What do election candidates think about science?

Election leaflets

This election really matters. There are big questions at stake and – for the first time since 1992 – it doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion. I want to find out all I can about the parties’ policies, and about the local candidates, before casting my ballot.

So I wrote each of the candidates in Dulwich and West Norwood a short email, asking them to answer three questions on areas that genuinely matter to me. These included the NHS, the environment, and women’s access to reproductive medicine. These are questions that have been raised already in the election debate. They were also designed to find out a bit about candidates’ attitudes to science, as I explained in a previous post.

I have to confess, I’m disappointed. One candidate, Shane Collins from the Green Party, responded immediately and concisely, answering all my questions (see questions and Shane’s answers below). I had an initially positive response from the constituency office of Labour’s Tessa Jowell, promising to pass the questions on and get back to me.  Since then, nothing.  [Update: Responses arrived Monday lunchtime; see below.] But I’ve had no response at all from the Conservative candidate, Kemi Adegoke, or the Liberal Democrats’ Jonathan Mitchell. [Update 2: email from Kemi Adejoke, received 12 noon: ‘Sorry for the late response… At the moment I still have just under 700 emails that need replying to, and I’m trying to get through them in the order in which I receive them. It’ll be a lot easier to speak to you in person…My priority has always been to meet as many people as possible in person.’]

Now, I know they’re busy people. No doubt they get a lot of email. But if they can’t find time to answer now, when they want me to vote for them, what chances are there that my concerns will matter to them if they do become my MP?

I sent my first email on 16 April, with a follow-up reminder a week later on 23 April. Kemi, Jonathan, Tessa, if you’d like to answer, I’ll happily add your responses here.

This is the original mail:

I would like to ask you some questions to help me decide how to vote. I’m sending the same questions to all local candidates. I’ve read the manifestos, and these are not party political questions, so I hope you will answer with your personal opinion.

1: We know the budget for NHS treatment is limited. How best should decisions be made about which treatments should be funded?

Shane Collins: Via NICE [National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence] and not by politicians.

Tessa Jowell: Decisions should continue to be made in the same way that they are now – via NICE. Before Labour was elected each local Health Authority had its own panel assessing treatments. This was wasteful, inconsistent, often lacked a proper degree of scientific rigour and, routinely, threw up conflicting outcomes that resulted in someone from a particular area being able to access treatment that those in an neighbouring area could not – the so-called postcode lottery. NICE is thorough, it is independent and it takes a view as to value for money – the cost-benefit and broader affordability questions. The picture is too often muddied by the approach of, for example, certain elements of the press who daily demand that experimental treatments be paid for by the NHS before proper testing has even been concluded, based on an emotive approach, more focused on sales of newspapers than the budget of the NHS. The so-called miracle cure approach that is the bread and butter of the largely scientifically illiterate press is, frankly, no way to formulate policy. NICE makes proper evidence-based decisions every day that help the NHS perform better. It is worth looking at their website to get an idea of the full scope of what they do – it’s not just about approving new drugs. [goes on to quote Labour manifesto, which you can read for yourself here.]

2: What is your opinion about climate change, and what action if any do you think is important for the next UK government to take?

Shane Collins: If we don’t keep below a 2 degrees C temperature rise we will be faced with runaway climate change, the biggest problem our species and many others face.  80% cuts in Co2 emissions by 2020.  Personal carbon rations for all.

Tessa Jowell: Labour introduced the Climate Change Act, a world first, which set in legislation both climate change targets and the framework for meeting them. The Act requires the Government to set a limit on emissions of greenhouse gases over consecutive five year periods. These five year ‘carbon budgets’ will decrease progressively and set the trajectory towards meeting our long-term target to reduce emissions by at least 80% by 2050 and34% by 2020. [Reply continues in this vein talking about the government strategy, but not Ms Jowell’s own opinions, so I’ve curtailed it.]I firmly believe that these more challenging economic times are no excuse to back down in the fight to tackle climate change. Personally I signed up to the 10:10 campaign which I have been actively promoting in my constituency.

3: Do you believe the legal time limit for termination of pregnancy should be changed, and if so why?

Shane Collins: No, seems about right at the moment.  Very wary of the religious right have an influence over this.  Firmly believe in a womans right to choose.

Tessa Jowell: No – I am not persuaded, I have voted against it and my view on this is fairly settled. I am, of course, always open to considering new information that might affect that view, but my decision, when it comes to a vote, will always be guided by impartial scientific evidence and the real-life experiences of women, and those who work with them in this area. It will not be swayed by the short-term, emotive, politically motivated, ill-informed, scientifically dubious tabloid circus that often develops when this matter comes up for review – early on in a new parliament, for example.
My thanks to all candidates for their answers. I do appreciate the time it takes to respond to individual emails, which is why I’m sharing the results here.

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