Conservative MP for Totnes Sarah Wollaston
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Sarah Wollaston to fight for health committee chairmanship

Independent-minded Tory MP to run for post.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston has declared her intention to stand for the chairmanship of the Commons Health Select Committee.

Her announcement today follows the surprise resignation of Conservative chair Stephen Dorrell two days ago.

Wollaston, Tory MP for Totnes, in effect announced his departure herself, after tweeting “I’m sorry to hear he is standing down as chair with immediate effect” on Tuesday morning, which apparently caught even Dorrell’s media team off guard.

A former GP and health committee member, her background in healthcare stands her in good stead for the committee's top role. So far her only other rival to declare interest in the post is fellow doctor Philip Lee, Tory MP for Bracknell.

While Lee can boast that, as a practising MP, he still has a hand in the health sector, Wollaston sees her independence from the NHS as a boon.

She told me today that while hands-on experience in the NHS is invaluable for a politician looking at health care, that her departure from the sector affords her greater impartiality. She gave up her memberships to the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practioners when she entered Parliament.

She said: "I left my clinical practice completely behind when I came into politics, so I'm not intending to be there representing the medical profession if I were elected. I think you're there to represent the public."

Selected as a parliamentary candidate in an American-style open primary, Wollaston has proven herself an outspoken politician since 2010.

A thorn in the side of David Cameron, she has attacked government failure to address pressing health issues, such as the minimum pricing of alcohol, and jibed the Prime Minister personally. Last year she criticised his inner circle for still being “too white, male, and privileged”.

Given her ability to provoke the Conservative leadership,  Wollaston is likely to prove a popular choice among Labour MPs for chairmanship of the health committee. It is worth pointing out, however, that her independent-mindedness has earnt her genuine respect from all tribes as well.

The role, which demands impartiality, would suit her in many ways, as she has been an vocal critic of crude party politics. She told me she would be “very keen” on the role partially because it eschews “overtly tribal politics” and praised former chair Dorrell for his “consensual style and clear impartiality”.

She said: “Select committees have become so much more effective since the Wright committee reforms [which included the election of committee chairs by the Commons rather selection by the whips], so it’s a job I’d be fascinated to do.

"We need indepth scrutiny of the health service - its finances and operations - now more than ever, having handed back so many powers to NHS England in particular."

Wollaston said that, were she to be elected as health committee chair, among her top priorities would be work on variation in practice across the NHS; mental health care; personalised care; examining outcomes and their use as tools, for example, in early diagnosis; and scaling back tender processes for small contracts where unnecessary.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA