My trip to Sierra Leone with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

There is no ‘job description’ for the role of MP, mainly because it is not a job! But there are opportunities that come your way and, when these fall in Recess, (Parliament’s half-term) I have taken some of them up. So back in February over the half-term recess I visited the Parliament of Sierra Leone with a delegation of other UK Parliamentarians on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The CPA established an official partnership programme between the British and Sierra Leone Parliament back in 2011 after they requested support from Westminster to help develop their Parliament, its staff and their institutions in the wake of the civil war there.  Not only has Sierra Leone gone through the dreadful civil war 1991-2002, but also, more recently, the Ebola crisis two years ago. This has had a disastrous effect on the standard of living and way of life of its citizens and held back improvements in the economy, hence this trip to give advice, particularly to Chairmen of their Select Committees.

In order to help them improve their Parliament and it’s workings we held multiple sessions every day with various members and representatives of the Sierra Leone Government. On the Monday we met with Peter West the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone at his official residence in Runnymede, Freetown to discuss our trip and his progress so far with the Government. For our first meeting with representatives we were welcomed by the Speaker of their Parliament Hon. Sheku Badara Basiru Dumbuya MP where we discussed our two countries relationship and how we could assist them over our visit.

The first day’s sessions concentrated on the UK Committee system, indeed we took Clerks from our own Committees to assist us. We discussed Committees place in overseeing the Government of the day and the parameters they work within (mandate). I led a session on how we choose our members and Chairs of the Committees which was an excellent opportunity to see how our systems differ as well as how democratic their approach was to selecting the Chair (as in the UK MPs elect each Committee Chair). In the afternoon session we discussed how enquiries and Committee reports play a role in the workings of Parliament as well as how they could improve their use of them, particularly with the civil servants.

The second day continued with Committees, looking at how they can increase the press and public engagement, I also led discussions on how PMQs and normal Questions in the House provide oversight. On the third day Constitutional Review was on the cards and how the UK Parliament contributes to evolving our un-written Constitution.

The work with the Sierra Leone Parliament representatives was very fruitful in that it increased understanding between our two countries as well as helping to better their Parliamentary Committee oversight procedures in order to ultimately improve their democracy. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with the Sierra Leone Parliament and our own representatives. It is help by delegations such as ours which will allow young democracies such as theirs to continue to grow and prosper. If you would like to find out more about the UK Committee system and other workings in Parliament then you can visit the UK Parliament website where there is masses of information about how it all works.

Furthermore whilst there we went on to see the real Sierra Leone. One visit in particular has and will forever stick with me, the visit to the mass graves for the victims of the recent Ebola crisis. As you can see from the pictures the devastation and pain felt by the people of Sierra Leone from Ebola has been relentless. As a British citizen I am therefore so proud of the nurses, doctors, armed forces and other aid workers who went to Sierra Leone and other affected countries to help those is dire need, and as we know this resulted in some of them contracting the disease themselves. The UK Government continues to send money out of the International Development budget to help fight Ebola, building up the skills of local staff as well as UK nationals there and I support the continuation of this vital humanitarian work.

On a brighter note a highlight of my visit was addressing the Sierra Leone Parliament. This was a humbling experience and something that not many people can say they have done. The speech seems to have gone down well as the following day I was the main headline on the front page of one of their Newspapers ‘The Daily Trumpet’. Perhaps unique for a UK MP?

Unfortunately after such a fruitful trip, when I returned to the UK I became very ill and was informed I had contracted an infection from my travels, fortunately nothing as deadly as Ebola but still enough to knock me off my feet for some weeks. The bug affected me so much that my first full week back in Westminster was after the Easter Recess had concluded, therefore if you have noticed my absence over recent weeks I am very sorry but this was the reason why. I can confirm though that I am now fighting fit again and working hard on your behalf back in Westminster and in the Constituency. My thanks go to Ward 10 of Burton Hospital and now Derby for looking after me and getting me back on my feet.

To conclude, even though I contracted a nasty infection whilst there, my trip to Sierra Leone was both interesting with regards to developing their Committee procedures and having the privilege to speak in front of their Parliament but also harrowing with seeing first-hand the devastation the Ebola crisis caused. Sierra Leone has a great future. It is a beautiful country. They are reviewing their Constitution and with our help their Parliament and their economy and standard of living will improve and it is a privilege as a UK MP to be a small part of that for one of our Commonwealth countries.

(This piece was originally written for the Burton Mail and the Derby Telegraph).