings. We agree with the SCET that committee members and staff would benefit from receiving training in how to facilitate public engagement events.176

Monitoring and recording

141.Professor Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues observed that the monitoring of public engagement across committees seemed “relatively underdeveloped”.177 Although the SCET collects data on activities, methods and participants, which is then regularly reported to the Committee Office, there is currently no “embedded institutional process” of the kind recommended by these academics.178 To this end, Nesta recommended creating an “engagement register”, a “simple, shareable resource” which evaluated different activities and recorded success.179 This could also be consulted by staff, some of whom Nesta had observed had a low awareness of the different methods being used by other committees. We note Involve’s suggestion that a “quick-reference guide” for committee staff setting out method descriptions and case studies could be helpful.180 We recommend that the Committee Office and Select Committee Engagement Team together find a way to capture, record and evaluate, in a way that can easily shared and accessed by different teams, the range of digital and face-to-face public engagement activities being undertaken by committees and how these can be used more effectively. The monthly analytics retrospective produced by the Web and Publications Unit which presents data on committees’ online activities could feed into this.

142.We also heard that it was difficult for the public to develop a rounded picture of committees’ public engagement activities,181 which is perhaps why some of our witnesses were not aware of the extent of the work being done.182 As Involve observed, the information is “not easily available—certainly not all in one place”.183 This is a great pity as committees and the SCET deserve recognition for their public engagement work and keenness to innovate in this regard, and we hope that this report provides an insight into the excellent work being done and that our annual reports will also start to tell this story.


143.We are aware that public engagement is not consistently recorded and presented in committee reports. Several submissions highlighted this, saying that the views gathered “don’t always seem to inform reports directly and explicitly”,184 that there was “uncertainty and inconsistency of practice”185 as to how the information should be incorporated and that sometimes it was “hidden in the annex”.186 Proposals to address this included recording public engagement in a dedicated section of the report187 and clearer and more systematic integration of the information obtained within the text of the report itself, showing how it influenced the committee’s deliberations.188 We note that the Petitions Committee’s reports draw heavily on the personal stories they hear when consulting the public,189 and we commend this approach.


144.Providing feedback to participants after public engagement is very important. The SCET explained that the value was “not only in making the participants feel that their opinion and time have been valued [and] encouraging them to participate again in the future, but [that] select committees have an important role to play in helping to change the public’s perception of Parliament”.190 We heard, however, that practice across committees—which includes thanking participants in the Chamber, by email and on social media and sending them reports—was “by no means consistent”.191 And, although there were positive stories to tell about how the information gathered had shaped committees’ thinking, they were not reaching participants.192 Nesta suggested having a “more formalised public engagement ‘response’” which could be in a digital format “delivered personally by either senior committee staff, or the chair on larger-scale engagements, summarising how submissions were used and how they influenced the final inquiry recommendations to the Government”.193

Digital engagement

145.Committees are increasingly using digital engagement—for example, web forums, online surveys, digital debates, Twitter and Facebook—to gather the views of the public. These tools enable committees to reach large numbers of people, including members of targeted groups, quickly and without the barriers which we referred to in paragraph 105. By way of illustration, a web forum opened by the Petitions Committee inviting the public’s views on funding for research on brain tumours attracted 1,100 responses in five days,194 and web forums on Boxing Day shopping and on PIP and ESA attracted around 8000 and 2800 comments respectively. Online surveys are also proving to be a popular way for committees to gauge public opinion on an issue. To encourage a good response rate, these are often promoted by external organisations or via Twitter for a fee. Committees make efforts to recognise the public’s contributions through digital engagement; for example, after using Instagram Stories to promote the Health and Social Care Committee’s recent survey into sexual health services (which had over 400 responses) the results were presented in a visually engaging article.195

146.Although sometimes hosted on external websites, such as Mumsnet and Money Saving Expert, web forums are most often located on, which has the benefit of being a neutral space clearly linked to the UK Parliament. However, we heard that, much like the website itself, the tool was outdated and not user friendly.196 Nesta suggested it could be improved by enabling dialogue between users, having a search function and allowing staff to determine whether it should be open to the public or private.197 Some committees have trialled the engagement tool, Discourse, which facilitates dialogue between contributors (see box 8 below). Nesta gave us a useful insight into how other parliaments were approaching digital engagement and some of the other different tools available:

