November 4, 2011, by Simon Gosling

My final day in Westminster

Yesterday was my final day in Westminster on the Royal Society Pairing Scheme. There is no sitting in the House of Commons this Friday and I also had to return to Nottingham for my lecturing commitments, which included a 9am lecture on Friday morning. Otherwise I would have certainly attended Parliamentary Karaoke in the Sports and Social Club yesterday evening!

The morning was dominated by a series of Urgent Questions in the Chamber of the House of Commons, generally concerning the Eurozone debt crisis and the on-going situation with the Greek economy. It was confirmed that the Prime Minister would make a statement to the House on Monday – he is currently in urgent G20 talks along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in Cannes. It was generally agreed by both sides of the House that the UK had done the right thing by not entering the Euro.

Following this, “Business Questions” were posed to the Leader of the House. This was an opportunity for MPs to request that debates are held in the future on issues that they and/or their constituents feel are important. For instance, Mr Barry Gardiner MP, who I have been paired with throughout the week, raised the important point that the new deadline set for schemes hoping to qualify for the current solar tariff levels falls 11 days before the consultation closes, and he called for a debate on this issue. This was a particularly interesting session to sit through. In my mind, this was an excellent example of the democracy in which we live, whereby opportunity is given to the MPs that represent us to bring to the attention of the House for debate, important issues that are of concern to society. Importantly, petitions that include more than 100,000 votes are an important pre-requisite for some debates to be considered, and this was highlighted by the Leader of the House on a number of occasions.

In the afternoon, I sat in on two very interesting debates in Westminster Hall. The debates went on for around 3-hours, and by the time I left, the BBC have finished setting up their stage for last night’s edition of Question Time, which featured Ed Balls and Theresa May.

The first debate concerned the Fifth Report of the Energy and Climate Change Committee: Shale Gas, HC 795, and the Government Response, Seventh Special Report, HC 1449. The main conclusions from the debate were that fracking had ‘triggered’, but not ‘caused’ two recent earthquakes in the north of England. It was interesting here seeing the direct linkage between science and policy. Several references were made by the MPs to scientific reports on fracking, prepared by UCL, the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the Geological Society of London. At times, the MPs would directly quote conclusions from the report, and on occasion, quoted scientists by names. This struck home to me, just on how important it is that we communicate our results as scientists in a clear, concise, robust and meaningful way, which can be interpreted in a straightforward manner by policy-makers.

Also, having written in the past, a number of reports for government departments and agencies, such as DECC, Defra and the Environment Agency, it was rewarding to know that such documents are paid due attention at the policy-making process. Another important point that emerged from this debate is how important robust and rigorous science is for affecting public opinion. For instance, media coverage of the fracking and earthquake incident has resulted in a degree of fear and anxiety in some populations that live close to where fracking is occurring, and there have been some calls to ban the process in the UK altogether. However, the report and debate was able to conclude that based upon the present scientific evidence, that there is no justification for such a ban.

The second debate in Westminster Hall was on the Fourth Report of the Energy and Climate Change Committee: Electricity Market Reform, HC 742, and the Government Response, Sixth Special Report, HC 1448. Barry Gardiner MP launched the debate with a detailed summary on winter fuel poverty in the UK, and highlighted the importance of the correlation between building insulation standards and winter excess mortality. Indeed, he attributed lower winter excess mortality in Finland relative to the UK, to more rigorous building insulation standards, and argued how important this should be for the UK.

This concluded the end of a compelling and interesting four days in Westminster. It was somewhat fitting to end my time there in a series of debates with a strong scientific and environmental agenda. I feel privileged to have been able to spend such a long time shadowing Barry, who like all MPs, is an extremely busy person, and I am deeply thankful to him and his team for supporting and helping me throughout the week. Thank you also to the Royal Society for funding the pairing scheme and for pairing Barry and I together.

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