Skeptical Voters: Grill Your MP

April 14, 2010 at 6:28 pm (Evidence, Politics) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

The Skeptical Voter website has some suggested questions for PPCs. I wanted to ask some slightly different questions, but the below queries are based on the Skeptical Voter’s suggestions.

Here is my email, with the five questions I settled on:

I am writing to you as I have some questions I would like to ask before the forthcoming election. I intend to publish these questions on my website, and to add the response of each candidate as and when I receive replies to my email.

I will publish responses verbatim and will happily direct you to the published answers when they appear, in order for you to ensure that there are no errors or distortions in my presentation of your position on any of the following issues.

  1. Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven treatments such as homeopathy?
  2. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus?
  3. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?
  4. In your opinion, should drugs policy be based on evidence of harm?
  5. Do you believe that we should aim to reduce carbon emissions on the basis of the current evidence regarding Climate Change?

I look forward to reading your responses.

Kind regards,
James Cole.

I will (as I said in my email) publish each response here, as and when I receive replies. Watch this space…

Update 21:32 14th April

Here is the first response:

To take your questions in turn:

1. Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven treatments such as homeopathy? – Depends on the clinical effect.

2. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus? – Yes

3. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines? – No

4. In your opinion, should drugs policy be based on evidence of harm? Yes

5. Do you believe that we should aim to reduce carbon emissions on the basis of the current evidence regarding Climate Change? Yes

[Response from Kevin Warnes, Green Party]

Other replies will be posted as I receive them.

Update 15:54 18th April

I now have my second response. Here it is:

Thanks for getting in touch. In answer to your questions please find following:
1) Homeopathy – I would only support medicines that are proven to work, if there is no medical proven basis for funding then I couldn’t support their public funding.
2) Abortion – this is a difficult issue for me as the sanctity of life is very important to me.  I am anti assisted dying for example for several reasons. However fundamentally I would not stop abortion as I could not consign women to a return to back street abortionists and therefore having decided this, there is no reason to support a reduced abortion limit which flies in the face of the advice of medical science.  So the short answer to your question is that I would follow medical guidance.
3) Animal testing – yes do support animal testing to progress research into human medical conditions such as Motor Neurone Disease.
4) Drugs policy – not quite sure what you’re getting at here.  Evidence of harm – yes absolutely but also I’ve seen drug dealing damage communities.  It creates fear and means people want to leave an area and so the spiral of decline in a disadvantaged community continues.  So drugs policy for me is more than just a health issue.
5) Climate change – yes absolutely agree – a pressing concern that needs to be tackled.
[Response from Susan Hinchcliffe, Labour.]
Update 00:20, 28th April

Having (embarrassingly) sent my original email to an out-of-date address, I found the current address for the Conservative PPC and he responded promptly with the following:

1) I believe that GPs are the people best placed to decide what is the most appropriate NHS treatment for their patients.  I don’t believe that politicians are the best people to make these decisions.

2) I do believe that the time limit for abortions should reflect the medical advances that are being made which is why I favour reducing the time limit for abortions to 20 weeks.

3)  Yes, although I do believe that animal experiments should only take place where there are no effective alternatives

4)  Yes it should, but definition of harm can and should be drawn quite widely in terms of social harm as well as medical harm.

5) Yes, although I do not support taking unilateral action to reduce carbon emissions given that the UK is only responsible for just 2% of global carbon emissions.  Such unilateral action is futile and gesture politics of the worst kind.

[Response from Philip Davies, Conservative.]
Update 19:37, 4th May:

Belatedly, I have had some contact with John Harris, the Lib Dem PPC. I fortuitously met him in person rather than receving an email, so I can only give the paraphrased version of the answers he provided to the three questions I could remember on the spot.
I support the status quo on abortion time limits, but would be happy to review the available evidence.
Drugs policy should be based on evidence, but I would listen to the concerns of individuals.
I support the reduction of carbon emissions and am concerned about global warming and the acidification of the oceans.
[Response from John Harris, Liberal Democrat.]
See also the questions and answers at Who Should Shipley Vote For?
Update 16:00, 6th May 2010:

Having spent much time considering where to make my mark on the ballot paper, I have now been to vote.