The Welsh National Assembly has been successful using proprietary forum tool, Dialogue, for running online consultations involving small-medium sized crowds. […] the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies […] uses open-source forum tool, Discourse […] Another tool called Your Priorities—used in a pilot project by the French National Assembly and by the Scottish Parliament—is specifically designed to encourage more consensual style of online conversation. Wikisurveys are another promising area for large-scale crowdsourcing of ideas and opinions […].198

They also made the point that that Parliament’s new website, which is currently under construction, should be designed to accommodate, or at least facilitate, the use of different engagement tools if so desired. We agree. Digital engagement is an increasingly useful tool for committees, enabling us to hear directly from large numbers of people and specific sections of the public. Work should begin between the Parliamentary Digital Service and Web and Publications Unit to trial new digital engagement tools and ensure that the new website can facilitate the use of a range of these.

147.We are keen to make increased use of digital engagement but note the challenges in terms of analysing the often very large amounts of information generated and ensuring its representativeness and reliability.199 As noted earlier in this chapter, as with all public engagement, the results should clearly feed into the inquiry and be presented in the eventual report. It is fair to say, however, that committee staff do not generally have the specialist computational skills, tools or time to analyse large amounts of data. Acknowledging this, Professor Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues suggested help could be sought from the Parliamentary Digital Service or a case be made for expanding the WPU or SCET to include staff with these skills.200 We note that the research budget could be used to commission analysis from an external organisation of the data gathered from digital engagement and would endorse this approach where taken, but we also note that development of a greater in-house capability may be worth exploring. This is another area where better resourcing of central services for committees might benefit all select committees.

Box 8: The Work and Pensions Committee’s web forum on Personal Independence Payments and Employment and Support Allowance

In 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee opened a web forum on PIP and ESA Assessments where any member of the public could comment; it received over 2,500 responses. It used these responses to formulate recommendations on compulsory audio recordings of PIP and ESA assessments to restore trust and improve accountability. Widely covered in news media, the forum is still one of the most visited committee pages on the parliamentary website each month. The Department for Work and Pensions accepted the recommendations in their response, highlighting the role of the forum in coming to this decision.

Box 9: Piloting the digital engagement tool, Discourse

The Transport Committee and the Environment Audit Committee ran a pilot of the digital engagement tool, Discourse, in May 2019. Discourse is an online forum where people can discuss issues around an inquiry. Users are able to moderate themselves by liking or flagging comments, and deleting their own comments. The public had two weeks to share their thoughts on three topic areas relating to the specific inquiry. The Transport Committee used their pavement parking inquiry and had 108 comments with 95 unique participants. This platform was advertised through Facebook and via relevant stakeholders. This enabled the Committee to connect with people who they may not have reached with conventional methods to add to the evidence already received.

Box 10: The Women and Equalities Committee’s ‘evidence check’ and web forum on sexual harassment in schools

For their 2016 inquiry into sexual harassment in schools, the Women and Equalities Committee invited the public’s views on the Department for Education’s assessment of the scale of sexual harassment in schools. They also used a web forum to crowdsource scrutiny, and heard from teachers, academics and charities. The participants disagreed with the Department’s assessment, arguing that they had significantly underestimated how widespread sexual harassment in schools was, and the Government was forced to reassess and provide a more accurate figure. This exercise was named a global pioneer in digital democracy by Nesta.201

Deliberative public engagement

148.‘Deliberative’ or ‘participatory’ public engagement (sometimes known as ‘mini publics’) bring together representative samples of the public to learn about, discuss and reach conclusions on certain topics. The topics chosen are usually those that have proven politically intractable or address moral or constitutional issues and where knowing the public’s views would create space for political consensus and a solution to be found.202 Mini publics vary in size: ‘citizens’ assemblies’ typically have 50 to 150 participants, while ‘citizens’ juries’ are smaller in scale, and ‘citizens’ panels’ which meet over a longer period of time can be small or large.203 The duration depends on the complexity of the topic, the amount of information participants need to hear and the decisions they are being asked to make—requiring a day, a weekend or sometimes longer. This method was first employed by the UK Parliament in 2018 when the Health and Social Care Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee held a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care (CASC) as part of their joint inquiry on the long-term funding of adult social care (see the box below for more details).

