Ross Cowan is our new Health and Wellbeing Policy Officer at VONNE. Here is his first blog passing on what he learnt at a workshop VONNE helped organise called ‘Engaging with Parliament on health and wellbeing issues.’
I spent a very enlightening Friday the other week at an event in Durham Town Hall. Initially, I was enlightened because, although I started my working life in Durham many years ago, as a Community Service Volunteer with Durham Social Services, I had never ventured beyond the reception. The Hall is a stunning room with large glorious stained glass windows and what I now know is a hammer beam oak roof dating from 1849. The walls are festooned with portraits, plaques and memorials to people who have served Durham in the past, whether as Mayor, Freeman or soldier in the Durham Light Infantry.
Which linked well with my main reason for being there. Over 120 of us had turned up to take part in an event organised by Parliament’s Outreach Service on ‘Engaging with Parliament on health and wellbeing issues’. I would say that most people, including me, had come needing to be convinced that there was a point in engaging with Parliament. As several people pointed out, we mainly see and hear MPs being rude to each other, mired in controversy and declaiming, not listening. And isn’t the Lords full of people in archaic clothing, being oddly polite to each other and often falling asleep? Well, some of that is self-evidently true. But I now realise there are also a lot of well-intentioned hard-working people who are there because they want to make a difference, and who are prepared to listen to, and possibly engage with, you if you approach them in the right way. I also now know that Parliament (and particularly the website www.parliament.uk) is full of useful resources and opportunities.
The day started with a quick overview of Parliament, the Commons and Lords, and their respective roles. I learnt about the work of the House of Commons Library, which provides impartial information and research services for Members of Parliament and their staff in support of their parliamentary duties. So impartial that the Library recently, if albeit briefly, publicly disagreed with the Prime Minister over hospital waiting times. More interesting and useful to me, the library has a huge online database of publicly available briefing papers on a wide range of topics. We were told that larger VCSE organisations can sometimes lodge their own briefings with the library and become a trusted source of information for researchers. The Lords has a similar Library, based in the Queen’s room, which you can tour virtually online.
We quickly moved on to the work of the Commons Health Select Committee. This is one of 19 Select Committees, each related to a Government Department. These are the Committees you hear about that examine witnesses, some people more brusquely than others. The Health Committee has members from all parties and its role is to examine and scrutinise the policy, administration and expenditure of the Department of Health and its associated bodies. The Committee chooses its own subjects to enquire into. It would normally issue a press release inviting people to submit written evidence. Anyone can send in written evidence which will be presented to the Committee. Evidence needs to be in a prescribed format which is detailed in a Guide on the Parliament website. Only people invited by the Committee can give oral evidence. There was a view in the room that the Committee should be more proactive in seeking relevant evidence. The best advice is to sign up for email alerts (as I now have) and send your evidence in whenever you have something relevant to say. Someone queried whether evidence sent on behalf of a number of organisations would carry more weight than that from a single, possibly small or local, organisation. We were told that it wouldn’t and it was the quality and relevance of the ‘evidence’ that counted most. The main thing was that the Committee wouldn’t accept mass mailings or reports that clearly hadn’t been written for their enquiry.
Parliament also has a huge number of All-Party Parliamentary Groups, looking at an exhaustive range of health topics, from Ageing through learning disability to Women’s sport and fitness. There is an online register which tells you which MPs and members of the Lords are on each committee and consequently would be worth contacting about your group’s particular interest. Again, news to me, but some larger charities provide secretarial support for the Groups and may provide another way in.
We were joined by Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham and later by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. They were talking about how best to get members of Parliament and the Lords to work for you and gave very similar messages.
Top Tips to get members of Parliament and the Lords to work for you
- Identify a member(s) who has an interest in your topic or has a local connection. For example, you can easily search Lords online by their Policy Interest. Search for Health Services and medicine and Lord Victor Adebowale, CEO of Turning Point, heads a list of over 60 Lords.
- If you send an email or correspondence be clear what your issue is, put it at the top. Say who is affected and how they are affected. Provide facts and ammunition.
- Try and be clear what you want the member to do, identify solutions as well as problems.
I don’t know if she was joking or not but Tanni (as we were now all calling her) did say that there are still members who will only deal with handwritten correspondence. Best avoid them. Virtually all give emails and many have their own websites.
VONNE ran a workshop in the afternoon on ‘Working with Health and Wellbeing Boards’. There were others on ‘Working with your Clinical Commissioning Group’ and on Sport. Over 40 people attended and what was immediately apparent was the feeling that they were excluded from what was now happening in the health world.
Roberta Blackman-Woods had said she no longer knew who to contact in what she called NHS local. Most people felt the same, with even those who sit on Boards or are members of Healthwatch being unsure how things work and what ability they have to influence things. It was clear that few Boards have representation from voluntary and community groups. People expressed surprise when someone said they were a member of their local Health Scrutiny Committee, they had assumed they had been wound up in all the re-organisations. We have a big job to do, both in describing and explaining the system but also, and mainly, ensuring we engage and involve the community in the future development of health and care services, especially as (or if) more money flows to from acute to primary care.
I came away from the day with three key phrases ringing in my ears. There is no magic wand, we are where we are, and we all need to just keep plugging away!