North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb reveals he will not fight another election
- Credit: Archant
A long-standing Norfolk MP will not stand at the next election as he feels he will be more effective outside of parliament than inside it.
Sir Norman Lamb, who was elected under the Liberal Democrats for North Norfolk 18 and a half years ago, said Brexit had stalled so much of parliament's business he no longer felt other issues got the time they deserved.
Sir Norman, 61, spoke exclusively to this newspaper to announce he would not be standing at the next election - which he expected before the end of the year - but also to launch his next endeavour to help improve mental health care in the county.
Sir Norman, who lives in Norwich with his wife Mary, said: "It's been 18 and a half years. I spent 11 years before that trying to get elected. I started out against a 15,500 Conservative majority in 1992."
By 1997 the Tory majority had dropped to just 1,293 votes and in 2001 he finally unseated Conservative David Prior, who is now chairman of NHS England and was previously chairman at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, with a 483 majority.
He held on to the seat and significantly increased his majority in 2005 to 10,606, fighting off LBC presenter Iain Dale who at the time was standing for the Conservatives.
And this grew again to 11,626 to 2010, before his party entered into coalition with the Conservatives.
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After this Sir Norman's majority wained to 4,043 in 2015 and 3,512 in 2017, but he has held on to the seat despite the wipe out of Lib Dem MPs nationwide.
He said: "In that time, every election in north Norfolk, whether a by-election for the council, or whatever else, I've fought every election and been out knocking on doors. It's been a body and soul experience really."
But he said although he had felt able to make a difference in politics locally and on national stage, parliament was now paralysed by Brexit.
He said: "I think we are in a very sad and disturbing place in our politics. It feels like there are two camps. But I think the public expects politicians to rise above the fray and be willing to bring the country together again."
Sir Norman has supported the idea of a government of national unity to guide the country through the Brexit chaos.
"If I was wanting to offer advice or a view about how politicians in the future need to act to get us out of this mess, I would like to see more people focusing on national unity, on reconciliation," he said.
"I think we've become a horribly divided country and we've got to persuade people from across the political spectrum that national unity is worth giving up their hard positions for."
Asked whether this extended to his own party leader Jo Swinson, who came under criticism for snubbing Labour's plan to avoid a no-deal Brexit, he said: "I think it extends across the political spectrum and I don't exclude my own party from this.
"We've got so much in common and this country has so much it can achieve. We all feel very proud of our country, but we are in danger of damaging it."
Sir Norman said his time as an MP had been during an "extraordinary period".
No stranger to politics, he led the Lib Dem city council group in Norwich before becoming the prospective parliamentary candidate for North Norfolk.
But after he became an MP he said: "In September 2001 I was doing my first village tour and I was sitting outside the village store in Ludham in my car, waiting for people to see me, and the news came in that a plane had hit the twin towers, and that was the start of it.
"I've been through the MPs expenses scandal, I've been through the crash in 2008, I've been through the first coalition government in the post war period, and then we've had Brexit. So it's not been a quiet, normal period."
During and after the coalition government in 2010, the Lib Dems were condemned for partnering with the Conservatives.
Sir Norman's majority took a knock but he hung on to his seat - one of just eight Lib Dem MPs to do so after that period.
But despite the jibes, Sir Norman said he would still defend the coalition.
He said: "I absolutely recognise and accept that we made mistakes, as any government does. The mistake I regret most was voting for what became known as the bedroom tax.
"I questioned it at the time but I was reassured that it would all work, but it did not work. We should not have supported it.
"But if I compare it with the government now, we had five years of stable government.
"We did have difficult and painful decisions about cutting things back but in countries that did not confront their financial crisis, it was much worse for the vulnerable people in their societies, some of the Mediterranean countries for example."
Sir Norman, who was a health minister in the government, said "in some areas we should have stood up more firmly to the Tories" but pointed out the relatively small number of MPs the Lib Dems had - 57 compared to the Tories' 306.
But he added: "There are lots of things I'm proud of in that time."
This included the introduction of comprehensive waiting time standards for mental health, so patients needing talking therapies - for conditions like depression - should have been guaranteed treatment within 18 weeks.
He said: "Jeremy Hunt said at the time 'Norman your wish to get maximum waiting times, it will just have to wait and be a manifesto promise'. I said if that's the case I'm resigning. As soon as he recognised the strength of feeling he backed me. Sometimes you have to stand up and demand things."
But he said he was left frustrated that although these had been introduced, they were still not being met.
"There's an inequality there. So I regard it as a human rights issue," he said.
"There are still far too many people in institutional care. And we shunt people around the country in a way that would never happen with someone with a stroke."
During the coalition Sir Norman also launched Think Ahead, which he described as "an organisation that takes on top graduates to turn them in to mental health social workers".
He said: "We increased very significantly the number of people who had access to talking therapies."
After he steps down, mental health will remain at the forefront of Sir Norman's work, as he launches a fund with Norfolk Community Foundation with £10,000 of his own money.