149.This type of public engagement is undoubtedly resource intensive, requiring dedicated staff time for design, delivery and facilitation and for participants’ expenses to be covered. The CASC was only made possible due to donations from two charitable foundations in addition to funding from the committee research budget. However, the benefits it brought to the inquiry and the weight it added to the committees’ recommendations make a strong case for the wider use of mini publics where the topic is appropriate, and we look forward to seeing the results of the citizens’ assembly on net-zero being held this autumn.204 The House of Commons R&I and Participation team suggested that a cost-effective approach could be to use in-house resources and try “lighter touch” deliberative methods.205 We note that earlier this year the Scottish Parliament held its first citizens’ jury, on funding and advice for land management, which was designed and delivered in-house. The House should consider how knowledge and learning on citizens’ assemblies and other types of deliberative public engagement should best be captured, recorded and shared with a view to undertaking such activities more easily in the future.

Box 11: Health and Social Care Committee and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry on the long-term funding of adult social care

In 2018, the Health and Social Care Committee and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee undertook a joint inquiry on the long-term funding of adult social care in England. As part of the inquiry, the committees commissioned a citizens’ assembly. The Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care (CASC) brought together a representative group of 47 members of the public who, over two weekends in April and May, worked through a three-step process of learning, discussion and deliberation and reaching conclusions about their preferred ways forward. A team of professional facilitators supported this process, ensuring that everyone was heard and felt comfortable participating.

The CASC made a range of recommendations, which were fed into the inquiry and considered by the committees alongside the written and oral evidence. Hearing the public’s wishes, helped the committees to agree a set of bold recommendations about the future funding of social care. Key recommendations which the CASC influenced included that the personal element of social care should eventually be delivered free to everyone who needs it and that additional funding should be raised by a ‘Social Care Premium’ paid by people between the ages of 40 and 65. The assembly also helped to clarify likely areas of resistance to certain possible policy recommendations; for example, on the inclusion of housing assets.

Future research and development

150.The evidence from Professor Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues referred to the need for a “more systemic approach” to public engagement.206 Having consistent and agreed processes in place for monitoring, recording and reporting on public engagement and feeding back—as discussed earlier—would facilitate this. Closer and more joined up working, and making use of the skills and systems beyond the Committee Office, would also help. For example, we have a great deal to learn from the Petitions Committee and could make more use of the fact that they could help us (with appropriate consents) to reach the public through their database of petitioners.207 The SCET has been working with Parliamentary Outreach and making use of their network to access hard to reach audiences and enable them to feed into committees’ inquiries. There may be scope to do more of this and make use of the skills and resources in other teams across the House; for example, the Parliamentary Digital Service could provide support with the creation of digital engagement tools and the Evaluation and Insight team could provide support with analysing and interpreting the data collected. In general, what we heard during this inquiry underlined the need for greater research, development and knowledge exchange capacity within the Committee Office, and better connections between the Select Committee Outreach Service and this capacity.

Research evidence

151.Select committees also use the word “evidence” in a more traditional way—in the sense of “research evidence” provided largely, but not exclusively, by academic communities. We heard some concerns that select committees were not able to gain access to a diverse range of research information, and that they were not always able to make best use of the research that was available. We believe there is great merit in effective use of research information with best practice available.

Evidence checks

152.The Government often assembles research evidence in its policy making process which would be of great value to committees’ work. However, this research is not always publicly available and can be hard to find.208 A number of those who gave evidence to our inquiry suggested that this was an area where select committees could focus their attention. They could “reverse the sequence” by asking a department to provide its evidence base before an inquiry began.209 They could conduct “evidence checks”—an innovation which has been led by work by the Education Committee and Science and Technology Committee have already done. We endorse the use of evidence checks by select committees and encourage a wider range of committees to consider their use where appropriate. We would like government to be more open to sharing its own evidence base with select committees.

Box 12: Evidence checks

Originally driven by the Science & Technology (S&T) Committee in 2005, Evidence Checks have since been undertaken by the Education Committee (in 2014), Women and Equalities Committee (2016, called a Fact Check) and again by the S&T Committee (in 2016). The model has differed between committees but each has used it to encourage departments to be more transparent about the evidence base for policy decisions and to open this up to wider scrutiny. For example, the Education Committee asked the department to produce two-page summaries of its use of evidence in nine policy areas. The department’s responses were then posted on a series of online web forums hosted on the Parliament website, with the public invited to comment on “the strength of the evidence provided”. The web forum posts were then reviewed and used to identify policy areas that would be the subject of oral evidence sessions.

Research centres and syntheses of evidence

153.Select committee recommendations and conclusions are often at their strongest when they use cutting-edge and expert academic research. Connecting select committees to research communities, and synthesising academic study for non-specialist audiences is vital. There have been several successful approaches taken to this work which we commend, and which we would encourage UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to use as a model for future engagement.

154.UK in a Changing Europe is a research hub, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to provide an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information and analysis about UK-EU relations. The hub is a one-stop shop for all things Brexit, enabling committees across multiple policy areas to find evidence to inform their work. The Centre’s affiliated researchers have submitted oral and written evidence over 100 times since its inception in 2015.210

155.We also have found the Cabinet Office-led What Works Network (WWN) is a key source of high-quality evidence synthesis across a broad range of policy areas. UKRI stated that “select committees have not been the target audience for these centres but the synthesis of evidence is likely to be of interest and use to committees where relevant to their inquiries”.211 The National Institute for Health Research’s Policy Research Units, and systematic reviews facilities, such as the EPPI-centre at the UCL Institute of Education, were also highlighted as important sources.212

156.For Transforming Evidence, the evidence needs of committees were unique and required engagement with multiple evidence “clearinghouse” organisations because “existing evidence production and clearinghouse organisations can act as sources of evidence, but existing models such as the What Works Centres are unlikely to supply what scrutiny requires, being too narrow, solutions-focused, and unrepresentative of the scope of public debate”.213 AsSIST-UK noted too that committees would benefit from using different forms of evidence, including both syntheses of evidence on “what works” in specific programmes and interventions and that enables “a sense of how prior experience and deeper historical experience can be reflected on to shape the future”.214

157.R&I and Participation highlighted that in-house services of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) include conducting rapid evidence reviews for select committees and suggested that this be done more routinely.215 The Health and Social Care Committee team noted that “our Committee regularly commissions work from POST which makes a valuable contribution to our work”.216 Several submissions also noted a role for POST in signposting committees to relevant existing evidence, as part of a wider information or evidence infrastructure with external partners to meet the evidence needs of select committees.217 We welcome the positive contribution that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology makes to the work of select committees. However, efforts to make best use of the research capacity and knowledge of academic institutions and other research based organisations must continue. We recommend that POST, the Committee Office, UKRI and the other research councils, along with the major charitable research funding foundations build more systematic and better understood structures within which co-operation between select committees and the wider research community can be more effectively enabled and enhanced.

Diversity in research evidence

158.It is clear to us that issues around a lack of diversity in stakeholder engagement and the prominence of the “usual suspects” applies as much to diversity of research expertise as across other stakeholder groups. This appears to be particularly the case for the academic sector, which is both underrepresented when compared to other stakeholder groups, and unrepresentative of the breadth of the academic research community.218 UCL Public Policy recommended that: “All select committees should seek to increase the diversity of the expertise with which they engage, including academic expertise, in terms of gender, ethnicity, career stage, geographical location and social background of witnesses and advisers.”219 Suggestions as to how to increase diversity of research expertise centred on academia and included training, fellowships, informal engagement, brokerage functions and culture change.

