The Speaker was fortunate enough to speak to MP for North Norfolk and Liberal Democrat, Norman Lamb. Here’s what he had to say about engaging people in politics, his role as Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the influence of social media.
What initially sparked your interest in politics, and why did you choose to support the Liberal Democrats?
I was brought up in a household where politics was often discussed. My parents were Liberals – although not politically involved. There is a photo of me at the age of about 5 wearing a Liberal rosette – so it seemed to be in my blood!
So, I have always been a liberal, which to me is fundamentally about giving power to people and spreading opportunity. This includes making sure that people have control over the public services they use, high-quality education so that every child has the chance to flourish, and giving people the right to make important decisions about their lives without being obstructed by the state – such as the right to a dignified assisted death. This, to me, is a fundamentally Liberal issue.
I tried to apply my Liberal values to my work as an MP and also as a Health Minister. Before I became Health Minister, people with mental health problems had no right to receive timely, evidence-based treatment and no right to choose where they want to be treated – in stark contrast to people with physical illnesses like cancer. I wanted to give this disempowered group of people more rights and more control over the services they use, which is why we extended these rights to people with mental ill health for the first time. Equal treatment is an important principle.
Defending civil liberties and protecting people’s privacy from unwarranted state intrusion is also something Liberal Democrats are uniquely passionate about. You need only to look at the tendency of the last Labour Government to ride roughshod over people’s civil liberties (introducing indeterminate sentences for example), and Theresa May’s mass surveillance law known as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, to see that this is something the two main parties both struggle with. They are also united by their illiberal obsession with criminalising drug users, even though the evidence shows that a model based on decriminalisation, regulation and treatment – as advocated by the Liberal Democrats – is far more effective in reducing the number of lives destroyed by the illegal drugs market.
Last year you and your team sent out over 19,000 letters. How important is it for you to engage with constituents and members of the public?
Listening to people’s views is critically important to make sure we are acting in the best interest of our communities and the country as a whole – whether the issue is Brexit or the impact of wind farms on our countryside. My team and I take up hundreds of pieces of casework every month on a wide range of issues including schools, housing support and local NHS services.
But as well as listening and helping people when they need it, I also think it is important that people know what I am doing as their MP. I take my responsibility to my constituents very seriously. It am deeply fortunate to serve as MP for North Norfolk. People place a lot of trust in me, and I owe it to them to inform them of what I am doing.
How do you think we can encourage more people to get involved and contact their local MPs about issues, rather than waiting for someone else to?
The internet has made a massive difference to the way people contact their MPs. There are new websites such as ’38 Degrees’ where people can pledge their support to the latest online campaign and send a pre-written email to their MP.
People can also sign petitions on the Parliamentary Petitions website, which are an effective way of forcing the Government to think about an issue. As a direct result of public petitions, we recently had debates on Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK as well as a debate on how the NHS should fund a new treatment for cystic fibrosis. Donald Trump subsequently postponed his state visit, while the Government and the NHS are now having to work even harder to make sure that the cystic fibrosis drug is available to those who need it. That, to me, is how democracy should work.
Throughout your time in politics, you have served in a variety of different roles from Chief Parliamentary Advisor to Shadow Health Secretary, has there been one role which you have particularly enjoyed, and why?
Serving as Minister of State for Care and Support was an enormous privilege. I first got into politics to change society for the better, so the opportunity to actually achieve much-needed reform in mental health and social care is something I remain very proud of. It was a constant battle with the Treasury to get the funding we needed, and frustratingly the Tories seem to have given up on much of what the Liberal Democrats fought for in the Coalition. But I am proud of what we achieved – and I am proud of having won the Political Studies Association Award for Best Evidence-Based Policy Making during my time as minister!
You were recently elected Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee. What news tasks does this entail, compared to your job as an MP?
Chairing the Science and Technology Committee has given me the opportunity to do something I am passionate about: working across party lines to scrutinise government policy and hold ministers to account based on the evidence. We are already addressing important issues such as the regulation e-cigarettes, support for people who have suffered adverse childhood experiences such as trauma and abuse, and the impact of social media on children’s health. Then there is the small matter of Brexit, which presents the science and research community with its greatest challenge for generations.
I am still active on health and care, particularly my cross-party work on NHS funding and the campaign for ‘Equality for Mental Health’. But my select committee work is a new and exciting challenge – particularly when Brexit negotiations will have such a profound impact on research and innovation in the UK for years to come.
Social media is proving to play a huge role in influencing people’s political views, particularly young people. How are the Liberal Democrats trying to engage with younger voters?
The Liberal Democrats have a strong social media presence and have been effective at engaging with young people online. Around 20% of Lib Dem members are under 35, meaning that we are the youngest mainstream political party. Many of our policies resonate with young people, including our plans to reform drugs laws, the fight for equality for those who suffer from mental ill health, and working to ensure that Britain maintains the closest possible relationship with the EU following Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats are still extremely Anti-Brexit, whilst parties such as Labour have begun to slowly change their opinion on the issue. Why do you think it’s important for parties to stick to their key messages?
Political parties should not abandon their principles, but it’s also important for a political party to be pragmatic and responsive to the views of the public.
The Liberal Democrats have always been an internationalist party that believes Britain’s economic and social interests are best served by membership of the European Union. We now find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, and I think it is important to listen to the reasons why people voted for Brexit – including distrust of remote power and a belief that they have been taken for granted by politicians. We should campaign for a deal that secured a very close relationship in trade, defence and security and science, and which protects Britain’s political and economic interests, but there is also a strong case that the public should have a vote on the negotiated final deal.
Thank-you to Norman for helping The Speaker and answering our questions