Politics, Democracy and Everything - Sarah Wollaston

Posted on 16th March, 2020

How Parliament WorksQ&A session with Dr Sarah Wollaston                                   


Wed 10 March, 18:30-20:30, Boston Tea Party, Exeter.

First in a series – “Politics, Democracy and Everything”,  organised by Devon for Europe.


Sarah Wollaston opened the session with a brief overview and some suggestions, before inviting questions, which were free flowing and answered fully and frankly.


Here’s a summary of her short introduction:


 Parliament has some systemic undemocratic processes, e.g.

—Less than 1.5% increase in votes for Tories translates into huge majority

—‘Strong leadership’ demanded by public, can sidestep scrutiny.  There’s a Trumpification of avoidance of scrutiny by the media. This led to political journalists boycotting a Downing Street briefing (3rd Feb 2020), after one of Boris Johnson’s aides banned selected reporters from attending.


So what can citizens do?


  1. Have face-to-face engagement with your MP. Invite them to your workplace / group meeting. Hold the government to account .e.g. promises on Fishing
  2. Make Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests
  3. Use Select Committees:
  4. Look at the Parliament website for Select Committees, esp to see what’s relevant to SouthWest.
  5. Propose an enquiry for that Committee. Email clerk with your insight or evidence. Give reasons clearly, on A4 paper
  6. Write in with suggested questions to upcoming speaker (e.g., Simon Stephens going to appear soon) . Some members don’t read brief in advance!!
  7. Chair and Clerk consider the flow and content of questions. But also good to make a pitch to all SC Members, as they vote for which questions are chosen.
  8. Anyone can turn up to Select Committee meetings.

N.B. Petitions using pro forma emails, and Early Day Motions, are a waste of time! 


In the course of the informal discussion that ensued, Sarah offered the following reflections:

  • Government in ‘honeymoon period’ right now. But we have a dysfunctional Chamber. Takes 900,000 votes to get 1 Green MP.; 25,000 to get 1 for SNP.  Keep writing and campaigning for electoral reform
  • Beware All-Party Groups. Check Secretariat. Sometimes funded by big lobby group.
  • Progressive Alliance could only work if Labour participates.
  • Lib Dems made mistakes in Jo Swinson-led campaign. “I’m next Prime Minister” lost voters and media support.
  • Could be better co-ordination for Brexit-related topics. Splintered into different committees at present.
  • MPs penalised for speaking too often in the House. Name is moved down the list of those requesting to speak in future.
  • MPs can’t be in two places at once. Sometimes miss a debate whilst e.g. attending committee.
  • As former Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, SW asks why on earth UK government wants to pull out of EU early warning system.
  • Purity of Brexit argument again overtaking common sense, she says.


Most of the evening was devoted to questions from the audience of around sixty people. (One hundred had been expected, but coronavirus considerations are likely to have kept many away). Here’s a flavour of the questions:


  1. Value of Select Committees if e.g. Russia Report can be buried?
  2. There is no mechanism for enforcing publishing.
  3. How are Select Committee members chosen?
  4. Chair voted in by whole House of Commons. Allocated by Party. Can’t be removed in government reshuffle.
  5. What if email to MP doesnt get response?
  6. No sanction for MP who doesn’t reply to you. So options are as follows:
  7. a) Make appointment to meet, stating “specific questions I want to ask you about” . (Allotted surgery time is usually 15-20 mins).
  8. b) Send your unanswered letters to the press/ or use radio phone-in, etc.
  9. c) Delegations to MP work well. Good publicity for a follow-up press article.

Q.Are Westminster MPs influenced by local elections?

  1. So much is devolved to local government. Local councillors make extraordinary differences to their constituents.
  2. If parliament shut down because of coronavirus, what would happen?
  3. Electronic voting could be used. About time current arcane voting system was reformed! Whipping is brazen, obvious, as MP’s ushered in to voting divisions. Often don’t know what they’re voting on. Change resisted. (Essentially boring) Procedure Committee has dinosaurs!!

Q.How to defend BBC?

  1. Take part in a big campaign. People do value the BBC. Essential not to lose this public broadcasting voice not directed by a lobby group.
  2. How seriously does Parliament take petitions?
  3. Depends on issue. Useful to target a matter from different standpoints, so helps to connect with other groups, including those from other constituencies where appropriate.
  4. What checks and balances are there on Johnson and on Cummings?
  5. Cummings in position of patronage. Cabinet Secretary in theory has power to check DC , but won’ Role of ‘Special Advisers’ is concerning. Also, Government intends to look at Judiciary , especially the Supreme Court (This was in Conservative manifesto). Judicial Reviews could be eroded. There is extreme tension between government departments and the civil service, as the recent three cases of trashing reputations has shown.

Some hope that The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will be strengthened with new powers, to hold BJ and DC to account. But choice of Chair will be crucial.  [BAD NEWS: BERNARD JENKIN!!]


  1. People get the government they deserve, so what did we get wrong?
  2. Bad behaviour is being normalised.

Thank you to Jackie Green for this summary.


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Comments (1)

An excellent precis for those of us unable to attend. Thank you very much Jackie.