By Joseph Willits
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The main premise of the BBC's Fern Meets Ann Widdecombe, emphasised the issue of vulnerability. Much was made of Widdecombe, a spinster, living alone amidst the wilderness of Dartmoor, yet with the backdrop of celebrity outings in Strictly Come Dancing, and an upcoming pantomine as Widdy in Waiting. Rightly or wrongly, she was perceived as a woman who craved the limelight in both her political life and extra curricular activities.
Yesterday, the BBC and the Express focused on comments Widdecombe made about not being given a peerage. She described it as a "pretty pointed exclusion" saying that she would "be a liar if ... an exclusion that pointed didn't stab just a little bit".
Widdecombe was adamant however, about looking forward, rather than dwelling over rejection:
"If however he [Cameron] was expecting I'd sit lamenting on Dartmoor, then tough luck. He's had to watch me having the time of my life."
Although her criticism was subtle, Widdecombe made suggestion that some of the Coalition's commitments to wooing women were wrong, whilst recalling her own experience of entering Parliament. She had "got there on the same basis as the men, which a lot of women can't say now. I'd competed equally, and I'd prevailed", she said. Women are not competing equally now "if you've got positive discrimination, and shortlists reserved for women. They don't have to do what we had to do."
I am relieved to be leaving the Commons because of public hostility to MPs: "I always imagined that when I was making my last speech and about to depart, I would be sad. Instead, I find that my uppermost sentiment is one of profound relief. I sincerely hope that future generations of Members of this House will be able to serve in an atmosphere free of the welter of public vituperation and vilification that this Parliament has been confronted with, and that there will once again be a recognition on the part of the public that the overwhelming majority of people who come here-on both sides of the House and in all parties-do so with some degree, and sometimes quite a lot, of sacrifice, in terms of either finance or family. My hope for the future is that some calmness and some respect will again prevail."
Labour has come to accept the need for nuclear deterrence: "My maiden speech was on Trident. Of course, at that time, I was very much in favour of keeping Trident, and those on these Opposition Benches, which were then occupied by the Labour party, were very much opposed to that. I am delighted that they have seen the error of their ways, and that they now in fact see the merits of Trident. That gives me great hope. They also now see the merits of privatisation, so I am very hopeful that at some stage in the future, they will see sense on a great many other things as well, and that a far more sensible and down-to-earth approach will prevail among them."
The health of the family: "If in our time there has been an assault on any great institution, it has been not on the House of Commons, but on the family. I am talking about the record levels of family break-up and the record numbers of young children who are growing up in houses where the parents have split, who are expected to split their time, emotions and whereabouts between those parents. But for all the many families like that, there are plenty of other parents who stay together in a committed and subsisting marriage, and who wish to bring their children up in a stable environment."
The plight of the non-working mother: "When a family decides that upon the birth of the first child, the mother-it may sometimes be the father, but statistically it is usually the mother-will stay at home to herself take on the full-time duty of bringing up that child, they are faced with a situation in which they move, almost overnight, from being two people living on two incomes, to being three people living on one income. Where that family is well off, that is not such a big issue, but for the majority of families that model, which many would like to follow, is now but a distant aspiration. There are many reasons for that, and it has not been helped by the prevailing social view that somehow there is something intrinsically second class about the woman who opts voluntarily to stay at home and bring up her children. While I have been in this place, I am pleased to say that I have lost three secretaries to full-time motherhood-I am not pleased that I lost them, but pleased for the reason that I lost them. The most recent said to me that she spends all her time trying to justify to her friends and contemporaries why she had chosen not to come back to work when the child was born. The social attitudes do not help, but there are also massive financial considerations. As a result of property prices and the huge mortgages that are necessary, it is simply impossible in many families for one of the parents to say that they will stop earning. Therefore, every shred of help that we can give to such families should be given by the Government of the day. It is especially iniquitous that there should be such a difference between the support given to a family where the mother has decided on full-time motherhood-which is the highest calling, because those mothers are bringing up the citizens of tomorrow-and to families where the parents have decided to carry on working. This example is given by Peter Saunders, professor of sociology, who points out that "if both parents go out to work and put their children into childcare, the government gives them each a £6,035 tax-free allowance, as well as heavily subsidising their child care costs. But if they prefer to look after their children themselves, sacrificing one income and foregoing all the child care subsidies, the government penalises them by making the stay-at-home parent forfeit her (or his) right to a tax-free income." That is one of the most scandalous inequalities that we have. We not only fail to support the non-working wife, but we positively pour support on those people who are existing on two rather than one incomes. Much of that inequality stems from the decline in the respect for marriage that we used to take for granted in our society. That is one of the groups of people about whom I wished to talk about today-the non-working mother. I see nothing in this Budget to help the non-working mother, but I see much in some of the Conservative proposals that might help the non-working mother if they are fully implemented. In any case, the Government are wrong to have ignored this problem, and in the wind-up I would like to hear what the Government will do-in the limited time available to them-to give some support to the non-working, stay-at-home, full-time mother."
