Evan Harris

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Evan Harris was the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon between 1997 and 2010, when he was defeated by Nicola Blackwood. He has indicated on his official website that he intends to contest the seat at the next election.

Dr Evan Harris was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on science from 2005 and sat on the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2003. He has been a member of the British Medical Association since 1992, is Vice President of the British Humanist Association, an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society[1], and the Patron of the Oxford Secular Society. Harris was one of twenty members of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group[2], and is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association[3].

Evan Harris described his parliamentary stance as "an MP who campaigns for science, evidence-based policy and free speech" [4]

Contents

Libel Law Reform

In December 2009, Evan Harris proposed Early Day Motion 423 calling for a reform of the English libel law[5]. The motion noted that human rights activists, scientists, writers and journalists are currently prevented from publishing, and the public prevented from reading, matters of strong public interest due to the chilling effect of the law.

The motion was tabled following the recent formation of Libel Reform Coalition, which has the backing of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science. Sense about Science have been campaigning in defense of a member of its board of trustees, author and journalist Simon Singh, who has been sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. They issued a statement entitled "The law has no place in scientific disputes".

Press Freedom

Dr Harris is Associate Director[6] of the Hacked Off campaign group which campaigned for a public inquiry into phone hacking and press practices. Following the publication of the Leveson Report it campaigned for its recommendations to be implemented in full.

Healthcare

Abortion

Dr Harris has campaigned for liberalisation of abortion laws, earning him the nickname "Dr Death," in certain circles.[7]

During a debate on BBC Newsnight Dr Harris stated that the British abortion rate is no higher than anywhere else in Europe. The Daily Mail claims to have evidence that only the former Soviet state of Ukraine has a higher rate. [8]

Damian Thompson of The Telegraph commented that disagreeing with Evan Harris's views on abortion leads to the logical conclusion of discarding Evan Harris's views on reform of the Act of Settlement. It is not clear how this line of reasoning proceeds.[9]

As a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Harris was involved in the investigation and publication of the October 2007 report on Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967[10]. The report's scope was limited to only scientific, medical and other research evidence. It acknowledged that this evidence was only one of many factors to be taken into account when legislating, and did not make any recommendations as to how MPs should vote on abortion law. Amongst the areas examined were foetal "viability" (survival rates after premature delivery), foetal consciousness/pain, impacts on women's health, and procedural changes. It found little evidence for a reduction of the abortion limit, or that viability below 24 weeks had improved since 1990, when a reduction had been prompted as the point of viability had been reduced to 24 weeks. It made some suggestions of procedural changes to encourage early, rather than later, abortion.

In May 2008 in the abortion amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (now Act), Evan Harris voted to keep the current time limit of 24 weeks[11]. The same month he signed Early Day Motion 1598: 24-Week Abortion Time Limit[12]. The motion "notes the findings of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's recent report Scientific Developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967, and its conclusion that below 24 weeks they 'have seen no good evidence to suggest that the foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time-limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not'".

MMR Vaccine

Evan Harris has supported the government on its policy of promoting use of the MMR jab. His decision was taken because, in his words, "the evidence and scientific consensus are overwhelming. There is a lot of good research that fails to find any significant safety problem with MMR and specifically fails to show any causative link between MMR vaccination and bowel disease or autism (or a combination of the two)."[13]

Evan Harris signed the February 2009 Early Day Motion 754: MMR Vaccine and the Media supporting the use of the MMR vaccine. The motion expressed disappointment with the reporting of the vaccine by Jeni Barnett on her LBC radio show in January 2009, and expressed the hope that future reporting of the issue of MMR would be less sensationalist and more evidence-based.[14]

Miracle Cures

In June 2008, the MP signed Early Day Motion 1770, protesting the uncritical promotion by the media of Dore, a claimed miracle cure for dyslexia, in the absence of scientific proof of its value. [15]

Animal Testing

In March 2006, Harris proposed Early Day Motion 1850: Animals in Medical Research which noted that "animal research is only permitted where there is no better alternative and that pain and suffering are minimised and balanced against the potential benefit to humans and animals", supported "the building of the new state of the art biomedical research laboratory at Oxford University", condemned "unlawful animal rights extremism, including any violence, harassment or intimidation of those associated with lawful animal research", and supported "the well-regulated use of animals in medical research".[16]

In July 2006, Harris proposed an amendment to Early Day Motion 92: Animal Testing of Drugs. The original motion[17] declared the House to be in agreement with the group Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP) in expressing concern about the validity of results from animal testing, and called for independent and transparent scientific evaluation of the use of animals in medical research, citing support from 83% of GPs. Harris' amendment[18] removed all but the first few words of the original and, while expressing concern about unnecessary suffering of animals and insisting on tough regulations, it noted that such work was "currently both essential and valuable", that the polling organisation that asked GPs about their views on animal testing had disassociated itself from EMP's interpretation of the poll, and that there had already been numerous independent inquiries into animal research.

Homeopathy

Evan Harris was on the committee of the 2010 Science and Technology Committee "Evidence Check" report on Homeopathy[19]. The final report was extremely critical of the use of homeopathy within the NHS, and the formal minutes show that Harris voted in favour of the report being published in this form[20].