159.The House’s Knowledge Exchange Team, based in POST, which is part funded by the ESRC, delivers regional training events with universities on how to engage with Parliament, helping connect select committees with academics in a wider range of institutions and different levels of seniority. UKRI suggested that it would be useful to “assess the role that outreach and regional visits are playing in building connections with leading researchers”.220 We agree, and we recommend that work with UKRI and other relevant bodies in building connections with the research community through outreach and the use of fellowships, secondments and short-term attachments be taken forward by POST and the Committee Office.

160.POST also runs internships and placements which enhance researchers’ understanding of parliamentary processes, as well as providing access to research expertise for select committees. Some schemes are also run externally, including the Cambridge Science and Policy Fellowships, UCL Policy Fellowships, the Hansard Scholars scheme and the Royal Society pairing scheme. These schemes received praise from committees which had been associated with them.221 We would support further investment both within Parliament, and from external organisations, in fellowship and internship schemes.

161.Increasing access to a diverse range of research evidence will also require change from within the sector itself. The “impact agenda” in the Research Excellence Frameworks (REF) have incentivised higher education institutions to think much harder about the real-world effect of their research. Partly as a result of work from within Parliament, the REF 2021 has acknowledged influencing public debate and scrutiny as a key indicator of impact. The various research hubs which are seeking to develop links between policy makers and academia need to interact in a more systematic way with select committees to help identify academic witnesses who can provide a greater diversity and range of perspectives, as well as building long term links with committees. As UCL STEaPP argued:

Research funders need to take the first step, making funding for policy-relevant research contingent on demonstration of planned policy engagement. Universities need to take the second step by establishing policy impact units to assist their researchers in maximising their engagement with policymakers.222

162.Committees also need to make their own contribution. Consultation on topics for inquiries, and the publication of Areas of Research Interest as highlighted in chapter 2 above, would make it much easier for research communities to engage with select committee scrutiny. So too would setting realistic deadlines for providing evidence and having a strategic long-term plan for their inquiries. Lastly, committees should also do more to demonstrate when expert advice has been vital in their work.223 As the House’s R&I and Participation Team told us:

A mechanism or acknowledgement of how evidence is used in an inquiry would be very helpful in closing the circle and encouraging re-engagement in the future. This would also help in academics being recognised by their Institution for the work they put into submissions, a lack of recognition being seen as a barrier in a recent survey conducted by POST.224

Working with the charitable sector

163.The resource of publicly-funded research in higher education institutions is not the place where important evidence is accumulated. The Association of Charitable Foundations reminded us that its 380 members collectively hold assets of around £50bn and give over £2.5bn annually—much of it to support research which is close to those who are directly experiencing or directly involved in ameliorating some of the most intractable issues we face. They told us:

Foundations have a distinct ‘helicopter’ view of civil society and the impact of the policy environment within their fields, as well as insight into the reality on the ground. Foundations have long-standing experience and expertise across a broad range of issues, are unbound by political or market cycles and, as charities themselves, they are strictly non-partisan. Foundations also have specialist knowledge about funding practices and mechanisms for supporting civil society.225

They also told us that their research, being close to practitioners, could often identify gaps in policy, develop new approaches and ways of working, and spot trends that may otherwise be missed, and recommended that select committees should draw on their experience and expertise, believing that they could make a unique contribution to the evidence base and to policy-making. They provided some examples of where foundations had already engaged closely and collaboratively with select committees and enabled much deeper engagement with those with direct experience of working within the current policy framework. The ACF noted that:

… several foundations are already taking up the opportunities presented by select committees as a lever to effect change. But there may be a lack of awareness of the impact that engaging with select committees can have in influencing policy. This may be a barrier to select committees accessing a broad range of evidence and information. Encouraging more foundations to feed into these processes would be valuable in ensuring diverse perspectives and robust evidence are heard and utilised by select committees.226

We agree. This is another area where best practice in some committees could valuably be generalised but where awareness also needs to be raised amongst the kind of organisations which are beneficiaries of the foundations’ funding. We recommend that the Committee Office act upon the Association of Charitable Foundation’s offer to facilitate better engagement with the charitable research foundations and that this function is also assigned to the Office’s central knowledge exchange capacity, working together with POST.