People trapped on deprived, unpoliced estates: "The other group are those about whom I have spoken in this House before, and whom I have always called the forgotten decents. These are the law-abiding decent citizens, often but not always families-perhaps pensioners, a couple whose family has grown up and gone or single persons-who, because of a lack of resources, cannot escape from the environment in which they are trapped. I refer particularly, but not exclusively, to those big inner-city council estates where people have no aspiration but living a normal, unmolested life. That does not seem to be a ridiculous aspiration for a British citizen. But those people often do not dare even to leave their houses or flats after dark-not only after 8 or 9 pm, but even 6 or 7 pm-because they would be subjected to intimidation, robbery and thuggery. They live with that prevailing fear. Mothers who live on such estates have told me, and continue to tell me, as nothing much appears to have changed, that before they let their children out to play-which should be a normal activity-they have to check the surrounding area for needles. It is in those areas where the law-abiding live behind bars, because they fortify their homes like Fort Knox. There is wanton vandalism on those big estates and I vividly remember talking to one person who was disabled and had therefore no choice but to live on the ground floor. He could not live any higher: he had to occupy the ground floor. He had a pathetic, small patch in front of his flat where he had put pot plants to try to make a pleasant area in which to sit out in his wheelchair. Is that such a big aspiration? But his garden was regularly vandalised and finally every last plant was destroyed when some yob threw acid all over them. Are those areas policed? Is there a regular police presence on which those ordinary and modest British citizens can call? The answer is no. The regular plaint goes up, "We rarely"-they do not say never, because that would be an exaggeration-"see a policeman." There is no visible deterrent walking around these streets in the form of someone who could be called on by those who feel afraid. Money spent on policing those areas or bringing any other sort of hope to those areas would be money well spent. I do not see much encouragement for those people-the forgotten decents-in this Budget. I hope that I am wrong."
The Guardian reports that Hansard - marking their centenary as the official record of Parliamentary proceedings - have published a book of the greatest parliamentary speeches of the last hundred years.
Senior figures have been asked to identify their favourite speech of the 1909 - 2009 period. Rather surprisingly, the achingly partisan Gordon Brown has chosen Sir Edward Heath's speech against the reintroduction of hanging. David Cameron selected a speech by Duff Cooper (to whom he is distantly related) opposing appeasement in 1938.
Ken Clarke, Lord Heseltine and Sir John Major all chose Geoffrey (Lord) Howe's call for Margaret (Lady) Thatcher to resign.
Ann Widdecombe and Denis (now Lord) Healey were both courageous enough to choose a speech by Enoch Powell. Miss Widdecombe's preferred speech argued against embryonic research, while Lord Healey picked Brigadier Powell's 1959 excoriation of British brutality at the Hola camp in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau emergency. Lord Healey concludes that Enoch Powell was "far from being the racist bigot".
In keeping with flagrant disregard for political correctness, David Blunkett singled out Oswald Mosley's speech on the economic crisis in 1930!
