Health Committee Chair and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston.
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Sarah Wollaston: “People are very abusive to MPs… undermining, throwing insults at you”

The newly elected chair of the Health Committee and Conservative MP for Totnes talks to the New Statesman.

Sarah Wollaston is “delighted” at having attained the health committee chairmanship: “It’s the job in politics I always wanted”.

Although the Tory whips tried to install Conservative MP Dr Philip Lee, the Labour vote swept Wollaston, a former GP herself, into the top job. The opposition was impressed, no doubt, by her independent mindedness and healthcare expertise, but likely by her ability to rile her party too.

Elected as MP for Totnes in 2010, her bluntness has raised eyebrows in the party. She has criticised the government for failing to address pressing health issues, such as the miminum pricing of alcohol, and last year piqued the Prime Minister by describing his inner circle as "too white, male, and privileged".

She also became mired in controversy over her involvement in the rape prosecution brought against fellow Tory MP Nigel Evans. She was heavily vilified in Westminster for helping two young parliamentary staffers bring sexual assault and rape complaints last year against Evans, who was acquitted after a protracted legal case. Her new role looks set to draw a line under that difficult period.

She admits that being a politician in the public eye takes its toll on her, however. "People are very abusive to MPs, and I know it's not just women MPs, but you do take a lot of personal flak."

She elaborates: "You get individuals who will target you, frankly very unpleasant correspondence, so you need to have very thick skin."

What sort of thing do people write, or, more often, email? She hesitates. Wollaston naturally speaks softly, but becomes almost inaudible: "I would say people write to you where it's patronising, where it's directly offensive about you, that's aiming to undermine you. It's difficult sometimes to put into words".

She pauses. The toxic combination is being "deeply sarcastic, undermining, [and] throwing insults at you."

"Obviously you expect people to write and criticise policies, take issue with what you say." But the often sexist abuse she receives clearly wrong-foots her.

Wistfully, she says: "When you're a doctor, everyone's inclined to like you until proven otherwise. But when you come into politics, you realise that there is a great deal of hostility to politicians; that's quite challenging."

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Now Wollaston's attention is focused on the parliamentary Health Committee and she is determined for its recommendations to be taken seriously and implemented properly. Greater emphasis on the follow up to investigations is needed, she says. "We put so much money into producing reports - if you look at the cost of the Shipman inquiry - and yet sometimes we see those recommendations fall by the wayside."

Talking in her Westminster office - the tidiest and most orderly of any MP's I have seen - she also expresses her consternation at Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's plan to “red flag” (literally put a red flag on the website by the name of) GPs who are missing too many cancer cases.

While she concedes that he is "absolutely right to focus on GPs' pick-up rates for cancer", she vehemently opposes the idea of publishing GPs' names openly "on a website in a sort of 'name and shame' format".

There would, she says ominously, be "unintended consequences". Waiting times would rocket if every doctor felt compelled to offer their patients every going medical test, she points out, adding that x-rays and other invasive investigations of the body carry a risk for patients. "You can be a bad doctor because you over refer as much as you can be a bad doctor if you under refer." The government should "intervene with those doctors directly and clearly" instead of shaming them publicly.

Wollaston is also critical of the government's handling of "care.data", a new initiative to link all NHS data about all patients together into one online database, for research use by public and private enterprises.

In particular, she finds it "extraordinary" that data was being sold to insurance companies in a way that turns out to have been within the law: "It strikes me as pretty obvious that that was not what was intended."

Although she is supportive of the concept - "Tying in primary care records with secondary care records - the value of that to research can't be underestimated" - she is unsettled about the risks to patient confidentiality.

She says: "I am very concerned that in the first outing of this - there seemed to be an attitude that it'd been an exercise in bad PR rather than addressing the fact that there were real issues of concern here for patients."

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The funding issues facing the NHS provoke characteristically strong opinions in Wollaston. "The point about the NHS, the thing that people really value, is that principle of being free at the point of need, based on that need and not the ability to pay," she says.

"That to me is the core of the NHS, that it's a collective insurance model. We pool the risk."