The incumbent, Philip Davies of the Conservatives, has always seemed to me to be a hard-working MP who is willing to take up the concerns of his constituents. He has always been willing to correspond with me, has always responded to communication very promptly, and has always answered honestly even when it meant disagreeing strongly with a potential voter. I must say that I admire his honesty and his willingness to engage.

While I respect Mr Davies, I cannot vote for a party that seems to share so few of my principles – the Conservatives would have to have radically different policies before I could ever mark an X next to the name of one of their candidates.

My decision not to vote for Philip Davies was made partly on the basis of differences in our beliefs and partly on the basis of my differences with the ideology of the Conservative Party.

We disagree on treatments that are unproven. Mr Davies believes that GPs should decide on which treatments to offer their patients. I would argue that NHS money should not be spent on inert treatments such as homeopathy whether GPs would like to prescribe them or not. People are free to waste their own private money on homeopathy – NHS-provided interventions, though, should be evidence-based.

I disagree with Mr Davies that the time limit for abortions should be reduced to 20 weeks – after all, the Science and Technology Committee concluded “that there is no scientific basis – on the grounds on viability – to reduce the upper time limit”.

I think we agree on animal testing (it should be used when alternatives will not suffice) and drugs (policy should be based on evidence of social and physical harms) and I think we partly agree on climate change: Mr Davies does seem to accept that something should be done to reduce carbon emissions, but we may disagree on what should be done when and by whom.

I know little about Susan Hinchcliffe. Her answers to my five questions were reasonable enough, though.

We agree on homeopathy – that we should only support medicines that are proven to work and that if there is no medical proven basis for funding then we could not support their public funding.

On the abortion question, Ms Hinchcliffe raises the issue of her belief in the sanctity of life and her position against assisted dying – but seems to hold a similar position on abortion to mine, albeit for perhaps slightly different reasons to mine.

On climate change, Ms Hinchcliffe is quite clear in stating her position that this must be tackled. On animal testing, she seems to support the use of such experimentation in research when directed at human disease. On both points, I agree with the position that I think she has taken. Climate change must be tackled and animal experimentation, when necessary, should be part of research into human diseases.

We agree that drugs policy is more than simply a health issue, but I would argue that the social harms caused by illegal drug use may be exacerbated by their illegal status and that policy should be directed by evidence regarding both physical and social harms.

The party have not, in government, shown themselves to be good advocates of evidence-based policy despite their statements on this issue. As I wrote at the time of the sacking of Nutt (a dismissal endorsed by the Conservatives), Policy should be based on evidence – not on the fear of what journalists will write about you in tomorrow’s paper. Drugs policy in this country has either been made by reference to ideology or in deference to the wishes of the moralising newspaper editors.

While some have argued that Labour are the party of the disadvantaged, they have not done enough in their thirteen years in power to prove that this is the case. It seems to me that some people are voting for a party that used to be.

Kevin Warnes, the Green candidate, gave answers that were brief and to the point.

Here’s where we agree: abortion, drug policy, climate change.

Here’s where we disagree: many Greens, including Mr Warne, do not seem to accept that animal testing is necessary. I have yet to see a single convincing argument made in favour of this position. This position seems to be ideological rather than being based on any practical consideration (or, heaven forbid, evidence).

Here’s where I think we have a misunderstanding: Mr Warnes answered my question on unproven treatments with “depends on the clinical effect”. I would contend that if a treatment is unproven then no clinical effect has been shown. Mr Warnes’s answer does not make much sense to me.

It is sad that the Green party (or at least, so many members of the Green party) seem to hold positions based on ideology where I feel there is evidence that should be informing party policy and the views of individuals. On using some of the online vote/policy matching websites, I found that the Green Party’s policies have, on the whole, seemed to match my own views rather well.

The ideological approach to issues that should be informed by evidence is something I find rather off-putting and the apparent willingness to countenance the provision of magic beans on the NHS os a further turn-off for me.

