|Chair of the Health Select Committee|
18 June 2014
|Preceded by||Stephen Dorrell|
|Member of Parliament
6 May 2010
|Preceded by||Anthony Steen|
17 February 1962 |
Woking, England, UK
|Alma mater||King's College London|
Dr Sarah Wollaston (born 17 February 1962) is a British Conservative Party politician. She is the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Totnes, and chairs the Health Committee in the House of Commons.
Wollaston was born in Woking, and studied medicine at Guy's Hospital in London. She qualified in 1986 and worked as a junior hospital doctor and then as a general practitioner. After more than twenty years in clinical practice, Wollaston ran for political office. She was the first person to be selected as the parliamentary candidate for a major British political party through a postal open primary; during the campaign she emphasised that she was not a career politician and had actually had a real job. As the Conservative candidate for Totnes in the general election in 2010 she won the seat with an increased majority, increasing it still further in 2015.
Wollaston has gained a reputation for being an independent-minded MP who is not afraid to stand up to her party's leadership when she believes that their decisions go against the interests of her constituents. As such, she has rebelled against the Government on several key votes—voting in favour of a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union in 2011, for a cut in the EU budget in 2011, and against military intervention in Syria in 2013. She has been a vocal proponent of minimum unit pricing for alcohol and has spoken out against political patronage in Westminster. In June 2016 she announced that she was no longer supporting the Vote Leave campaign in the referendum on European Union membership, and would vote to remain in the EU.
Early life and education
Wollaston was born in Woking, Surrey, in 1962 into an armed forces family. As a result, she moved home frequently in her early life when her father – a supplies and catering officer in the Royal Air Force, and formerly a diver and bomb disposal specialist in the Royal Navy – was posted to different bases around the world, including postings to Hong Kong and Malta.
Wollaston was educated at a mixture of service and civilian primary schools, later attending a girls' grammar school in Watford. While at secondary school, Wollaston took on a range of part-time jobs, including a Saturday job at the local branch of the John Lewis department store. She left the sixth form with the high grades in science subjects at A level that she needed to study medicine at university.
In 1980, Wollaston entered Guy's Hospital in London as a medical student. She took an intercalated degree in pathology in the third year of her undergraduate career, gaining a Bachelor of Science degree in the subject. While at Guy's, she met her future husband Adrian, and alongside her studies took a part-time role as a healthcare assistant at the hospital to supplement her student grant.
Wollaston graduated with a degree in medicine in 1986. She embarked on a career in hospital paediatrics but, after five years as a junior doctor in London, she moved to Bristol to train as a general practitioner, becoming a fully-fledged family doctor in 1992.
Wollaston then moved to Devon to work as a part-time general practitioner in a town on the edge of Dartmoor. She was also a police surgeon from 1996 to 2001, dealing with victims of sexual assaults, advising the police on whether a suspect is fit to be interviewed, and treating people in custody. After 1999, she went full-time in her GP role; alongside that, she taught medical students and trainee GPs and worked as an examiner for the Royal College of General Practitioners.
She is still on the medical register but she stopped practising medicine in 2010 when she was elected to Parliament.
Member of Parliament
2009 open primary
Wollaston joined the Conservative Party in 2006, having been spurred into politics by her opposition to the threatened closure of Moretonhampstead Community Hospital. However Wollaston accepted that she had "no background in politics" when in 2009 she put her name forward for the selection of a candidate for the Totnes constituency, citing as qualifications "only real life experience, approachability and enthusiasm". The Conservative Association placed her on the shortlist of three to succeed Anthony Steen, who had announced his retirement after criticism as part of the United Kingdom Parliamentary expenses scandal.
Urged to do so by national party, the local Conservative Association had already decided that the selection would be made by an open primary, in which non-members would have a vote. On 9 July the Conservative Party leader David Cameron announced that the party would, for the first time, send a postal ballot paper to every voter instead of holding the selection at an open meeting. Wollaston later said that she might not have put her name forward had she known that the selection was to be by open primary,
During the selection process, Wollaston campaigned on the problems of alcohol-related crime, citing also the 8,000 annual deaths from alcohol. She later supported curbs on low priced alcoholic drinks. but highlighted that the selection offered voters a choice between a career politician and "someone with a real job". At a public hustings, she was asked whether her lack of political experience would make it difficult for her to throw and take political punches; she replied that this was not what politics was about for her, and that she would not indulge in it. Her reply prompted spontaneous applause.