This autumn, when her committee embarks on its annual expenditure inquiry of the NHS, she hopes to broaden the scope of the report to include exploration of different funding models to balance the books of the health service. According to a recent warning by health chiefs, it is facing a £2bn funding gap for the next financial year.

We need "an honest debate with the public", Wollaston concedes, and explains her plan for the committee to investigate in detail all the funding options, which political parties could then choose between in their manifestos.

While she asserts that she will not "prejudge" which model would be best, she is wary of the government extending the "top up" model used, for example, in British dentistry, whereby patients pay extra for certain services.

"To roll that out more widely into the health service I think would be a very major shift away from the fundamental principle. So I think we tread there with caution."

She is also outspoken in her demands for reform in Parliament. While there are "some careers that are very well represented in Parliament, such as law", more MPs from a science background are needed, she believes.

She is passionate about attracting more women into Westminster too. Job sharing is "a way we could attract more women", she believes, particularly those in their thirties or with young children. "At the moment most women like me come in in their forties. I came in at 48 - quite late to be starting", she points out.

Speaking before this week’s reshuffle, the subject turns to ministerial positions, which Wollaston thinks MPs should be able to apply for. After all, "you don't know if someone's the best person for the job if you haven't invited applications."

"Of course it's for the PM to pick his ministerial team, but it interests me that people can't apply for the job." Laughing, she adds: "That might seem an outrageous proposal from someone within politics, but actually, why not?"

Shaking her head, she adds: "It's just a mindset we have in politics that the right way to do things is to tap people on the shoulder."

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

 

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Jeremy Corbyn's speech on terrorism will do him more good than harm

The Labour leader's criticism of police cuts and western foreign policy will resonate with voters.

The election campaign, if there was any doubt, has resumed. In his speech responding to the Manchester attack, Jeremy Corbyn did not limit himself to expressions of sympathy and solidarity. He squarely targeted Theresa May on her home turf: policing and security.

The Conservatives' repeated warning is that Corbyn is a "threat" to his country. But the Labour leader countered that only he could keep it "safe". Austerity, he declared, "has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap." May, having been warned by the Police Federation while home secretary of the danger of cuts, is undoubtedly vulnerable on this front. Under Labour, Corbyn vowed, "there will be more police on the streets" (despite Diane Abbott's erroneous arithmetic), while the security services would receive whatever resources they need.

Corbyn swiftly progressed to foreign policy, the great passion of his political life. Though it is facile to reduce terrorism to a "blowback" against western interventionism (as if jihadists were Pavlovian dogs, rather than moral agents), it is blinkered to dismiss any connection. As Corbyn noted: "Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home" (the Tory-led Foreign Affairs Select Committee is among those who agree).That the former Stop the War chair has long taken this view absolves him of the charge of crude political opportunism.

Corbyn was also more careful than his pre-briefed remarks suggested to caveat his criticisms. He emphasised: "Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

"And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre."

But he maintained his central charge: western intervention has made the world more dangerous, not less. "We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working," he said. "We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism."

Though Corbyn's arguments have appalled Conservatives (and some in Labour), they are ones that will likely find favour among the public. Polls have consistently shown that most voters oppose western adventurism and believe it has endangered the UK. Corbyn's words will resonate among both the anti-interventionist left and the isolationist right (this is, after all, a country which has just voted to retreat from even its closest neighbours).

The speech, given at 1 Great George Street (in the room where Ed Miliband gave his resignation address), was marred by Corbyn's refusal to take questions. But it was unarguably well-delivered. "Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror," he warned in a pre-emptive strike against the Conservatives.

Corbyn's decision to give an overtly political speech four days after the Manchester attack is being widely described as a "gamble" or even a profound error. But the election will now rightly focus more closely on the issue of security - nothing should be beyond democratic debate.

Many of Corbyn's life-long stances, such as unilateral disarmament, do not find favour with the electorate. But there was little in his speech today that the average voter would contest. The Conservatives will hope to turn the heightened security debate to their advantage, ruthlessly quoting Corbyn against himself. But on this front, as on others, the Labour leader is proving a tougher opponent than they anticipated.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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