East meets Westminster: Dr Dan Poulter on his first two years in parliament
In the latest in a series of interviews with our MPs, RICHARD PORRITT speaks to DR DAN POULTER
It was here in the hospital’s Victorian wards - where Florence Nightingale set the standard for modern nursing back in the 1860s - Dr Dan Poulter honed his skills in the medical profession.
Little did he know then, that it was only a matter of time before he would migrate to the north side of the river and begin applying those skills gained as a doctor to a much different profession.
The Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP is something of an accidental politician.
“I was always interested in politics,” he said. “I was working on the south coast helping people with drug and alcohol problems after I first qualified. After a while I invited David Cameron down to see the project and he came. I was very impressed with him.
“He said ‘why don’t you get involved with politics locally?’ So I stood for local council and was a councillor for a little bit of time, but I did not hugely enjoy that because there were some frustration attached to it but I very much enjoyed the community work I was doing.”
But then the bombshell of the expenses scandal caused a seismic shift in British politics and in a desperate bid to seize some initiative David Cameron sent out a call for people with experience in public service to come forward and fill the gaps created when scores of veteran MPs threw in the towel.
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Dr Poulter said: “There was an appeal for people with experience of public service to come forward and that is why I did it. It is three years ago that I decided to go for it and it just happened very quickly. I am charmed in that as a hospital doctor I still get a bit of time doing that job when I am not in Westminster and it keeps you in touch with the real world.
“The problem with being an MP is you can lose touch with what is actually going on – medicine allows me to keep a handle on things. It is incredibly useful to see the NHS – violent crime in A&E, the issues facing older people, and people getting access to social care.
“That real-life experience shapes what I do here in parliament and what I do in my constituency.”
And the first thing that comes across with Dr Poulter is that he is different to many other politicians: He does not talk in soundbites, he can see beyond the tittle-tattle of national politics and his concern for his constituents is as genuine as his concern for his patients. But that is not to say he has not become canny in his manouvres in Westminster.
The 33-year-old was born in Beckenham, Kent, to parents he claims had “little” interest in politics. His interest in the happenings of Westminster appear to have grown from his experiences in the NHS – in fact a lot of Dr Poulter’s views and motivations within politics are reflections of his hopes and fears for the health service.
“In many respects the work I do from the heart of Suffolk is a bit like being a doctor – you are a public servant but as a doctor I would look after my patients as an MP I now look after my constituents,” he said when he spoke to East meets Westminster on the terrace overlooking the Thames.
“The greatest satisfaction I have got in the last two years has been the successes I have had in individual cases taken up over housing or other issues like that and also on the big stuff we have achieved as MPs working together, for example getting the �5m for the new heart unit at Ipswich Hospital which Ben Gummer [Ipswich MP] and I worked on together and the �12m for high-speed broadband in Suffolk.
“More recently the �5million refurbishment of a community hospital in north Suffolk as well. It is those kinds of things that make a real difference to peoples’ lives - they are the most satisfying. As a doctor you have an immediate reward – some days you may save someone’s life – but every day you are improving the human condition. As an MP you hope that the work you do improves the quality of life for the people you work for over a period of time.
“For example high-speed broadband – it will be good for businesses, for farming and for people in their own homes. It is that sort of thing that is going to, over time, make a difference for Suffolk.”
He clearly enjoys the work he does in Suffolk and has settled in to life in the East of England well. But the rough and tumble of Westminster is taking a bit longer to get used to. The bickering across the dispatch box in the Commons might be a spectacle but Dr Poulter would prefer a more adult approach: “The frustrating thing about politics generally is that there is a lot of arguing.
“Of course it can be productive but often it is the opposite. I sometimes think the job of the opposition is not always constructive and it is arguing for the sake of it. Sometimes the Labour Party should say: ‘That is a good idea – we support that.’ That would be a much better way of going about things.
“For example the health care reforms. The Government reforms are based on Tony Blair’s ideas for the NHS – giving patients more choice over their care, reducing beauracracy and waste, making sure the doctors and nurses are more in charge of running services because they know what is best for the people they treat.
“But as soon as they went in to opposition instead of saying ‘these are good principles’ they immediately opposed them. That is not useful or productive.
“The welfare system is another example. Having people being better off in work than out of it is a sound principle and one that anyone with any commonsense would sign up to but I think that the way it works in this place it is being opposed by Labour. They know they should agree with it – in fact lots of them privately do agree with it but because they are in opposition they feel they must oppose it and attack the Government.
“My experiences working with the NHS have taught me that working as a team is the best way to get things done – it is a much better way of doing things. But politics is not always like that.”
Dr Poulter often refers questions back to what he claims are the three topics which people in his constituency are most concerned about - the NHS, jobs and education. But he admits Europe - an issues that has haunted the Tories for years - is being brought up more often on the doorstep. And he is confident if a referendum was offered on Europe people in Suffolk would likely vote to claw back powers from Brussels.
“Regardless of the pros and cons of Europe, time has shown that integration has happened far too quickly,” he said. “When there are bad economic times the euro has not worked. We are lucky that Gordon Brown did not take us in to the euro – it would have been the wrong decision.
“And I can’t see us joining the euro in the foreseeable future - if ever.
“If you were to ask people in Suffolk they would say that European integration has gone too far and we need to look at ways of bringing back powers in certain areas - for example the fact that sometimes European Human Rights laws appear to protect the criminal more than the innocent. I think there would be widespread support for repatriating some of those powers. I am also supportive of that.”
Dr Poulter’s first two years in Parliament have gone well. He is still as much a doctor as he is a politician but this is to his credit. The skills he gained on the wards will serve him well on the doorsteps.
Is he ambitious beyond the backbenches? “My primary concern is my constituency. But it is important as time as goes on that we have people in ministerial jobs who have experience of the real world and have things to offer from their experience outside politics.
“If the opportunity arises then yes I would be delighted.”