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THE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE

The Science and Technology Committee is one of the two main investigative committees in the Lords; the other is the European Communities Committee. It fulfils one of the major roles of the House of Lords as a forum of independent expertise and draws on the wide experience of the members of the House.

Remit and Functions
The Committee was established in 1979. Its terms of reference are "to consider science and technology".

Its main function is to examine matters within this remit with which Parliament ought to be concerned, and to report to the House of Lords with recommendations for government action.

Nature and Subject of Inquiries
The Committee’s broad remit permits it to investigate activities across the whole range of government such as:

| Public policy areas which are, or ought to be, informed by scientific research: e.g. global warming, world fish stocks, legal status of cannabis.

| Technological challenges and opportunities - existing and future - which government faces or ought to face: e.g. vehicle emissions, resistance to antibiotics, management of nuclear waste, the information superhighway, and the implications of digital imaging for the law of evidence.

| Public policy towards science itself, e.g. as it affects Research Councils, universities, public sector research establishments and industrial research and development.

The Committee seeks to balance life sciences and physical sciences across its programme; it does not undertake inquiries based purely on social science or economics.

Organisation

Membership
The Committee has around 15 members, re-appointed by the House for each Session of Parliament. Members are nominated by their political parties and by the "cross-benchers" (independents). The number of seats for each group is negotiated; the cross-benchers have always been well represented.

The Committee has always included distinguished scientists, including, from time to time, Nobel Prize winners, Fellows of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and members with medical backgrounds, as well as lawyers, economists, politicians and members with other expertise and interests.

The Chairman of the Committee is appointed by the House.

The Committee has power to add to its own membership. This has been used when a distinguished scientist has joined the House and there is no immediate vacancy.

How it Operates
Each report is drawn up by a sub-committee. Members are drawn from the Committee, with additional members chosen for specific inquiries because of their relevant expertise. Sub-committees are chaired for the duration of an inquiry by the most appropriate Committee member.

Sub-committees usually meet weekly when the House is sitting.

Like other parliamentary committees investigating policy issues, they employ external Specialist Advisers, take written and oral evidence and visit relevant places and organisations. Inquiries can last as long as a year. A report, based on the evidence received, is then published by the Committee and later debated in the House of Lords.

The Committee produces three or four major reports in a normal Session.

Short Topical Inquiries and Follow-up Work
The Committee sometimes undertakes shorter inquiries, often following up previous work. Continuity in the Committee’s membership helps ensure that issues and recommendations are followed up in this way. Unlike MPs, Lords do not lose their seats at general elections and, although a "rotation rule" ensures that membership is regularly refreshed, there is a strong element of continuity.

Sometimes, the Committee takes evidence from Ministers on topical issues outside the framework of long inquiries. Ministers may use the occasion to make announcements about relevant initiatives.

The Committee’s influence
Committee recommendations are largely directed at Government, though they may also have implications for industry, the professions and other public bodies. The Committee influences Government, and others, in several ways:

  1. The mere existence of a Committee inquiry stimulates debate in the community concerned, and sometimes in the media.

  2. During the preparation of oral and written evidence the Government is forced to examine and defend its policy and sometimes reformulate it.

  3. The Government is required to respond in writing to all the Committee’s reports.

  4. When the report is debated in the House further ministerial comment is made and the opposition parties must also declare their positions on the issue.

  5. Sometimes bills are amended on the basis of Committee recommendations.

Some Examples
| The Committee’s reports have led to improvements in the machinery of government in relation to science policy-making, e.g. publication of an annual review of all government research and development expenditure.

| A report warning about the misuse of antibiotics has led to increased publicity both within the NHS and for the general public, and other measures to counter the rise of antibiotic resistance.

| Reports of the Committee have been responsible for the creation of the NHS Research and Development Strategy, the strengthening of the Joint (UK-wide) Nature Conservation Committee, and a new strategy to support systematic biology (taxonomy).

| Although the government did not accept the main recommendation of the committee’s report on Cannabis, The Scientific and Medical Evidence, that cannabis should be legalised for medical use, the report raised the profile of a difficult issue and gave encouragement to research.

Further Information
The Committee Office, House of Lords, Westminster, SW1A 0PW

Tel: 020 7219 6075
Fax: 020 7219 4931
E-mail: [email protected].

Further Information on the Internet

l Full text of some select committee reports
l Future meetings of committees open to the public
l Membership of committees
l List of recent committee reports

JUNE 1999 ©Parliamentary Copyright House of Lords 1999

H O U S E of L O R D S
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TEL:
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INTERNET:
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© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 28 July 1999