Most amusingly of all, Dennis Skinner felt that the most noteworthy piece of parliamentary oratory of the last one hundred years came from the member for Bolsover - one Dennis Skinner - in a filibuster against opponents of stem cell research. It's a curious phenomenon that this national treasure can do such a good impression of an insubstantial, boorish egomaniac.
What speech would you choose?
Yesterday the Commons voted to limit annual spending on furnishings to £2,400 but Ann Widdecombe MP warned her colleagues against 'crawling on their bellies' in the face of "malicious" attacks from the media.
Ann Widdecombe: "Both Front Benches remind me of those Governments who hold referendums, and when their citizens give them an answer they do not like, hold them again. We should have faced the fact that the House made clear its view on the so-called John Lewis list, and we should have found ways of making it transparent, rather than trying to abolish it altogether. The contributions made by Members on both sides of the House today have been largely conditioned by the mischievous and malicious onslaught of the media and the public prints, not just over the past few weeks but over the past few months. Our response to that should not be to crawl on our bellies, but robustly to defend what is right. Yes, it is right that we should have better reporting and more transparency, but it is not right that we should make it impossible for hon. Members to carry out their duties... We should have had the guts to defend ourselves, just as we should have the guts to do so when the press talk about our lavish perks and include our secretaries. There have been some hon. Members for whom their secretary has been a perk, but precious few of them. Such is the view out there that Adam Boulton, who is supposed to be politically wise, actually stated on his programme as though it were a matter of fact that our secretarial allowances are paid directly into our bank accounts... I, like most hon. Members, do not benefit from one penny of my secretary’s or researcher’s salaries, or from one penny of what goes on computers, stationery and postage. We do not benefit, and to have that portrayed as a perk is ridiculous. If there is one thing that we should have done it is to abolish the word “allowance” and to substitute the word “reimbursement”, and to have that which is centrally provided not counted as our personal allowances."
"...We should stop crawling before this press onslaught. Yes, there have been abuses. Do we blame all general practitioners for Harold Shipman? Do we say that because a handful of teachers have been convicted of paedophilia, all teachers are bad, and that because more than a handful of accountants are crooks, all accountants are bad? As for lawyers, I will not even go there. The answer is no. Therefore, although there have been and always will be some people in Parliament who are not as straight as they should be, we should not allow ourselves to be tarred by that. We deserve to be paid properly, we deserve to be reimbursed for reasonable expenses incurred, and we deserve to be allowed to do our jobs properly. If we do not do that, one of two types of people will come into the House: those who can afford not to be recompensed and those whose pay is so low that to them it all looks like something very grand. The vast ranks in between—the professionals, those who are paid a reasonable but not excessive amount—will not come to this place, and the press and the media at the moment are doing their level best to ensure that Parliaments of the future will be composed of people of substantially lower quality than Parliaments of the past."
This section is also interesting, in which Douglas Hogg MP questions the Conservative Party's decision to use an Opposition Day debate for Members' Allowances:
"Historically, this matter has been for the House, not for whipped party votes. Therefore I have difficulty in understanding why it is being debated on the Supply day. Incidentally, as we do not live in unfurnished boxes, why should there be a prohibition on reimbursement for furniture and household goods? Provided that it is modest, transparent and audited, what is the objection?"
Theresa May MP: "My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned whipped votes on this issue; I merely point him to the fact that it is because the Government were unwilling to stand by the Prime Minister’s undertaking to support the Members Estimate Committee report—they failed to whip the votes—that the House is in this position today."
Simon Hughes MP, Liberal Democrat, then intervenes on Mrs May: "The thrust and direction of what the right hon. Lady is saying has warm support from the Liberal Democrat Benches. However, she must accept that we would not be in the mess that we are in today if 21 Conservative Members of Parliament had not voted against openness and transparency, rather than in favour of it. If they had voted with her, what she and I want would have gone through on 3 July."
Mrs May: "I note the hon. Gentleman’s support for the general thrust of what I am saying, but I merely say this to him. The House would not be in this position today if the 29 Liberal Democrat Members who stayed away had turned up to vote on 3 July. They included the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), who, significantly, failed to show leadership on the MEC report."
