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Empower CSAs to sign off policies, says Lords report

Departmental chief scientific advisers should have a seat on their departmental boards and a formal role in signing off policies, a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has said.

The report, ‘The role and functions of departmental chief scientific advisers’, was published on 29 February.

Although the report concludes that the current system of scientific advice in government departments “has much to commend it”, it identifies problems.

It quotes Paul Wiles, former CSA to the Home Office, saying he struggled to give advice on inadequacies with biometric ID cards before they were introduced in the UK and that he had first heard about the new policy on the Today programme.

Brian Collins, CSA to the Department for Transport and former CSA to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said he lacked access to decision-makers and struggled to give advice when offshore wind policy was being developed.

The committee says it received mixed views on whether CSAs need to be on their departmental boards. Bob Watson, CSA to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, argued that his place on the board helps him “understand what the vision for the department is and helps shape the vision”.

Collins, however, said there could be other ways of influencing policy.

The committee also recommends that CSAs should be graded at either the level of permanent secretary or just below to “ensure that they have the authority and ability to work across the whole department”.

In addition, it says, CSAs should have a right of direct access to ministers.

“By direct access we mean that CSAs should be able to see ministers at the prompting of the CSA and as often as judged necessary by the CSA,” reads the report.

The committee recommends that Helen Ghosh, the Home Office’s permanent secretary and chairwoman of its Science Advisory Committee, reconsider her dual role. At an evidence session on 13 December, Ghosh said she would be happy to do so.

Further recommendations include recruiting CSAs from outside the civil service. Last year, the Treasury appointed its chief micro economist and director of public spending, James Richardson, as chief scientific adviser. At an evidence session on 15 November, Richardson said there are advantages to being an insider, such as an ability to understand the organisation.