INTERVIEW: Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill reflects on her first year
Just 10 days before Jo Cox was brutally murdered in her constituency, Bury St Edmunds MP Jo Churchill joined the ‘bright star’ of Westminster for the annual parliamentary tug of war in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support.
In her maiden speech, the Labour MP, who was elected at the same time as Mrs Churchill, said ‘far more unites us than divides us’ - words that cut through the increasingly venomous tone of our politics from a woman whose tragic death has sparked a conversation about how we treat and view our MPs.
“Politics brings out an enormous amount of passion in people and it can be hugely divisive,” says Mrs Churchill. “Some of these things raise enormous passion in me aswell - I try to keep it civil at all times.
“The death of Jo Cox was an absolute tragedy. She was just a really decent human being. For me the biggest loss though was to her husband and children because they will grow up without knowing their mum.
“She went to work in a small market town,” Mrs Churchill pauses. “I don’t think extremism ever benefits anyone.”
With the nation reflecting on how we view our MPs, perhaps this week was the most apt time for the Bury Free Press to speak to Mrs Churchill on her first year as Bury and Stowmarket’s MP.
A self confessed ‘pragmatist’, the mum-of-four says she has fought for her constituents, pursued issues close to her heart to improve the lives of others and had to make tough and sometimes unpopular choices.
They say a week is a long time in politics so how has the first year been in the cut and thrust of Westminster?
“It’s been a huge learning curve,” she says. “I find it enormously challenging, very stimulating and utterly fascinating because of the depth and the breadth.
“You have to learn the system i.e. when it’s worth making a statement in the chamber in order to get a response, when it might be worth a letter, a written parliamentary question. If it’s a constituency matter it also involves the say so or affirmation that a consituent wants to have their details discussed in a very public forum.”
It’s systems which sometimes let people fall through the cracks that have proved the biggest frustration though.
“I don’t think there’s anything malicious about it, it happens but by the time people get to their MP they’re very often at the end of their tether. So we have to unpick where the problem is and we’re not miracle workers so sometimes we can’t solve it and that is equally as challenging for us to deal with as it is for the individual.”
Answering the plights of consituents is one of most enjoyable and rewarding parts of her job.
“We had a win for somebody only this week and it was such an enormous thing to the individual - to be part of finding a solution is a really special feeling.”
It’s those ‘quiet personal wins’ that have changed lives which are among her proudest moments.
“That can be from benefits decisions through to school places, taxation and these are all big structural parts of our lives which sometimes just feel too big for you to cope with. Being allowed into people’s lives is a huge privilege.”
Despite the party politics, Mrs Churchill says there is an ‘awful lot of work’ across parties and she has worked with the SNP and Labour on her areas of interest - health, personalised medicine and cancer. She is also secretary of The Rural Fair Share - fighting for better funding for rural areas.
“We’ve had a small win with fairer funding around schools so that our pupils who are £260 worse off than the average of their counterparts within a city, they are reviewing that at the moment and they are looking at things like rural sparsity so these things start to level the playing field.”
Mrs Churchill also sits on about a dozen All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) - working on issues such as the Magna Carta, personalised medicine and bringing business people and ministers together to have a dialogue.
“I’ve been able to do that for small firms who’ve had particular issues - because businesses aren’t the same, they have different needs. I’m very conscious that a large part of our rural economy is made up of small and medium-sized businesses rather than the larger businesses.”
A ‘huge coup’ was getting through the Access to Medicines Bill on the Medical Innovations Bill and a product of ‘collaborative working’.
Last year 191 female MPs were elected - Mrs Churchill is Bury’s first female MP - out of 650 overall. The SNP MP Mhairi Black has claimed that Westminster is overrun with ‘subtle sexism’.
“I’m a lot older than Mhairi so I tend not to worry so much about sexism. If I meet it I tend to try and get a positive outcome for both of us.”
Has she experienced sexism in Westminster?
“If I have I haven’t noticed it if you see what I mean but then I do not allow myself to notice when people do not treat me equally.
“The women who I worry about in Parliament are those who perhaps suffer from intersectionality who are perhaps young, female, Muslim and politicians so they’re articulating a view that can sometimes put them at a heightened risk and I think events of the past week mean we need to be aware of individuals and that element of risk.”
Continuing with its age of austerity, the Conservative Government has made some controversial decisions - proposing and then u-turning on a cut to tax credits and cutting disablity benefits.
Mrs Churchill supported the £30 cut to the Employment Support Allowance. On our Facebook page at the time, a reader posted: “I would like to know what Ms Churchill’s motivations are: a political climber in a typical Suffolk safe seat, or a back bencher that will actually represent their constituents in Parliament while doing the morally correct thing, even if that means voting against Government policy.”
“I’m not interested in any promotion,” she answers - pointing out that on tax credits she and other MPs said ‘no, it was wrong’ and she opposed forced academisation of schools.
On making these difficult decisions, she said: “I did run as a Conservative so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise my voting record would not be wildly different to most of my colleagues. I don’t make any decision lightly in these things. They involve a great deal of soul searching.
“If a system isn’t serving those who it seeks to support it isn’t doing its job. At the moment another area of huge concern for me is young people’s mental health because it shatters not only the young person’s life but also the families around them and we see that week after week here.
“The lack of support for families who have children with mental health needs is one of my largest case work areas. I’ve spoken to Norman Lamb about it because he’s a Norfolk MP and we’re under the same Trust. We have regular meetings in Parliament to make sure we’re heading in the right direction.”
Mrs Churchill has beaten cancer twice and has said campaigning for better cancer services was one of the ‘galvanising forces’ behind her political career.
She chairs the APPG on personalised medicine, which is a ‘new frontier’ for how people are treated.
“The whole point of personalised medicine comes in around genomics and they look at you and they can target the reponse. A lot of the time you are hit with drugs in the hope it’s going to work. Personalised medicine has shown to be a lot more targeted. It means hopefully rates of recovery are much better.”
She also works on other APPGs - looking at cancer survival rates as well as food and nutrition.
Going forward, Mrs Churchill hopes to work with Mayor of St Edmundsbury Julia Wakelam on her issues of interest particularly dementia and is also working with a group to improve Bury Railway Station ahead of the new franchise for the area.
A verdict on one of her recent causes - for Britain to remain in the European Union - will have been made today.
“Whatever the decision is on Friday morning, we will go to work on Monday and respect the people’s decision and move forward.”
Mrs Churchill added: “One of the challenges of this job is that everybody feels very differently about where their line of privacy is, where their line of acceptability is and so on. So the whole time you are balancing those things in order to make sure that we support the most vulnerable, we give those a helping hand who need a helping hand after a period of difficulty and that we allow those who want to aspire to be able to do it.”