Edward Leigh MP on the foetus at 12 weeks: "We believe that an unborn child of 12 weeks has undeniable human characteristics. Her organs, muscles and nerves have begun to function. She has fingernails and toenails. To become a child, she needs nothing more than to stay for a few months in the safety of her mother’s womb. We will all take different views. Some will not share our opinion, but undeniably the view is developing in this country that what I say is more and more true of unborn children of 16, 18 or 20 weeks. We must accept that in this instance we are dealing with a human life. If we cannot deny the humanity of babies at 12 weeks, we cannot deny our duty to protect them."
Mark Pritchard MP explains his support for a 16 week time limit: "Scientific evidence increasingly suggests that unborn children feel pain at 16 weeks. That is not simply a stress response; it is a physiological response, perhaps not the same as in a fully grown adult, but a physical and even emotional response beyond the norms of passive reflex. Pain is felt, which is why specialist, gifted surgeons who perform surgery on babies in the womb use anaesthetic. Now, 4D imaging reveals that 16-week-old unborn babies are very much alive and kicking, although their limbs are too small to be felt by the mothers. Those who have had children know that they are likely to feel kicking at around 17 weeks in the case of a second baby and 19 weeks in the case of a first baby. However, just because the mother does not feel kicking, it does not mean that there is no leg kicking. Sixteen-week-old unborn babies are very small human beings, but they have many of the faculties of newborn babies."
Mike Penning MP highlights the scale of abortion in Britain: "5.5 million pregnancies in this country have been terminated. As we heard earlier, the latest available figures show that nearly 200,000 were terminated in 2006. The figure has risen dramatically since 1969, when 5.2 women in 1,000 had an abortion. The figure is now 18.3 per 1,000, which is a huge amount. I believe that everyone in the House would like to see a massive reduction in the number of abortions taking place in this country. This is not about choice; I want everybody to have a choice, but surely, in a compassionate society such as ours, we would all want to see fewer terminations taking place."
Mike Penning also urges more reflection before an abortion: "I had a vasectomy on the national health. I went to see my GP, who said, “I want to speak to your wife.” My wife and I both sat there and agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward for us as our own personal form of contraception. The GP then sent us away for three or four days, after which my wife and I both saw the consultant, and again we both agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that if that time for thought is right for a man having a vasectomy—which, by the way, can be reversed, albeit painfully—there must be a provision for more time to think and consult when it comes to such a serious decision as having an abortion."
Nadine Dorries MP recounts her gruesome experience as a nurse, assisting with a late term abortion: "I first became concerned about and interested in the issue of abortion when I worked as a nurse. I worked for nine months on a gynaecology ward, and assisted in many terminations and late terminations. I also went to witness a late surgical abortion six weeks ago. I became interested in abortion when it became apparent to me, as a nurse, that far more botched late abortions were taking place than should. The first one that I witnessed was a prostaglandin termination. A little boy was aborted into a cardboard bedpan, which was thrust into my arms. When I looked into the cardboard bedpan, the little boy was gasping for breath through the mucus and amniotic fluid. I stood by the sluice with him in my arms, in the bedpan, for seven minutes while he gasped for breath. A botched abortion became a live birth, and then, seven minutes later, a death. I knew when I stood with that little boy in my arms that one day I would have the opportunity to defend babies such as him. I thought that we committed murder that day. I cannot think of another word for a nurse or doctor present at the birth not attempting to resuscitate a baby who was an abortion but became a live birth."
Nadine Dorries MP on how NHS doctors do not want to conduct late term abortions: "It is a fact that doctors do not like to perform late abortions. In the NHS, hardly any abortions over 16 weeks take place. We have a Government policy of 24 weeks, and an NHS that does not want to carry that policy out. We have a private abortion industry that has mushroomed around the NHS in order to carry out late terminations that doctors and nurses in the NHS do not want to do."
John Bercow and Ann Widdecombe clash:
John Bercow MP: "She is concerned about humanity; so are other right hon. and hon. Members. Does she not accept that if there is a two-week reduction, very, very frightened and vulnerable women will unquestionably suffer? We should stick with the status quo."
