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The Week in Westminster: What's up doc?

By Joshua Eldridge, Consultant, Political Intelligence

This week (9th-15th January 2016) saw the first doctors’ strike for over 40 years; a new record set by Ed Vaizey; the final evidence session on the controversial draft Investigatory Powers Bill; and the first implementation of “English votes for English laws" rules. Despite being a week of firsts and broken records, the week was dominated by the death of a starman. And in other news, Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle finally ended, we think… 

One thing is certain, the biggest news of the week was NOT that Ed Vaizey MP became the longest serving Arts Minister in British political history, passing the 2,069 days set by Labour’s Jennie Lee (later Baroness Lee) during the first Wilson Government. Nonetheless, it is no mean feat and congratulations are in order; well done to the man with the most diverse ministerial brief in Westminster.

A tough week for the embattled Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, saw the first doctors’ strike for over 40 years. Junior doctors held a publicly well-supported strike because of long-standing concerns over unsafe working hours and poor pay conditions, alongside more recent plans to cut the number of weekend hours that junior doctors can claim extra “unsocial hours” pay for.

In advance of the strike, NHS England offered some sage advice to any would-be patients brave enough to be considering illness or injury on Tuesday 12th January; advising people to “be particularly attentive to their health” and avoid putting undue pressure on A&E… Fortunately, enough people appear to have heeded their advice and apart from the c. 4,000 non-urgent operations that were postponed, the country survived the strike in decent order.

Hunt failed to gain much, if any, traction by arguing that the strikes were politically motivated and the result of misinformation from the British Medical Association (BMA). Doctors last downed their stethoscopes in 1975, during the early stages of the second Wilson Government. Following talks with Wilson and the then Social Services Minister, Barbara Castle, the action was called off and doctors were allowed to continue operating private practices whilst working part-time NHS contracts.

Whilst many of the Doctors striking this week would not have been alive at the time of the last strike, the reasons back then were markedly similar to the reasons now; a pervasive feeling of being undervalued and overworked. Junior doctors have now threatened to escalate industrial action if ongoing talks between officials and the BMA do not yield results; with the next strike scheduled to start on Tuesday 26th January and last 48 hours.

A busy week for the technology sector saw four parliamentary committees taking evidence on a range of pressing topics including digital connectivity, a broadband universal service obligation (USO), digital skills, the digital economy & the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB). As today’s legislators strive to keep up with the rapid pace of technological development, further echoes of the Wilson years abound, and his famous comment about "the white heat of technological revolution" cannot fail to come to mind.

Then, as now, the country is adjusting to, capitalising on, and being transformed by the “white heat of technology” and legislators are still failing to keep up with the speed and consequences of technological development. This week saw the final evidence session on the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB), at which the Home Secretary delivered an assured performance in the face of little effective opposition, and batted away (or was allowed to avoid answering) the most difficult questions; particularly around the provisions allowing the Home Secretary to “remove electronic protections”, and what it really means for encryption.

The session focused on Internet Connection Records, the warrant system, and the vagueness of definitions included in the Bill. The Home Secretary spent much of the session asserting that the Bill was not about ‘mass surveillance’, but about keeping the UK safe from ‘those who would seek to do us harm’. May's evidence session held few surprises for those that have been closely following the Bill's progress, such as Political Intelligence's Muirinn O'Neill, who scored full marks for her #IPBill predictions made earlier in the week.

In other news, another first. Scottish Secretary David Mundell came out as the first openly gay Tory Cabinet Minister. The entirely appropriate ‘non-news’ status of this announcement, and the “so what?” response from all concerned is the most pleasing aspect of this story, especially when one considers how far the country has come. Look back to 1974 - again under a Wilson Government (this time the ‘troubled’ second one) - and the unfortunate story of Maureen Colquhoun MP. She became Britain's first openly lesbian MP -  scandalous news at the time - with her party and the public turning against her, and culminating in the loss of her seat at the following General Election. Those days are long gone and such a reaction would today be unthinkable. Lest we forget how far we have come since those dark days.

*This article was originally published in the 'The Week in Politics' section of the Public Affairs Networking website on Friday 15th January 2016


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