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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.

Health Committee Chair and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston.

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."

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