Sir Norman Lamb was Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament (MP) for North Norfolk from 2001 to 2019, Minister of State for Care and Support from 2012 to 2015, and chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2017 to 2019. In front of an audience in Cromer recently, he sat down with Steffan Aquarone, Prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the North Norfolk constituency.
North Norfolk MP
Sir Norman Lamb trained as a solicitor and began his political life working as a researcher for Labour MP Greville Janner in the early 1980s. His journey to Westminster as Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk took three election attempts and eleven years.
As an MP, Lamb said he far preferred giving voice to his North Norfolk constituents rather than engaging in “hectoring politics” at Westminster, which he describes as akin to a “bear pit – like a public school, a London club but less exclusive”.
“People don’t expect much from politicians, but I try to treat everyone with the same respect. As an MP you hear about nightmare situations with people feeling powerless, with no voice and no-one listening”. This attitude, over the 18.5 years he represented North Norfolk, earned him much respect amongst most of his constituents. Even now, four years after stepping down, canvassers report that North Norfolk folk say how much they miss him. Though Lamb recalls that his wife Mary, out canvassing, met a lady who pronounced “I can’t stand that Norman Lamb”. His wife replied, “You should be so lucky, I’m married to him!”
Asked if the Liberal Democrats might have been a different party had he won the 2017 leadership race against Ed Davey, Lamb replied, “The truth is I was not cut out for it and I desperately hoped I would not win”. Then in 2018 everything changed when he suffered a mild stroke. Describing this as a “shock” since he thought he was “invincible”, it changed his perspective on life, leading to his resignation as North Norfolk MP.
In 2019 Norman Lamb was knighted by King Charles III, then Prince of Wales, in recognition of his political and public service. It was a “wonderful day for my family to be all together” he recalled, and “a privilege” to have worked as an MP.
Lamb is best known for, and most proud of, his time as Minister of State for Care & Support in the David Cameron / Nick Clegg Coalition Government – even though he knows “it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea” – working under Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Improving Mental Health, and how patients are treated, is close to Sir Norman’s heart. As a minister, he acknowledged that the outgoing Labour administration had achieved a lot in respect of NHS performance targets and waiting times for A&E, cancer targets etc., but they had left out mental health issues. Making a principled stand, Sir Norman had to threaten to resign from his ministerial post to persuade Jeremy Hunt to support his aims. The resulting Care Act 2014 that Lamb championed has been described as “an historic piece of legislation”. It overhauled 60 years of social care legislation, introduced a right to advocacy for people who needed support to articulate their needs – particularly important for people with mental health problems – and was unique because of the collaborative nature of its passage through parliament.
Work on mental health
Since leaving parliament, Sir Norman has continued his “motivating and exciting” mission to change how we respond to mental health. He is Chair of NHS Maudsley, which provides in-patient and community mental healthcare, and founded The Sir Norman Lamb Mental Health and Wellbeing Fund. “We lock up too many.” he pronounces. “If you are young and black, you are six times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. We put a lot of young men together and expect them to recover.”
Describing mental health wards as “pretty miserable places” and not somewhere anyone would want a loved one to stay, Lamb says we need “a more enlightened model, respecting human rights; focusing on early care to stop people falling into crisis.”
Ever keen on cross-party cooperation, Sir Norman co-chairs The Health Devolution Commission with Andy Burnham, former Labour Party Secretary of State for Health and Mayor of Greater Manchester. This independent cross-party and cross-sector body champions and supports implementing an innovative, devolved and integrated NHS, public health and social care service approach across England. Lamb advocates greater emphasis on the prevention of ill health and on addressing the social causes – poor housing and diet, “worklessness”, poverty, and environmental factors.
Ongoing commitments in Norfolk
Recognising the “generous spirit” and extraordinary kindness shown by the people of Norfolk towards him, Sir Norman Lamb was particularly keen after departing Westminster to give something back. With Norfolk Community Foundation, he established an innovative Coalition for Young People. This supports small community projects, such as About with Friends, with grants, and works to help enrich and improve the lives of children and young people.
Sir Norman said it was “an enormous pleasure and privilege to represent North Norfolk” as MP and be part of the Coalition government. Being able to drive an agenda and achieve improvements was “invigorating, exhilarating”. Yet “It’s such an intense role, you give body and soul; it’s completely exhausting.” Then, he reflected, when you are “unceremoniously booted out”, it is tough and frustrating to return to the opposition back benches where all he could do was challenge and criticise.
Walking the talk
In his private life, Sir Norman and his wife Mary opened their home to a Ukrainian mother and her teenage boy. He chuckled as he recalled how having a 16 year old teenager in the house had reminded him what family life was like. “It’s been good,” he said smiling.
A proponent of decarbonisation, Lamb modestly mentioned that he has installed an air source heat pump, solar panels, and batteries, and feeds any surplus energy into the National Grid.
As Sir Norman Lamb concluded his audience with Steffan Aquarone, he was met by the same loud applause that had greeted him when he entered Cromer’s Community Hall. A considered, generous man of conviction, he is revered in North Norfolk and still working hard to improve health and social care for all. It is no wonder he built up such a strong bond of trust with the people of North Norfolk. The country needs more Sir Norman Lambs.
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