Sarah Wollaston (one O, two L’s – she must always have to say when giving her name…) chairs the Health Committee in the House of Commons. She was also a GP in rural Dartmoor – real world work – before she moved to the dark side. And she provided fascinating insights when grilled (judiciously) by Roy Lilley at The Kings Fund last night.
She decided to join the Westminster crew when she heard David Cameron say ‘we need more women and more people with real world experience who would never think of going into politics to do so”. Careful what you wish for Prime Minister! Sarah did just that, and now chairs a committee that quite often is at odds or even at loggerheads with government policies.
Real world extended to being a Forensic Medical Examiner – a Police Surgeon often called in the dead of night to examine traumatised victims (or alleged victims) of sexual assaults, partner abuse or worse. Having a female examiner reduced the trauma for many of the patients I guess. So yes, very real world experience.
We learnt a lot of how Parliament has changed, and specifically about her work on the Health Committee. Here are my (as ever) biased and filtered highlights:
- She was not prepared for the tsunami of e mails and other messages. Everyone has access to you. There is also no induction course or CPD for MPs. I assume this is one way for the whips and gentleman’s club nature of the Westminster plutocracy to be perpetuated? Keep the newbies a bit in awe, and procedure lite, and you have a malleable set of sheep to deal with? Perhaps someone could design an induction course, Sarah? (You have my card!)
- Sarah went through a Primary Election – maybe one of the only ones so far? – and this she contended made it more democratic – in that you can choose which flavour of safe seat candidate you want. (As 95% of seats are safe, then I contend we need more than this to make our system democratic. It isn’t at the moment. People don’t vote because their vote really doesn’t count in first past the post).
- Scrutiny of parliament is extremely poor. Much has been wrenched away from whips and others where patronage was the way to fill committees. So, membership of Select Committees and Specialist committees like Health are now voted for. It falls at the next level, with Parliamentary Private Secretaries still being in the gift of higher echelons, but the back-benchers are chipping away solidly.
- “Have you ever spent a night in a cell” was not a floated question I expected from Sarah – and a surprising number of hands shot up! Perhaps they were all lawyers??
- The Health Committee has recently voted not to publish a report, but they had managed to put 100’s of PDFs on line regarding the evidence that had been before them. Better than nothing. But frustrating, I guess, for many. Including me.
Sarah Wollaston MP sounded justifiably proud of the work as chair of the committee. Her attitude of “Publish even if the content is inconvenient” applies to Pharmaceutical companies, so maybe should to all committees too (And dare I say it, even to Chilcot).
More real world people in Parliament? Laudable aim, and on the evidence we saw last night, a great result.