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Sarah Wollaston MP: What on earth is the point of an MP who isn't prepared to comment?

Screen Shot 2013-03-17 at 20.29.25Dr Sarah Wollaston is Conservative MP for Totnes, Brixham and the South Ham. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

Better our slightly anarchic, two fingers to the establishment, out-of-control press than a controlled press. Statutory controls would be a more convenient option for celebrities and politicians but the public should be very wary. Phone hacking was illegal when it invaded the privacy of the Dowlers and remains illegal today and it is wrong for those who favour State controls to take shelter behind a claim to have their interests at heart. A vote to allow Parliament a toe in the door of press freedom carries a risk that is not worth taking. It also ignores the power of the Internet to render our printed news entirely irrelevant let alone bankrupt, should readers be bored by the resulting bland self censorship.

But the Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Either we are in favour of freedom of speech or we are not and it is also time for the gagging orders at the heart of government to be removed by the one person with the power to make it happen.

To universal welcome, gagging orders have finally been banned in the NHS... with one notable exception. How can the following be justified within the 'job description' of the ministerial aide to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt?

'They should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House'.

The Ministerial Code also states that these Parliamentary Private Secretaries are not members of the government so why the need for the restrictions? Jeremy Hunt's current PPS, Rob Wilson MP, tells me that he does not feel gagged but that is not the point. He is not able to speak or ask questions on health in the Commons and cannot criticise his boss.

I don't think this is picky; I want to know if a ministerial aide has concerns about matters arising at the very top in the health service. It also matters because the culture in any organisation percolates downwards. If the sweeping of any embarrassing details under the carpet is mandated to protect the boss why should others feel the need for transparency? I certainly wouldn't want such a clause to exist for the aide to Sir David Nicholson so why should it exist for the aide to the Secretary of State?

Frankly the requirement to always vote with the government when you are expressly not a member of it, has always seemed to me to be inexcusably anti-democratic.

This may not be popular with those who prefer their backbenchers to be 'participants rather than commentators' but what on earth is the point of an MP who isn't prepared to comment?


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