Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Parliament and MMR - you win some, you lose some

I wrote recently about an LBC radio broadcast in which Jeni Barnett issued canard after irresponsible canard about the MMR vaccine, and the subsequent criticism of said broadcast by a Dr. Ben Goldacre which landed him in some hot water. This post deals with what happened next, and how Parliament has weighed in.

Five days after author Goldacre was presented with legal threats regarding his website, Norman Lamb MP tabled Early Day Motion 754 relating to the LBC show, the text of which I've copied below.
That this House expresses its support for the use of the combined MMR vaccine; notes with concern the re-emergence of measles and the loss of life and long-term health problems which will afflict children as a result of the decline in the vaccination rate which followed Dr Andrew Wakefield's now discredited research paper suggesting a link between MMR vaccine and autism; expresses its disappointment that ill-informed comments by presenters such as Jeni Barnett on her LBC radio show will continue to cause unfounded anxieties for many parents and are likely to result in some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children; recognises the right of Jeni Barnett as a parent to make her own judgement about vaccinations for her own children but implores her and others in the media to act more responsibly when making comments in the public domain; and further expresses its hope that in the future reporting the issue of MMR will be less sensationalist and more evidence-based.
Ranging in gravitas from the eccentric to the era-defining, EDMs are an excellent tool used by Parliamentarians to highlight causes that require no legislative intervention but are catapulted into the public discourse - they provide a channel for MPs to voice their position on contemporary affairs by adding their signature. It's this blogger's opinion that EDM754 is strong, brave and worthy, particularly in its call on the media to tighten its coverage of such issues and to avoid sensationalist scaremongering.

Members of the community have since been busy writing to their respective MPs asking them to sign, with varying degrees of success. Some MPs were responsive to their constituents alerting them to the debacle over MMR - my own MP, Eleanor Laing (CON, Epping Forest) is amongst them, and she kindly wrote back on paper acknowledging my bringing of this EDM to her attention. Although Laing was far from alone in this, there has been some dragging of feet and obfuscation in other parts of the House of Commons. As the forum thread indicates, some MPs have simply fobbed off their correspondents with what seems to be a pro-forma reply, advocating what appears to be a partisan stance on the provision of single vaccines. Far from supporting this laudable EDM, these MPs seem to be taking the opportunity to tow the party line by insisting on a strategy for which there is scant evidence if any.

Partisan division are appearing in the support for this EDM - blacktriangle posted a party-wise breakdown of the signatories two weeks after the motion was published, with the Lab-Con-Lib standings reading as 10-2-38 percent. Here's an update as of 12/03/2009:

Labour: 58/350 total MPs, 16.5%
Conservative: 8/193, 4%
Liberal Democrats: 41/63, 65%
Other (not including Sinn Fein): 10/32, 31%

In total there are 117 signatories, with a clear partisan pattern to be seen - the Conservative party appear adamant in their rejection of this motion supporting MMR and censuring Ms. Barnett, a few notable exceptions aside. The party poised to form the next government is sadly taking a rather weak position on this critical issue.

So here is where the internet, in all its glory, shows its strengths and weaknesses. Campaigns to garner support for a cause can recruit thousands of regular punters to their ranks in minutes; and yet there is no greater pressure for the Establishment to pay heed just because the protest takes an electronic form. In the age of Twitter and the like MPs may have many more EDMs, open letters, petitions and the like brought to their attention - what remains to be seen is whether this makes them more or less likely to lend their support.


Dr* T said...

Excellent work, Teek.

My own (Tory) MP sent me the stock reply on party policy, and made no mention of the EDM. I have replied, requesting a more personalised response, or at least one that answers the qeustion!


teekblog said...

cheers Dr* T.

Yeah this Tory pro-forma thing seems to be quite pervasive - please do let us know as and when you receive a follow-up to your latest letter! the key with public officials in my experience is to persist - politely, and with deference, but persist all the same - they'll eventually see they have little choice but to engage.