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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 00:49 GMT 01:49 UK
Shunning the greasy pole
The Liberal Democrat frontbencher has radical views - and she isn't afraid to air them.
She says she is determined to talk about the issues which she believes people really care about.
"We don't talk about the things that people are talking about in the pubs," she says.
Dr Tonge is a self-confessed chatterer. She is cheerful and frank, laughs a lot and regularly flashes a mischievous smile
She comes from a long line of Liberals, joining the party as a medical student (during which time, while dissecting a pickled corpse, she met her future husband) in London in 1959.
Selected to fight the Richmond seat in the 1992 general election, she found herself at the centre of a blaze of publicity.
The "dumpy old lady doctor with three kids" enjoyed being in the spotlight, she says. "Then nothing happened, the fame never arrived."
It was a low point, but five years later she won the seat and doubled her majority in 2001.
Being an MP, she says, is "like being a junior hospital doctor except that people don't die if you make a mistake - or at least they don't die in front of you".
"It is the same sort of hectic, unpredictable life which is very enjoyable," she says.
The Commons, meanwhile, reminds her of the time when she was one of around 10 women among 130 men at medical school in the 1960s.
"If male MPs make rude gestures across the chamber, it's just like the old lecture theatres - you make rude gestures back. I don't think the right way to deal with it is to get offended."
What does anger her, however, is her belief that parliament fails to get to grips with the most important issues. Drugs policy, for instance, on which she has radical views.
Dr Tonge, whose home has twice been burgled by heroin addicts, says heroin should be "medicalised" in order to treat more addicts on the NHS.
"If they are in a stabilisation programme they can carry on their normal lives and at some stage maybe even wean them off ever so slightly.
"But you can't do that if they having to commit crime all the time to feed their habit. You can only do it if they are getting it anyway.
She says heroin is already used in the health service to relieve the pain of dying patients.
"We know all about heroin. We could import it and make it available. Heroin is the biggest problem of all when it comes to crime."
As for cocaine, she recalls visiting a village in Colombia where efforts are being made to resettle people thrown off their land for refusing to grow coca.
A week before she arrived a villager had been tortured and killed by paramilitaries, she says.
"The children in the village were forced to play football with his severed head.
She admits that radically shaking-up drugs policy would not erase the problem overnight.
"I am not claiming to have the answers, but I am saying that present drugs policy is not working," she says.
"The way cannabis is treated is a joke, a complete joke. That should be used like tobacco, taxed like tobacco (and) let's spend the VAT on something.
"I think cocaine is a difficult one, but I would agree with a lot of people that you would do less damage if cocaine was actually legalised and sold at registered outlets like alcohol than leaving it to the boys on the streets."
"It would be surely less. And there will be no excuse at all for an addict having to commit crimes to feed their habit.
"You may get more addicts, that's another downside, but then you'd have a whole lot more money in the form of VAT to treat those addicts."
Health funding is another area where Dr Tonge believes there needs to be major reform.
She says her party is "coming round" to the idea of taking health service funding out of general taxation.
The problem is that in order for NHS patients to benefit from medical advances taxes would have to rise so much that "no political party will be brave enough" to do it, she says.
"I know what my parents would have said: 'We'll look after ourselves and die after that'. That sounds incredibly radical but it may be the sort of choice that people could have."
She says that in the US state of Oregon people are asked regularly what their priorities for health care are and receive treatment for their top choices and fund the rest themselves.
She is quick to stress that she is "thinking out loud - none of that is policy".
"But I think we do have to think aloud and we do have to ask people how they see things and explain to people the consequences of not doing something about it," she adds.
There also has to be a limit to what the NHS provides "in terms of sort of personal lifestyle choices".
"I don't think women over 50 should be treated under the NHS to have children, I think it is totally ludicrous."
With such strident views on domestic issues, one could be forgiven for forgetting that Dr Tonge's brief on the Liberal Democrat frontbench is for international development.
She attracted attention when she opposed her party's policy on the US-led bombing of targets in Afghanistan last year.
And she believes her opposition to the raids in favour of "diplomacy and targeted military action" has since been justified, saying Afghanistan remains in a fragile state while attention has been switched to Iraq.
She believes George Bush has set his sights on Saddam for political reasons and in order to deflect attention from Afghanistan.
"That's not going to work because he will be as safe as houses. He will be in some bunker somewhere like bin Laden."
The way to achieve change in Iraq, she says, is through change to the UN sanctions regime.
But if her brief is international, she came to prominence most recently when she asked Tony Blair about her concerns over the teaching of creationism at a school in north east England.
The idea of presenting creationism as a scientific study appals her, and she is currently asking the government if it has an approved list of faiths allowed to receive state funding for schools.
"Satanists, druids... anybody with a bit of money who wants to sponsor a school could actually do it and get state funding for the revenue costs," she says.
She stresses that she is not attacking all faith schools, but adds: "There is a problem because in a multi-faith society you are being unfair other faiths if you don't also fund their schools and then where does it end?"
She says her views on the issue have sparked a massive amount of interest, not all of it supportive of her views.
That doesn't seem to worry her too much. She believes in speaking her mind, no matter what the consequences, she says.
She also believes it is easier for a woman to speak out, particularly "an older woman who is not weighed by climbing up the greasy pole".
"I don't give a toss about greasy poles. I just want to get a few things done."
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