Ann Widdecombe MP: I cannot believe the way my hon. Friend has simply dismissed the humanity of the child. Because of the 24-week limit, that situation already arises. What limits the period to 24 weeks? The humanity of the child; the ability to feel pain, on which there is now a vast body of scientific evidence; the ability to feel distress. I ask again, why is it that we need to give a lethal injection to a child if it is not living in the womb? It may not be living outside the womb, but it is living in the womb. Those who believe in preserving life acknowledge the life of what is living, even though we cannot see it. If we could see the children that are being taken for abortion, there would be a national outcry.
All attempts to lower the abortion limit were defeated.
“One of my constituents telephoned his brother to say that he was in Maidstone hospital with C. difficile, sitting in his own diarrhoea, and that he wished he was dead.”
I asked the then Secretary of State:
“Can anyone believe that when that is the standard of nursing, it has nothing to do with the spread of infection?"
That was 10 months ago.
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to something that I identified at the time, but has not mentioned in his responses so far? It is the crucial role of ward sister. Ward sister, unlike management, matron or the director of nursing, is there all day. She used to fulfil the role of boss: “Nurse, why is that drip empty?”; “Nurse, why is this man in his own diarrhoea?” If she still fulfilled that role— [Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. I hear the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) saying from a sedentary position, “It is a speech.” We are considering a serious matter, which is why I have allowed an urgent question. Let the right hon. Lady speak because I understand that she has lost constituents.
Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for the length of the question, but we are considering my Trust and I am concerned about what is going on. Does the Secretary of State accept that, if ward sister fulfilled her former role, many of the difficulties might have been avoided? Does he agree that there are three main reasons for her not fulfilling that role? First, short-staffing means that she is nursing when she should be bossing and supervising. Secondly, she has become too much a commissioner of bandages and blankets rather than active on the wards. Thirdly, she spends too much time filling in forms—whether that is related to targets or anything else is not the point; she spends too much time on officialdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that I was right to say 10 months ago that if we get the role of ward sister right we will make a huge impact on the situation?
Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Health: I do agree with that. If the role of the ward sister or matron is got right, we will go a long way towards tackling the problems. The right hon. Lady made important points, and I have no argument with the amount of time that she took to make them. She should be congratulated on raising the issue in January. Of course, as she will accept, the Healthcare Commission was in the midst of its investigation then.
I also agree with the right hon. Lady that the standard of nursing had everything to do with the problem, as the Royal College of Nursing and others have pointed out. We made an announcement a couple of weeks ago. I do not say this with the benefit of hindsight in relation to what happened at Tunbridge Wells and Maidstone. The right hon. Lady made the point that the matron and ward sister should have direct control not only over the cleaning arrangements and the contracts agreed for the hospital, but over the making of a report, at least quarterly, to the NHS trust board. The views of the ward sister and matron could not be filtered through various layers of management because the report, on these and other specific issues, would go directly to the trust board. That was the gist of our announcement.
I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with another point made by the right hon. Lady, because I think it detracts from her point about the standard of nursing at the particular hospital and her graphic account of patients being told “Go in the bed”. That is the term that was used. The right hon. Lady and others will surely accept that that is not the standard of nursing that we find in our hospitals across the country; it is absolutely exceptional.
The excuse cannot be given that the management of the trust did not receive the right support. The right hon. Lady spoke of a staff shortage, but there are now about 85,000 more nurses in our hospitals than there were 10 years ago, and 280,000 more care assistants and the like. As she will accept, there is no excuse for the dreadful things that happened in that hospital.
I accept that there are issues that we need to tackle in relation to ward sisters and matrons. We should give them more power and make them much more assertive, and remove any bureaucracy that they feel is a hindrance to their role. As I said in my statement, I am perfectly willing to shoulder that responsibility. My point is that nothing must detract from the failure that occurred in those three hospitals, and nothing must excuse the appalling standard of nursing that was in operation."
More from Hansard here.