Friday, 16 March 2012

Trial by select committee

Posted by Jean Adams

Well, trial by select committee has been and gone. It was certainly interesting. But I’m not sure it will achieve anything in particular.

I have never been inside the Palace of Westminster before. I was surprised how National Trust it was. A lot of unfinished stone staircases and grand halls that are clearly impossible to heat, followed by corridors that are far too narrow for modern life. Using my special academic congregating powers, I bumped into my fellow ‘experts’ long before finding the room I was looking for. When we finally arrived at our destination, we were greeted by a rather under-capacity committee. The Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell was in the chair. Other members came and went during the session.

Surprisingly National Trust
Disappointingly, the only refreshments were House of Commons branded bottled water. The coffee and pastries clearly flow a lot freer in the West Wing.

The session itself was pretty informal. After we ‘experts’ introduced ourselves, the members of the committee just seemed to think out loud and bounce ideas of us. What a remarkably priviledged position to be in – hmmm well when I was told that I would live longer if I gave up smoking, it really motivated me to quit...I wonder if that would work for would be good if I could just ask some– oh, look, three professors of alcohol studies, I’ll ask them!

Aside from Stephen Dorrell, who was John Major’s Secretary of State for Health, the committee includes a number of doctors, as well as a range of other members. The questions ranged from very sensible (do you think the alcohol industry should be ask to help set policy?), to a bit bizarre (does gin makes you more depressed than vodka?). Talk of ‘evidence’, and what counts as ‘evidence’, varied and there were a couple of occasions when one of my fellow ‘experts’ stated, perhaps a little too emphatically, that whatever the honourable member might think, the scientific evidence very strongly suggests the opposite. One member was rather obsessed with the idea of ‘anecdotal’ evidence and used this term as equivalent to any other sort of ‘evidence’. I hope he didn’t notice me snigger when he launched into another long and winding anecdote...

So what next? Well, the government has promised to publish its new alcohol strategy within the next few weeks. This may or may not be evidence-based or based on expert input. The committee will then begin a formal inquiry into alcohol and hear evidence from a variety of experts. They will make recommendations to the government on how their strategy could be improved. But the government will be under no obligation to act on these recommendations.

So that’s it. No more gallivanting around the corridors of power in my glad rags for me. Time to get back into my jeans and do some real work.

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