This week is Evidence Week in Parliament, a programme of events to bring together people from all walks of life to talk about why evidence matters. Sense About Science have been instrumental in supporting this week of activity, alongside the House of Commons Library and Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I was pleased to support Sense About Science’s work in November 2016 when I spoke at their parliamentary reception.
To me, as a former academic, it is a simple truth that evidence-based policy must replace policy-based evidence, a point I made in my speech to Labour Party Conference in September 2016.
I echo and support the three key tests for policymakers, highlighted by Sense About Science, for Government to use evidence when making policy; for Ministers to explain their reasoning; and for Parliament to scrutinise the evidence.
As a newly elected MP in 2011, I was quite concerned that decisions are all too often made on the flimsiest of evidence; the 2012 Health and Social Care Act is a case in point, where the Coalition Government argued for the increased use of the private sector in the NHS based on very limited studies. For MPs without specialist knowledge of what constitutes evidence, including the different types and strengths, it was often difficult for them to be able to reliably scrutinise policy on the data that was presented. Instead of the Government undertaking assessments on their proposed policies, I ended up commissioning a ‘review of reviews’ of the evidence base of the health effects on the marketization and privatisation of health systems which concluded the negative effects on health outcomes, health equity and health quality.
When I joined the Work and Pensions Select Committee, it was apparent weak evidence is also used to justify the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policies, for example, the 2012 sanctions policy, the Personal Independence Payment and Work Capability assessments for disabled people, and of course, Universal Credit.
There are major gaps in DWP’s statistical collection – for example, no record is kept of the reasons why social security claimants go ‘off-flow’ and wild claims are made about the results of Government policies without the evidence to back them up, as the National Audit Office’s recent report on Universal Credit highlighted.
The DWP also often ignores evidence that is produced. Independent, peer-reviewed academic papers have shown the association between the Government’s new Work Capability Assessments and mental health effects, including increased suicide rates. Instead of adopting a precautionary approach when this association was revealed, Government ministers dismissed the work. Similarly, Oxford University research has shown the links between punitive social security sanctions and the increased use of foodbanks. Again ministers ignored the findings.
Evidence Week is important in highlighting that evidence should always be at the heart of good policymaking. I have called for all new politicians, local and national, to have training in what data and evidence are as part of their induction. I also believe wholeheartedly that impact assessments are vital in supporting MPs’ scrutiny of proposed policy, but that these often fail in their timeliness, adequacy and independence. The system needs radical overhauling.
The Government must change their approach because there is currently an evidence vacuum with more policy-based evidence than evidence-based policy. I will continue to press for evidence based policy and use the evidence that is available to hold this Government to account for their ill-thought through and ideological policies.
Debbie Abrahams is the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth