Published: 28/07/2005, Volume II5, No. 5966 Page 10

I rang my old sparring partner, Mike Penning, newly elected Conservative MP for marginal Hemel Hempstead, on Sunday night and caught him and his wife Angela Penning on their way out for a drink.

I rang him again at 6.35 the following morning when I accidentally redialled his number in the course of getting dressed. But he was very nice about it and claimed to have been half awake anyway. Just as well, because he looks handy with his fists.

Why the call(s)? Because Mr Penning's name crops up on the list of members of the newly appointed Commons health select committee which met for the first time the other day under the chairmanship of Labour's Kevin Barron.

MP for Rother Valley in Yorkshire since 1983, Mr Barron is an exminer who has been around long enough to be described as a 'veteran'.

He was unpaid parliamentary private secretary to Neil Kinnock from 1985-88, gruelling years of Labour modernisation, when Mr Barron fell out with Arthur Scargill and many left-wing chums.

Mr Penning's background is less different than you might expect. He is the son of a Parachute Regiment soldier (wounded at Suez in 1956) and a Southend NHS nurse 'who has been bending my ear about waste in the NHS for as long as I can remember'.

An Essex comprehensive school boy, he served in the Grenadier Guards for seven years, eventually transferring to the Royal Army Medical Corps so he could become a specialist and - like Dad - get his parachute wings. Penning became a fireman, but got the politics bug. He was deputy chief press spokesman of the Tory party in the Duncan Smith era before being adopted for Hemel and resigning to nurse the seat full-time for a year. The gamble paid off by 499 votes.

Mike is a sign of the changing face of his party: eligible to wear the famous navy blue and red-striped Guards tie, but not an upper-class officer type. He went to comprehensive school and uses the public services we all use.

He has inherited the local hospital reorganisation in Watford, Hemel and Hatfield and is steamed up about it. Patricia Hewitt's assurances when they met recently that NHS trust deficits are manageable also fail to impress: not in the Herts and Beds region, they ain't.

When I spoke to Mr Barron, also a veteran campaigner on smoking issues, he was cautious about what the new committee might investigate. Labour has lost one place because it lost seats: its majority is now six to five.

Barron has never been a minister, but is a very solid citizen.

Discreet enough to sit on the important intelligence and security committee until the election, he knows some secrets.

He has also served since 1999 as a lay member of the General Medical Council, but he expects to have to stand down shortly - to avoid a conflict of interest with his new committee.

What I have gleaned is that the Barron committee will examine that Hewitt hot potato, the health and economic effects of smoking in public places. It will also review NHS funding as usual, but with special regard to deficits.

The new committee includes some retreads, including Tory David Amess, the Basildon Booster who switched to safer Southend West; Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent GP who hung on in Wyre Forest by 5,250 votes and loves being an MP; the Bristol North West immunologist Doug Naysmith; and his Labour colleague, Erith leftwinger John Austen.

Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam), the former Lib Dem health spokesman, is back, taking the place of Patsy Calton, who died of cancer. So is Labour ex-whip Jim Dowd (Lewisham West). David Hinchliffe (ex-chair) retired to study his Viking roots; Keith Bradley (Withington) and Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff Central) lost their seats to the student vote.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham) has become a PPS instead.

So there are new faces. Labour's Dr Howard Stoate, the jogging GP from Dartford, returns to the committee. Staffordshire Moorlands' Charlotte Atkins, a junior transport minister until 5 May, joins it. The newest new face is Tory Anne Milton, a Bart'strained nurse who took back Guildford by just 347 votes. I do not have her number, so I can't wake her up. .

Michael White is political editor of The Guardian.