The primary was conducted under the plurality ("first past the post") method used in national elections. In the selection result, Wollaston was proclaimed the winner with 7,914 votes (48%), ahead of Sara Randall Johnson (leader of East Devon District Council) who had 5,495 (33%), and Nick Bye (Mayor of Torbay) who had 3,088 (19%). Nearly a quarter of all voters returned their ballots, a higher turnout than was expected.
2010 general election
As the general election approached, Wollaston made clear her anger at suggestions that she would be a part-time MP, saying that she would not continue her medical practice if elected. The local Liberal Democrats denied that they were behind rumours that Wollaston intended to continue to practise part-time. She accepted that the scandal over Anthony Steen's expenses claims had damaged the Conservative Party's chances, and declined his offer of the use of his home to run the Conservative campaign. She pledged to vote in a eurosceptic direction and to support a bypass for Kingskerswell.
On election day, Wollaston was elected with a 45.9% share of the vote, and more than doubled the Conservative's majority. She supported the formation of a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government as being the most appropriate for her constituency in the circumstances after the election, explaining that voters wanted to see politicians working together.
2015 general election
In March 2013, Wollaston was reselected by her local Conservative Association to fight the 2015 general election as the Conservative candidate. On polling day, she was re-elected with 53% of the vote, more than tripling her majority to 18,285 (38.8%).
Wollaston's maiden speech in Parliament on 2 June 2010 outlined her concerns about alcohol-related crime and alcoholic drink pricing, and also mentioned issues of concern in her constituency including bovine tuberculosis. Soon after her election, she was offered the position of Parliamentary Private Secretary – a junior aide – to one of the Health Ministers, influenced by her professional background. Despite being the first rung on the ministerial ladder, Wollaston turned the offer down because it would have required her to avoid speaking out against any Government policy she disagreed with. She later said that she would not have been able to 'look [her] constituents in the eye' if she had signed away her ability to speak on the issues she had been elected on.
In her first year in the Commons, Wollaston referred to her experience working with sexual assault victims in warning the Government against its plans to introduce anonymity for people suspected of or charged with rape. She argued that it would constitute a "further barrier" for victims to report their crime and that the vast majority of sexual assaults already went unreported. She successfully pressed the Government to take up the way the European Union's Working Time Directive applied to junior doctors' training, saying that it was causing patient care to suffer. In October 2010, she announced that she would not vote to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 because "the overwhelming majority" in her constituency were opposed to hunting. She broke the Conservative whip in November 2010 to support an amendment setting a threshold of 40% turnout for the result of the referendum on voting systems to be valid, and later that month supported a Labour amendment to allow more policyholders to claim compensation over the collapse in Equitable Life dividends.
In March 2011, Wollaston warned David Cameron that the Government's NHS reforms would result in the NHS going "belly up". She warned that the reorganisation would result in confusion with doctors being overwhelmed. She said there was a risk that Monitor, the new regulator would be filled with "competition economists" who would change the NHS beyond recognition and there was no point 'liberating' the NHS from political control only to shackle it to an unelected economic regulator. However, her opposition to the NHS reforms calmed after the party leadership changed certain clauses at her suggestions and she eventually voted in favour of passage of the Health and Social Care Bill.
During her campaign for selection as Conservative candidate in Totnes Wollaston pledged to tackle the issue of alcohol misuse, having seen the impact of it during her medical career. In Westminster, she pushed for an introduction of minimum unit pricing for alcohol, arguing that a 50p minimum unit price would save almost 3,000 lives a year and save the NHS over £6bn over ten years while costing a moderate drinker only £12 extra per year. When plans to introduce minimum pricing were shelved by the Government in 2013, Wollaston strongly criticised David Cameron and Department for Health Ministers, saying that the change in policy was due to lobbying by Conservative Party strategist Lynton Crosby, whose firm had strong ties to the alcohol industry. Following her comments, she was named MP of the Month by Total Politics for her tough stance.
Having been on the draft Bill Committee for the Care and Support Bill, Wollaston was selected to sit on the Public Bill Committee for the Care Bill in early 2014. There she introduced a number of amendments, including one which would have made terminally ill patients exempt from social care charges.
