MP Thangam fighting for residents after health battle of her own

February 29 2016

MP Thangam fighting for residents after health battle of her own

THANGHAM Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, is back with renewed energy after completing her cancer treatment at a specialist centre in Bristol. She talks exclusively to the Bishopston Voice about her plan to solve Bristol’s housing crisis, the joys of representing such a diverse and creative constituency and of the challenges she’s faced in her first ten months of office.

IT has been a different start to her parliamentary career than MP for Bristol West, Thangam Debbonaire, expected but being able to remain in the area while receiving healthcare treatment has brought real benefits.

Out of the public eye she has been working hard to solve the city’s housing crisis, challenging schools to make PSHE compulsory and has helped many constituents who are in desperate situations.

Diagnosed with Stage 2/3 breast cancer within weeks of taking office in May 2015, the newly appointed Labour MP has been working at her constituency office in the Stokes Croft area of the city. She said: “I have taken an attitude that I will be the best MP that I can be with cancer.

“Although I have to work, I have made it much more low key because I didn’t want to be sharing my more dreadful days of treatment with everybody.”

Ms Debbonaire saw a lump on her breast about two or three weeks after the general election. She explained: I was breast aware, but I let it slip during the course of campaigning. I don’t remember eating or sleeping much during that time, never mind doing regular breast checks. By the time I spotted a dimpling in my breast, it was really quite large.”

Informed that she might need treatment, Thangam concentrated on getting an office set up, employing staff and making her maiden speech in the House of Commons. She explained: “I was determined that the people of Bristol West would have a proper constituency MP. I felt that I needed to get all of this in place because if it was a diagnosis of cancer, I knew that I wouldn’t have time to do it then.

“Sometimes my staff have had to act on my behalf but often it’s been me. “We now have two staff dedicated to case work, dealing with people who are often in desperate situations.”

Thangam has had six rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, a double mammoplasty and lymph node removal. Following a four week radiotherapy course at Bristol Royal Infirmary, she now anticipates moving forward.

She said: “What feels good is being able to shift from being an MP with cancer, to being an MP who is then able to turn that experience into something meaningful. I have already spoken out about women and men needing to be breast aware but as a politician I’ve been able to speak out in Parliament. I am able to say to the Health Secretary, that I know first hand what a difference it makes to have specialist treatment. It adds something to the debate.”

Thangam will be resume work in Westminster from April when she begins her new role as Shadow Culture Minister for Arts and Culture. She considers it to be a great fit with her background and with the large representation of arts projects in her constituency.

Before becoming an MP, Thangam trained as a cellist and worked as a classical musician. Her husband is an opera singer and an actor and many of her friends and colleagues outside of politics are in the world of arts.

Thangam is campaigning to make PSHE education compulsory in schools, particularly sex and relationships education. She is the co-sponsor of a bill that will have its second reading in the Commons in March. Having worked in domestic violence, she would like every young person to leave school able to recognise the signs that a relationship may be abusive or whether they are being exploited sexually.

A critical achievement of her first ten months in office has been getting to know the needs of local people. The depth to which people in her constituency are campaigners and well informed has surprised and delighted her.

She explained: “There are world experts on just about everything living in this constituency as well as people who are living just about everything. If I need an expert on homelessness, I can find an academic but also 10 homeless people and they’ll all be willing to talk. That has been wonderfully humbling. If you take the time to listen to what people want to tell you, you will be a much better MP.”

One of her major aims is to reduce Bristol’s housing crisis. She began this work by holding a housing round table with key players in the city on the day she started her cancer treatment.

A tenant’s charter has been introduced to improve conditions for private sector tenants, and Thangam is working on ways of getting it implemented as persuading landlords and letting agents that there is a good way of doing things takes time.

Her office has already identified all the slots in Bristol West where there is the potential for housing, either through redevelopment, or building from scratch and have tracked down the owners. They are intervening on the stalled development of Bristol North Baths and plan to get building work started on 1 Dove Lane in St Paul’s. Thangam has spent these past months using her influence to get things done behind the scenes, helping to get projects moving.

She explained: “I am the MP who is bothering the housing associations and developers who have designs and plans in the pipeline. If nobody bothers them, they might just wait for another 5-10 years. The difference is that I’m the MP who’s decided that is what I am going to do. I will make a charming nuisance of myself until we get the houses
built.” Bishopston constituents emailed her in droves about the Syria debate. She read all the briefings, took soundings from constituents and spoke to the Labour party front bench about it.

However, all she could do during the debate, was watch it. She couldn’t vote because the House of Commons voting procedures meant that she would have to attend in person.

She explained: “My constituents were very upset, and I agree with them. Most of the time I’ve been paired so that when I’m not there a Conservative MP doesn’t vote. But it isn’t satisfactory. I don’t understand why in the 21st century I can vote for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ but I can’t vote as an MP.”

Looking at the totals of MPs who are contacted by the petition websites, such as Change.org and 38 degrees, Bristol West’s MP is near the top.

Her office staff work hard to research and understand campaigns because they have so many people who care about things deeply living in this area. It may be a constituency of contrasts, but it is one with a big heart.

Thangam said: “Part of the job of being an MP should be to bring different parts of the country together and that involves dealing with people who are different to you. If I’m going to succeed as a member of parliament and represent the entire constituency then I need to try to bring together the needs of the very poorest and the most wealthy. And that’s what parliament should be; full of people who look and feel like the country that we are.”

To contact Thangam Debbonaire MP about housing issues, immigration issues, or any other urgent personal issue, please email thangam.debbonaire.mp@parliament.uk or call 0117 3790980 during office hours.