How is research used in Parliament?

Research is one type of information that MPs, Peers and people working in Parliament use as part of their work. Many different types of research are used in Parliament and they come from lots of different sources including academics, charities, think tanks and businesses.

Research is used for lots of reasons and by many different groups of people inside Parliament. Some of the ways that research is used in Parliament are:

  • To help MPs and Peers scrutinise government policy, examine pressing issues of the day and pass laws.
  • To support Parliament to engage with people and communities outside of Westminster through its outreach and education work and its arts and heritage exhibitions.
  • To help improve the way that Parliament itself works and its effectiveness.

There are a number of different people that engage with research in parliament. This includes Parliamentarians and the staff they employ, and the staff that work for Parliament within the internal offices that make up Parliament. An overview of these groups and the ways that they use research is provided below.

MPs and Peers

They can do this by asking questions to Government ministers or supporting and highlighting particular campaigns which local people feel strongly about. MPs can also participate in debates on topics of interest and vote on new laws. Most MPs are also members of committees.

Peers are appointed to the House of Lords and bring experience and knowledge from a wide range of occupations. Many Peers continue to be active in their fields and have successful careers in business, culture, science, sports, academia, law, education, health and public service. The majority of Peers’ time is spent proposing, revising and amending legislation. Peers also check the work of the Government by questioning and debating decisions made by Ministers and Government Departments. As with MPs, Peers can also be involved in specialist committees.

MPs and Peers draw upon research in many different ways and through very different routes. For example, Members receive a lot of information voluntarily and without asking for it. Individuals and organisations will often send through information, some of which is informed by research, to Members in advance of particular debates, if it is related to a piece of work they are involved with (for example an inquiry in progress by the committee which the Member sits on, or a campaign they are involved with) or if it is related to an issue or topic that they know the Member is interested in (for example, if it is something to which the member has previously tabled an Early Day Motion for debate, or is listed as one of their areas of interest on the Parliamentary website or their own personal webpage).

Members also talk directly to academics. This may because academics may know them personally or they are based within their constituency. Schemes such as the Royal Society Pairing Scheme pair MPs with research scientists to enable them to learn about each other’s work by spending time together in Westminster and the researcher’s institutions.

MPs’ researchers

MPs have resources allocated to them to allow them to hire up to four members of staff. These are likely to be spread between the MP’s constituency and Westminster. It is up to MPs to decide how they wish to allocate this money for example, some MPs choose to employ all four staff within their constituencies to help deal with enquiries from the public. Others choose to base one or more staff members at Westminster to help them prepare for debates and other meetings. The numbers of staff employed by each MP, and where they are located (for example constituency-based or Westminster-based) is likely to vary between different MPs. Often, staff employed by MPs work as researchers. They may be from a university and carry with them institutional access to research. The researcher will help the MP prepare for parliamentary duties by researching and writing notes e.g. for speeches or debates. Peers do not receive any funding to employ staff but may still employ their own researchers through other means.

All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs)

All Party Parliamentary Groups are informal cross-party groups of MPs and Peers who share a common interest and wish to exchange information and inform debate on topics of interest. APPGs are loosely linked to Parliament and do not have an official status within it. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. There are currently over 600 registered APPGs for example social care, health, penal affairs, obesity, child & youth crime, cannabis and children, cancer, body image. Most APPGs hold meetings and invite researchers to give talks, hold mini inquiries and publish reports.

Political parties

Most political parties have their own research functions for example the Conservative Parliamentary Research Unit (PRU). These research units do similar work to MP’s researchers, except they are shared between several MPs. They often employ researchers to complete research projects and prepare briefings for party members. They will also use research as part of their work.

Internal offices within parliament

Libraries

Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have libraries that provide impartial research services for Members and their staff to support their parliamentary work. One of the main products of the Library is the research briefings which are published to the parliamentary website. These briefing papers offer an independent summary of facts on subjects of interest, as well as many areas of policy, or cover frequently asked questions and topical issues. They also provide in-depth and impartial analysis of all major pieces of legislation proceeding through Parliament. Both libraries also offer a confidential, tailored and impartial enquiry service to Members of Parliament and their staff in support of their parliamentary duties. While the House of Commons Library comprises eight specialist teams based on different subject areas, the House of Lords Library are generalists rather than specialists but perform similar function in providing impartial, authoritative and accurate information and research as required by Members. The Lords library also publishes a monthly Current Affairs Digest that summarises articles from journals, magazines and the international press, as well as speeches, think tank reports and blog posts under six subject headings: economic affairs, home affairs, science, international affairs, the constitution and social policy. 

Select Committees

Both Houses have Select Committees to conduct inquiries and to produce reports on a range of matters, from the work and expenditure of Government to specialist subject areas. As part of the inquiry process, select committees seek written evidence and research is often included. They can call individuals to give oral evidence including researchers. Select Committees can also hire academics as specialists to the advise committee for particular inquiries or on a more permanent basis.

POST

POST works across both the House of Commons and the Lords and produces independent and balanced analyses of research on various issues to inform debate. Originally set up to support the use of research evidence from natural sciences and in relation to science and technology issues, since 2013 POST has had an explicit focus on social science issues ensuring it has relevance to wider set of research and wider set of public policy issues. POST works closely with other departments in both the Commons and Lords including the Libraries and Select Committees, but there are some key differences between them. For example, POST is the only department with an explicit remit for research evidence and all of POST’s work is all peer reviewed. It also works with longer term horizons. In researching its briefings, POST consults widely inside and outside of Parliament, speaking to stakeholders from government departments, academia, industry, learned societies, think tanks and NGOs. POST also runs several fellowship schemes with Research Councils, learned societies and charities that bring PhD students into Parliament on three month placements.

Scrutiny Unit

The Scrutiny Unit is based in the House of Commons and provides financial, legal and inquiry management expertise to Select Committees. This includes supporting Parliamentary scrutiny of Draft Bills (by Select Committees or ad hoc Joint Committees) and co-ordinating evidence-taking sessions by Public Bill Committees. In doing these tasks, staff in the Scrutiny Unit occasionally supports & exploits relevant academic research. One of the ways that it does this is through managing a number of internship programmes that bring PhD students into Parliament on short-term placements. This includes an ESRC-funded scheme and one funded by the Political Studies Association.

There are a number of other offices that use research.

Public Outreach and Engagement

This department includes Parliament’s Outreach Service, Education Service and the Information Offices of both Houses The Public Outreach and Engagement office provides resources and information about the work, procedures and institution of Parliament through a wide variety of channels. A key part of its work is to help facilitate connections and engagement between Parliament and researchers and to improve public understanding of the work of Parliament, including the ways its engages with research and evidence.

Curator of Works of Art

The Curator’s office works to preserve the historical assets and works of art on the Parliamentary Estate. Responsible for acquisition of works in response to demands of Works of Art Committees in each house and disseminating information about the collection and associated exhibitions. The Curator’s office hosts a number of fellowships for PhD students including ESRC and AHRC schemes.