Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson speaks at the Conservative conference in 2013 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

MPs who reject science are undermining the public interest

On climate change and other issues, parliamentarians are ignoring the evidence. 

In another blow to the reputation of Parliament, a new report provides further evidence that a handful of MPs are using their positions to promote unscientific ideas, such as homeopathy, astrology and climate change denial.

There is little that is controversial about the final conclusions of the inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change into the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Among its main findings are that "[T]here is increased confidence in the IPCC projections that, with rising greenhouse gas concentrations, we will continue to see warming (and the changes to the climate associated with warming) in this century and beyond".

But tucked away in the back of the report are the minutes of a meeting that show two members of the committee had a radically different view about the scientific evidence. Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, together attempted unsuccessfully to remove the sentence endorsing the IPCC's projections of future climate change. They also tried to edit out a paragraph which suggested that the temporary slowdown, or hiatus, in the rate of global warming "does not undermine the core conclusions" of the report, and that "warming is expected to continue in the coming decades".

These were last-ditch attempts by Lilley and Stringer to give the Committee's report a "sceptic" slant. They had already ensured that the Committee devoted an oral evidence session to "sceptics" who rubbished the IPCC report. The hearing would not have been out of place if it had been held on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, where Republicans regularly invite witnesses to promote climate change denial to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives.

It is perhaps not surprising that Lilley, who juggles his job as an MP with a part-time post as vice-chairman of Tethys Petroleum, continues to reject the findings of mainstream climate research. He was, after all, one of just five MPs who voted against the Bill to introduce the Climate Change Act in 2008.

A few other MPs have also publicly cast doubt on the science of climate change, including David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, and, of course, Owen Paterson, who has just returned to the backbenches after being sacked last week from the post of environment secretary. Paterson has been criticised not just for ignoring the findings of climate researchers, but also for proceeding with a badger cull against the advice of leading scientists.

Stringer's climate change "scepticism" is relatively long-standing, as shown by his dissent against a previous inquiry by House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. He argued that independent investigations into the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia in 2009 had not been rigorous enough to clear scientists at the Climatic Research Unit of misconduct.

But climate change is not the only scientific issue on which Stringer disagrees with the experts. He has also courted controversy by describing dyslexia as a "fictional malady". Stringer was joined on the science and technology committee last year by David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth. Tredinnick, who is also a member of the health select committee, last week told the BBC that astrology could have benefits for patients. He has created outrage in the past by championing homeopathy, and wrote to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to call for a wider range of alternative treatments to be made available.

While these examples only apply to a handful of MPs, what is most surprising is that Paterson was elevated to a cabinet post that has traditionally required a high degree of scientific literacy, while Tredinnick, Lilley and Stringer are all currently serving on committees that are supposed to scrutinise whether the policies of government departments are evidence-based. Their senior appointments might be seen as another consequence of there being but very few MPs with scientific backgrounds. However, it should be noted that while Tredinnick has a master's degree in the humanities and Paterson read history, Lilley studied natural sciences and economics at the and Stringer graduated in chemistry.

It appears, therefore, that the unscientific views of some of these MPs have developed in Parliament despite having scientific qualifications. Whatever the reasons, their rejection of mainstream science undermines both evidence-based policy-making and the public interest.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”