Rishi Sunak: The ‘deeply moving’ school visit that sparked Yorkshire MP’s campaign

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.
Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.
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An emotional visit to a local school sparked the idea for a national campaign in North Yorkshire MP Rishi Sunak. Political Editor Rob Parsons reports.

Pulling up in a green Range Rover at his constituency office in Northallerton, fresh from his office Christmas party in London the night before, Rishi Sunak is a man in demand.

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.

He apologises that halfway through his interview with The Yorkshire Post he will have to break off to speak to BBC Radio 4, while Sky and ITV want to talk to him later in the day.

The reason for their interest is not one obviously associated with a Tory MP for a rural Yorkshire patch, namely the threat posed by Russia to the vital communications and internet cables that run under the sea.

But Mr Sunak’s path to Parliament is altogether unusual in a number of ways. Born in Southampton as a third generation Indian immigrant, he studied and worked in California’s Silicon Valley, where he first encountered the undersea cable issue.

“It was the first place I came across the idea that the internet was an entirely physical construct as opposed to something, as we think about it, in the cloud,” he said.

There’s a growing need, because thankfully medical advances mean we keep babies alive who faced difficult births but often they might have disabilities that then need to be managed through their life.

Rishi Sunak

Now his paper published by the Policy Exchange, setting out the risk posed to cable systems around the world, has been endorsed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, chief of the defence staff, prompting a flurry of media interest.

His other recent public intervention, on the need for changing facilities for severely disabled children that better suit their needs, has nothing in common with the world of undersea geopolitical conflict.

In a recent online piece, the 37-year-old Oxford graduate outlined the need for more Changing Places toilets, which have a hoist, changing bench and privacy screen, at popular sites nationwide.

The article, which he has raised with the Prime Minister and hopes to speak about with Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, was inspired by a visit to the highly-rated Dales School for children with severe and complex learning needs.

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.

Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, at his office in Northallerton.

“They showed me a video, they told me about their stories and I was deeply moved and also surprised,” he said.

“I think like most people I assumed, disabled toilets, haven’t we sorted that? You see them everywhere.

“I didn’t realise that for children and adults who are severely disabled a standard disabled toilet just isn’t good enough.

“There’s a growing need, because thankfully medical advances mean we keep babies alive who faced difficult births but often they might have disabilities that then need to be managed through their life but also we have an ageing population, this is something that affects older people as well.

“The need is definitely growing and I believe in equality of opportunity, I believe in people having freedom and choice, those are all things I care deeply about.

“[Someone at the school] had brought a magazine with them of all the things going on in the summer holidays in North Yorkshire and just crossed out every one which it wasn’t possible for them to go to, which was as it turned out essentially 99 per cent of everything in the magazine.”

His ultimate aim is change the buildings code, which would mean shopping centres, train stations and big tourist attractions would be made to install Changing Places facilities.

It’s striking that his former Conservative leader William Hague, his predecessor as Richmond MP who retired from the Commons in 2015, also campaigned on a similar issue and helped bring the Disability Discrimination Act into law under John Major in 1995.

Other areas where the Richmond MP is lobbying include bringing about a system similar to UCAS for apprentices, to give it parity with university admissions.

He also wants a freeport, a free trade zone based around a port in the Teesside area after Brexit, and says it will create manufacturing jobs.

Locally, he says access to healthcare, specifically the local Friarage hospital, is a major issue, and he fears a lack of the appropriate services means patients are having to travel all the way to Middlesbrough for hospital treatment.

He says he is trying to make officials at the South Tees NHS trust aware of the difficulties the long journeys are causing his constituents, but adds: “I would like them to be more receptive”.

After joining forces with the Labour MP for Darlington, he says he is trying to “make things a bit difficult” for the trust.

The son of a GP and a pharmacist, Mr Sunak went on to co-found a £1bn global investment firm before becoming an MP. But in India, he’s described in many articles as the son-in-law of Narayana Murthy, the Indian IT industrialist with a reported net worth of $1.9bn.

He describes the position as an “enormous privilege”.

“My father-in-law is an extraordinary individual, he’s come from an exceptionally simple background and ended up creating one of the world’s most successful IT companies,” he said. “It sets a high bar for me to try and live up to.

“I have him on one side and William as my predecessor here as well so I often get referred to as William Hague’s successor. Those are the labels that seem to come and I don’t mind at all, they’re both really inspiring people.

“They serve as a daily reminder of what you can achieve. It gives me something to aim for, if I’m a tenth as successful as either him or William that’s probably going to have been a job well done.”