Funding for research

164.The House of Commons puts aside a modest sum of money to pay for commissioned research for committees. It is often used for small pieces of discrete research, but recently was used to pay for part of the Citizens’ Assembly on Adult Social Care (although this was only viable with co-funding from some charitable foundations). We have recently secured an increase in the annual commissioned research budget for committees.

165.However, by comparison with other research-based organisation that sum is microscopic. UK Research and Innovation has a total budget of more than £7 billion. At a more realistically comparable level, the UK in a Changing Europe programme alone has a budget of £3.19 million for 2019–2022. This compares to our own budget for commissioning research which in 2019–20 will be £200,000. The most effective way for Committees to access research is to find ways to work in partnership with, and gain access to, not only the outputs of our publicly-funded research sector but also to its inputs, helping to influence (but not seeking to control) the priorities of the research funders and the criteria used in awarding grants. The publicly funded research sector should also continue to recognise the value in contributing to public debate and parliamentary scrutiny, and to reward academic institutions which contribute to this goal.

166.As numerous studies have shown, the biggest impediment to maximising the ability of committees to use academic research is that they and the universities generally march to a different drumbeat (though as we have seen, the charitable sector can be more agile). It is also the case that the two groups use a different language, though academics are becoming increasingly adept at translating their research into usable summaries and syntheses. But all that takes time as well, which is a scarce commodity. So once again, it is vital that committees make the effort to plan ahead and mix short-term inquiries with those with a long lead time in which they can maximise the opportunity for participation by the research sector. As we said in chapter 2, planning is a key element in strengthening the committees’ scrutiny function.

A centre for public evidence?

167.As we have noted above, the impact agenda in research has incentivised the universities to give more attention to engaging with policy-makers and scrutineers. One result is the emergence of a growing number of research hubs and engagement organisations which are devoted specifically to generating and facilitating these types of engagement. The UK in a Changing Europe programme is a particularly significant example. However, we perceive some risk that the proliferation of such groups and bodies will introduce a new element of complexity into the landscape which will make it difficult for users of research to navigate.

168.We would encourage the research funders to look at ways of building collaborative and co-operative, thematically coherent research transmission hubs where meta-analyses and syntheses are prepared proactively and are readily accessible. These might form a basis, over the longer term, for some kind of “Office of Public Evidence” that would bring together some of the synthesis of research evidence, fact checking, and academic liaison functions for select committees on a similar scale and model to the Office of Budget Responsibility or the National Audit Office. We invite those with an interest in this area, as custodians of very substantial public funds, to consider how such a body could be constituted, operated, and held accountable to Parliament while giving the widest possible benefit of access to the best research knowledge for all interested citizens.


169.The impact that committees have is crucially dependent on the information and evidence that they have access to. We must continue to widen and diversify the range of voices we hear from, and we should listen carefully to those who have a professional commitment to impartiality. Our conclusions and recommendations would benefit from access to the rich body of knowledge held by the academic and third sectors and membership bodies, as well as those with lived experience. We must endeavour to create the conditions which enable us to have access to the best research evidence available. We must be flexible and imaginative in tailoring the style and pace of our interactions to those we are communicating with. We must welcome and encourage those who might not otherwise be heard to come forward. The wider the range of voices we hear, the more effective and influential our findings are likely to be. And the more we work in partnership with others, the more likely we are to be heard.