So. I voted for John Harris in the end.

As a party, the Lib Dems are in favour of voting reform – which is something I strongly support. According to this page, The Liberal Democrats will place policy making in the drugs field on a much firmer evidence-based footing.

When it comes to science, evidence and policy, it is heartwarming to see that Nick Clegg’s response to CaSE includes the following:

Our excellent research base is also based upon the fundamental principles of scientific free speech and peer review. This system has come under threat from the over-broad English libel laws. […] Liberal Democrats were the first party to wholehearted commit to radical libel reform, and we would bring in a Libel Reform Bill as a matter of urgency in order to protect peer reviewed research from libel suits. Science does not merely tolerate criticism; its progress utterly depends on it.

We believe that publicly-funded research should always be published, if it is able to pass peer review. If taxpayers have paid for it, they have a right to see it, and that is particularly true when it comes to medical research. We believe that all approved clinical trials should be registered, and that they should all be published.

Liberal Democrats believe that public policy should be evidence-based as far as possible. We recognise that this requires the goodwill and support of the science and engineering community. Advisers must feel able to give their advice without fear of being blamed or bullied if it not what a minister or tabloid newspaper editor wants to hear.

We would like to see, for instance, regular use of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) in testing new social policy initiatives in those circumstances when the balance of evidence is not conclusive.

Whatever happens in this election, I do hope that people will urge the Liberal Democrats to continue to support these positions.

Given the comments of John Harris when we spoke, I have no reason to believe that he might be at odds with any of the positions I quote above.

He supports the status quo on abortion time limits, but would be happy to review the available evidence. So… his position would be informed by the evidence. Quite right, too.

7 Comments

  1. whoshouldshipleyvotefor said,

    I’ll keep an eye on this – thanks.

  2. FireUpTheQuattro said,

    Good luck with that! I tried asking my local Tory MP some questions to no avail (more on that here: http://nr2bornot.blogspot.com/ ) and am still waiting for an answer from the LibDem PPC regarding his party’s use of Onepost while he’s campaigning to save local post offices.

  3. David Morning said,

    Great idea, and good luck getting responses on this. I intend to do the same, and was wondering if there was any central location where responses can be published for others to see?

    Also, would you mind me using your letter as a basis for my questions? (although I intend to modify some of the questions)

    Thanks, and great job so far

  4. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    David – feel free to use my letter as a basis for your own (modified) questions.

  5. David Morning said,

    Thanks, I’ve posted the questions at http://questionpaisleyandrenfrewshiresouth.blogspot.com/ and will be following up with the answers once I get them

  6. Martin said,

    Bit of criticism coming up (what, me, really?). These seem to me to be the sort of simplifying of complex problems that is a Bad Thing about political debates.

    Specifically:

    1. Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven treatments such as homeopathy?

    Homeopathy is shown to not work, it’s not just ‘unproven’. Plus there’s a whole load of treatments that, being tested, are by definition not yet proven.

    2. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus?

    This is rather oddly phrased (“always”?). Abortion is a moral decision that is informed by science. And by facts, I would hope, rather than consensus.

    3. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?

    Which medicines? All of them? To what extent? What strict criteria?

    4. In your opinion, should drugs policy be based on evidence of harm?

    ‘be based on’ as in ‘includes’ or as in ‘mostly consists of’? Any social policy goes further than just direct harm.

    5. Do you believe that we should aim to reduce carbon emissions on the basis of the current evidence regarding Climate Change?

    The current evidence (that I assume you assume…) does not lead only to a requirement to reduce carbon emissions; again, the ‘science’ here should inform policy, not dictate it. There are other activities that may be more appropriate, based on that evidence. ie, it’s a leading question that invites ‘yes’ with no responsibility for what that would entail.

    (And of course, in what way is this special to being Skeptical as such?)

  7. evidence said,

    Just a bit of info – reducing the time limit for abortions to 20 weeks would place the amniocentesis results extremely close to the upper time limit for abortions – forcing women to make life-changing decisions extremely quickly.

    Also, 20 weeks is not a medical consensous as the tory suggests.

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