He said: "I absolutely don't want to stop working but the things I'm passionate about, are the things I can best promote outside parliament.
"And so everything built up through my work as a minster in mental health and learning disabilities and autism, I've got very strong views about how the system tramples over people's human rights.
"I want to pursue those ambitions to transform the way people treat people with mental ill health and learning disabilities. At the moment there is so much distraction from these big issues because of the Brexit battle, none of the things that I care about are getting attention.
"I want to focus on going out on a high and with something I care deeply about.
"And I want to do something of value in the county.
"We've of course had years of negative stories about mental health and learning disabilities and failing organisations. I'm conscious there are great people who do amazing work in our county.
"The fund I will set up, it will be a Norfolk fund, it will be supporting the fully outstanding work in this county, people who are doing brilliant work but are often unsung.
"It can include research, issues of suicide prevention - which is obviously something close to my heart due to the death of my sister."
Sir Norman's sister Catherine took her own life in 2015.
The Norman Lamb Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund will give money to grassroots charities and organisations in Norfolk who help improve mental wellbeing.
Mr Lamb gave examples of organisations such as Opening Doors, About With Friends, and the Holt Youth Project, as places which could benefit.
He said there were ambitions to create a national fund, and he would be keen to hear from anyone interested in getting involved.
Sir Norman said: "I think we've seen quite a revolution in attitudes towards mental ill health and to a lesser extent learning disabilities, 10 years ago there was a culture of silence over mental health.
"No one in the public eye ever spoke about it, now it's quite common place for people in sport, in the arts and in business to say 'I've been through a period of depression'.
"Our own son Archie went on national television news with me to talk about his challenges and battles.
"I think for people who are successful and in the public eye it makes it much easier for a teenager who is struggling with something. I think that's been a hugely positive change. But what I'm acutely aware of is for many families nothing much has changed.
"I was with a family this week where the teenage boy had waited a year for his first appointment. The system has failed that lad and that's the reality for many families, it's still dismal.
"There's also a global dimension to this. In very many countries around the world, you can't marry, you can't own property, you can't enter into a contract."
He said it was only during the coalition government that the practice of striking off MPs if they had been sectioned had ceased.
He said: "It's an example of how around the world laws discriminate against people. It's little wonder there's a stigma about mental health."
Since letting his party know he did not intend to fight another election, Sir Norman said it had felt like "the end of an era".
"I think working in a constituency for so long you build up, I think, a relationship of trust with people. I've made lots of mistakes, I recognise that clearly, and I've no doubt annoyed lots of people who might disagree with me.
"I think people have felt I've always tried to do the right thing as I see it and do my best.
"I think I've been able to reach across party boundaries, to have really firm and clear principles.
"I've tried to do the job."
But he said he did fear that after he left, North Norfolk could fall to the Conservatives.
He said: "I care humongously about wanting to ensure there is a Lib Dem successor. There are others in the local party who have the ability to step up.
"I'm conscious that if the whole county is blue there's a real danger of a culture that sets in that people get taken for granted and I hope people feel in North Norfolk they've been well represented."
Sir Norman said he would leave politics with some regrets, and was conflicted about his stab at Lib Dem leadership in 2015.
He said: "The leadership is an interesting one, I will for the rest of my life wonder what would've been had I won it.
"My fatal flaw was I did not want it badly enough. I was plunged into it, so that will always be what might have been. It leaves me with mixed feelings.
"Over Brexit I regret very much that we could not get it to work - we got very close, we were 22 votes short on Common Market 2.0, and I think it would have forced the government's hand.
"On Iraq I had to make a big judgement call, we opposed that.
"And there's the personal health thing too," he said, referring to suffering a stroke last year. "I will never know whether the struggles of the job, the lack of sleep, were a contributing factor."
But he said he would leave office with pride in many other things.
He said: "I'm most proud of the work on mental health and helping to get it out of the shadows and in to the public consciousness.
"I'm also very proud of the work that I - and I've got an incredibly dedicated team of people who work with me - have done on the behalf of individuals.
"It's these personal crises that we can help see people through, which literally changes someone's life."
Also in health he pointed to Gosport Hospital, where more than 650 patients had their lives shortened. Sir Norman campaigned for a public inquriry into the hospital before he became a minister and saved the plan being scuppered at the last minute.
Closer to home he had campaigned to save Cromer Hospital, Kelling Hospital, and North Walsham and District War Memorial Hospital.
He said: ""I feel immense honour in representing north Norfolk in parliament over 18 years, and I have a sense of real, sincere gratitude for the trust people have shown me throughout very challenging times for the country."
- To donate to the Sir Norman Lamb Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund, click here or send a cheque made payable to Norfolk Community Foundation (referencing the Sir Norman Lamb Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund) to Norfolk Community Foundation, St. James Mill, Whitefriars, Norwich, NR3 1TN.