94 UCL STEaPP (SCS0042)

95 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

96 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

97 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCS0036)

98 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

100 Web and Publications Unit (SCS0043)

101 Web and Publications Unit (SCS0043)

102 Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (SCS0044)

103 Web and Publications Unit (SCS0043)

104 National Assembly for Wales Business Committee, Proposed Amendments to Standing Orders: Private Bills and Miscellaneous Changes, June 2012

105 National Assembly for Wales, Assembly Business: Getting involved with committees, Edition 3, March 2017

106 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

107 Web and Publications Unit (SCS0043)

108 Web and Publications Unit (SCS0043)

109 Nesta (SCA0071)

111 UCL (SCS0008)

117 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCS0036)

118 Professor Matthew Flinders (SCA0053)

119 UCL (SCS0008)

120 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

123 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

124 Dr Marc Geddes (SCS0023)

126 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

127 IfG

131 Institute for Government (SCS0038); UCL (SCS0008)

132 UCL (SCS0008)

133 UK in a Changing Europe Research Hub (SCA0048); Q57

136 Health and Social Care Committee Team (SCA0047)

137 Royal Mencap Society (SCA0065)

140 Education Committee (SCA0063)

142 Professor Matthew Flinders (SCA0053)

143 Petitions Committee (SCS0039); Education Committee (SCA0063)

144 Education Committee (SCA0063)

146 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCA0069)

147 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCA0069)

148 International Development Committee (SCA0051)

150 The data covers the period up 30 November 2018. Liaison Committee, Gender diversity statistics, April - November 2018, December 2018

151 Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2017–19, Witness Gender Diversity, HC 1033

152 Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (SCS0041)

154 See also Hugh Bochel (SCS0018)

155 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCS0036)

156 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055), Dr Danielle Beswick (SCS0036)

157 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

158 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

159 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

160 University of Leeds (SCS0035); The Involve Foundation (SCA0070); Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

161 Petitions Committee (SCS0039)

162 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

163 The Outreach Team, which has 12 officers based in different regions across the UK, targets hard-to-reach audiences, delivering workshops about how Parliament works and how to get involved.

164 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

165 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

166 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

167 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

168 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

169 Dr Danielle Beswick (SCS0036)

170 Including round table discussions; deliberative workshops; open space technology, filmed semi-structured interviews; conversation cafés, world cafés, distributed dialogues, go-to democracy and pyramid events.

171 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

172 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

173 Petitions Committee (SCS0039)

174 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

175 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

176 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

177 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

178 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

179 Nesta (SCA0071)

180 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

181 Dr Catherine Bochel (SCS0019)

182 Q49 [Ed Cox]; Q40 [Ruth Fox]

183 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

184 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

185 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

186 Nesta (SCA0071)

187 University of Leeds (SCS0035), The Involve Foundation (SCA0070) and Nesta (SCA0071)

188 University of Leeds (SCS0035) and Dr Catherine Bochel (SCS0019)

189 Petitions Committee (SCS0039)

190 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

191 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

192 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

193 Nesta (SCA0071)

194 Petitions Committee (SCS0039)

196 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

197 Nesta (SCA0071)

198 Nesta (SCA0071)

199 Hugh Bochel (SCS0018)

200 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

201 Nesta, Six pioneers in digital democracy, accessed on 18 June 2019

202 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

203 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

205 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

206 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

207 University of Leeds (SCS0035)

208 Transforming Evidence (SCS0017)

209 AsSIST-UK (SCA0061)

210 UK in a Changing Europe Research Hub (SCA0048)

211 UK Research and Innovation (SCA0052)

212 Transforming Evidence (SCS0017)

213 Transforming Evidence (SCS0017)

214 AsSIST-UK (SCA0061)

215 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

216 Health and Social Care Committee Team (SCA0047)

217 Transforming Evidence (SCS0017), AsSIST-UK (SCA0061), UK Research and Innovation (SCA0052), Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055), Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) (SCA0060), Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SCA0077)

218 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045); Dr Marc Geddes (SCS0023); Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SCA0077); UCL (SCS0008); Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (SCA0055)

219 Constitution Unit, UCL (SCA0056)

220 UK Research and Innovation (SCA0052)

221 Joint Committee on Human Rights (SCA0074), International Development Committee (SCA0051)

222 UCL STEaPP (SCS0042)

223 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

224 Research and Information, Participation - House of Commons (SCS0045)

225 Association of Charitable Foundations (SCA0066)

226 Association of Charitable Foundations (SCA0066)

Published: 9 September 2019