Wollaston was elected as a member of the Health Select Committee upon entering Parliament, and became Chair of the Committee in June 2014 after Stephen Dorrell retired. She defeated fellow GP Phillip Lee, Caroline Spelman, Charlotte Leslie and David Tredinnick to the role. She was re-elected to this position after the 2015 general election.
In 2015, an undercover Daily Telegraph investigation showed that in some cases locum agencies Medicare and Team24, owned by Capita, were charging some hospitals higher fees than others and giving false company details. The agencies were charging up to 49% of the fee. Wollaston said the Government should publish details of agency charges as transparency would "drive changes to behaviour".
Before entering the House of Commons, Wollaston stated that she was "strong pro-choice", and would not support lowering the abortion limit as such a measure would affect those who are in the greatest need. In 2011, she voted against backbench amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill which would have prevented abortion providers from offering counselling services.
Wollaston voted in favour of allowing same-sex marriage in 2013, writing that "people who are gay should be allowed to celebrate their love and commitment in a context that society understands". She branded opponents of the change "bigots".
Wollaston rebelled against the Government to vote against setting up a Royal Charter to regulate the press, claiming that many of the activities which had led to the proposal were already illegal and were being exploited to justify censoring the free press. Later, she was the joint winner of The Spectator magazine's Parliamentarian of the Year award for her stance.
In September 2013, she entered the debate about niqabs saying that some women found them offensive and urged the Government to ban them in schools on the grounds of gender equality.
Coming from a non-political background, Wollaston has consistently spoken out in favour of reforming the political system to make it more open and accessible. Citing her own experience in the medical profession she has called for job-sharing in the Commons, claiming that this would make it easier for women and those with families to stand for Parliament while helping to improve the experience of MPs.
In 2013, she was signatory to a campaign for women to be able to inherit noble titles, instead of these being restricted to the male line.
She has often spoken out against political patronage in Westminster and the role of the payroll vote in silencing dissent amongst MPs. She has suggested that vacancies for Parliamentary Private Secretary roles should put out for application and interview to find the most qualified candidate, rather than the candidate most in favour with the Government.
Following her selection through the open primary process she urged the leaders of all parties to expand their use, particularly in safe seats. She claimed that the cost could be significantly lower than that of the Totnes primary by combining local and European elections with primary elections. In 2013, she claimed that the idea of expanding primaries had been 'shelved' because it was felt that they produce 'awkward' independently-minded MPs.
Foreign and European policy
In August 2013, Wollaston rebelled and voted against military intervention in Syria, saying that such a move could escalate into a wider conflict with hundreds of thousands of victims. She cited strong opposition to intervention by her constituents as a key factor in deciding to vote against.
On the European Union, Wollaston has in the past said that she supports reform to loosen the relationship between Britain and Brussels but would reluctantly vote to leave the EU if reform cannot be achieved. Writing for Conservative Home in 2013, she expressed support for EU membership because of access to the single market, but questioned whether it was worth the extra bureaucracy for business, loss of sovereignty and the deficit in democracy. In the House of Commons, she voted in a Eurosceptic manner on several key votes – voting for a referendum on Britain's EU membership and voting to reduce the EU budget.
Wollaston initially supported the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum on European Union membership, stating in an article in The Guardian following David Cameron's renegotiation of membership terms in February 2016 that "the prime minister has returned with a threadbare deal that has highlighted our powerlessness to effect institutional change" and that "the balance of our national interest now lies outside the EU". However, she announced on 8 June 2016 that she would change sides to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, claiming that Vote Leave's assertion that exiting the union would make available £350m a week for health spending "simply isn't true" and represented "post-truth politics". She also suggested that leaving the EU would harm the UK's economy, leading to a "Brexit penalty".
Michael Deacon of The Daily Telegraph wrote that her decision to switch sides had sparked a conspiracy theory among many leave campaigners that she was a "government plant", while fellow Conservative MP and Eurosceptic Nadine Dorries claimed Wollaston's change of opinion was "deliberately staged and political".
Wollaston lives with her husband Adrian James, a psychiatrist in South Devon and registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. They have three children—two at university and one working as a foundation doctor. She is a keen cyclist and took part in the 2014 RideLondon 100-mile bike race with her husband.
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