Evidence-Based Drugs Policy

In November 2009, Dr Harris demanded an apology from Alan Johnson for Professor David Nutt, who was fired after ministers complained that he had “crossed the line” by briefing against ministers. In a formal letter of complaint, Dr Harris said that the Home Secretary's claim in a statement to MPs that Prof Nutt had started a debate on drugs policy in the national media "without prior notification to my department" was wrong.[21]

In August 2010, Harris wrote an article for the Guardian titled "Mephedrone found not guilty, but the next legal high may be a killer"[22] on the subject of the recent criminalising of "legal high" mephedrone. He write:

"Decisions like this should be based on a balance of harms. The ban on this drug was implemented – and rushed through – partly on the basis that it was causing serious harm, that it had caused several deaths. This is not borne out by the evidence."

Religion

Evan Harris signed the March 2007 Early Day Motion 1770 supporting freedom of religion and welcoming the launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain[23].

Abolition of Blasphemy

Evan Harris succeeded in bringing about the abolition of the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in 2008 on the basis of being "ancient, discriminatory, unnecessary, illiberal and non-human rights compliant" [24]. This success was recognised by the National Secular Society at their Secularist of the Year award [25]

Science Education

Creationism

Harris signed Early Day Motion 2708 calling for schools to treat with caution creationist literature sent by the religious group 'Truth in Science'.[26]

Charles Darwin

Evan Harris was one of 79 MPs who signed Early Day Motion 377 noting the achievements of Charles Darwin, and calling for Darwin's birthday to be designated a public holiday to honour "one of the fathers of modern science and one of Britain's greatest, if not the greatest, scientific minds."

Science Funding

In September/October 2010, Evan Harris was involved with the Science is Vital campaign. He spoke at the march on 9th October, and published an "open letter" to chancellor George Osborne saying why he thought proper funding for science was important[27].

Policymaking On Drugs And Alcohol

Evan Harris signed Early Day Motion 2244 calling for Government policy on alcohol and drugs misuse and harm to be based on scientific evidence. The motion came shortly after the sacking of Government drug adviser David Nutt by Home Secretary Alan Johnson in 2009.

Questions

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

LD policy is to get NICE to look into cost-effectiveness of all treatments funded by NHS to give value for money. But please also see the Commons Sci and Tech Ctte report on this which I co-authored.

Should schools be allowed to teach creationism as an equivalent theory to evolution?

No. Not even in Religious Education. Don't allow Lab/Con to say "not in science lessons" since school is school is school

Do you believe that religious belief should be legally protected from ridicule?

No. I have helped abolish blasphemy law and defeat over-broad religious hatred laws to ensure that religions can argue with each other and religions can be parodied.

Should an independent government adviser whose views in their area of expertise conflict with government policy be able to express those views publicly without fear of being sacked?

Yes. I helped to draft the Principles for the Treatment of Scientific Advice which the science community sent to the Govt in response to the bullying and then sacking of Prof Nutt by Jackie Smith and Alan Johnson. Academic freedom is vital as is the ability to give best advice to ministers who don't want to hear it.

Should Sharia law be allowed as an alternative system within UK law?

No. Religious people are free to enter voluntary arbitration but civil courts must look behind agreements to check is fair and no woman should be forced or advised to rely on a religious court.

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

Yes. I have protected scientists from unfair attack and forced Govt to defend them.

Should policy-makers trust scientific evidence even when it appears counter-intuitive?

Yes. But ultimate decision is not for the experts as long as the policy-makers are accountable and transparent.

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

More complex than that but if foetal viability is the upper limit then the evidence says 24 weeks as Science & Tech Ctte report 2008 set out.

Should religious leaders be entitled to vote in the House of Lords?

Not by right. They can stand for election like everyone else.

Do you support the reform of English and Welsh libel law to allow a stronger 'public interest' defence?

Yes. I have led the Parliamentary libel reform campaign over last 2 years.

References

  1. http://www.secularism.org.uk/dr.evanharrismp.html
  2. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmallparty/register/memi358.htm
  3. http://www.humanism.org.uk/about/people/distinguished-supporters
  4. http://drevanharrismp.wordpress.com/
  5. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2009-10/423
  6. http://hackinginquiry.org/about-2/about/
  7. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/articles/a0000460.shtml
  8. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-490815/Meet-Dr-Death-Lib-Dem-MP-Evan-Harris-backs-embryo-experiments-euthanasia-freer-abortions.html.
  9. http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/8163131/Evan_Harris_let_me_tell_you_where_you_can_shove_your_attempt_to_reform_the_Act_of_Settlement/
  10. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmsctech/1045/104502.htm
  11. http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2008-05-20&number=203&mpn=Evan_Harris
  12. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2007-08/1598
  13. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article1027825.ece
  14. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2008-09/754
  15. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2007-08/1770
  16. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2005-06/1850
  17. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2005-06/92
  18. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2005-06/92#92A1
  19. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/4502.htm
  20. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/4508.htm
  21. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/6526769/Alan-Johnson-accused-of-misleading-MPs-over-sacking-of-Professor-David-Nutt.html
  22. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/aug/05/mephedrone-not-guilty
  23. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2006-07/1770
  24. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7178439.stm
  25. http://www.secularism.org.uk/evan-harris-mp-and-lord-avebury-.html
  26. http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2005-06/2708
  27. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/political-science/2010/oct/08/science-funding-crisis-science-policy

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