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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 21:21 GMT

UK Politics

Ann Widdecombe answers your questions

Shadow Health Secretary Ann Widdecombe answers questions sent by BBC News Online users.

Q. What would the Tories have done on Viagra? What would the Conservatives do about waiting lists? (You have said they're not a useful indicator of how the NHS is performing)

R. Smith

A. As far as waiting lists go we've made it very clear. I have said that it is our policy that we will not measure waiting lists according to the numbers on them but according to the times people have to wait which is what concerns them most. And also I would not just have one crude time applying to every single condition, but rather that we would have specific waiting times that were appropriate to specific conditions - and the BMA support that.

As far as Viagra is concerned, our line on that was to agree with the government that it shouldn't be universally prescribed but to say that as there was already some very expensive impotence treatment available on the NHS that where this was cheaper, more effective for the patient, that it should be prescribed in those circumstances.

What we would not have done, which the government did, was provided a highly proscriptive list of when Viagra could be available, so that they've now created the very weird situation that a sufferer from multiple sclerosis can get Viagra but can't get beta-interferon - it's a bit of an Alice in Wonderland world.

Q. Ann,

You are in favour of capital punishment. If there is a miscarriage of justice how can a dead person be pardoned ? Executing people in such a planned way turns me cold, it makes me shiver. I am not soft on these issues. I believe if you murder you should N-E-V-E-R be released from prison. I also believe that murderers should be shown for at least 15 years video tapes / films and photographs of the person they murdered. I also believe that they should be forced to watch videos that are sent to prison by the relatives of the victim. I believe they should be shown a cell. Then shown the bed in corner of the cell. Tell them they are going to spend the rest of their life in that cell and they will die on that bed in the corner.

That's punishment to someone who's guilty. Believe me, they will crack. If they're innocent, they'll smile and say "No, I'm innocent and I will prove it!"

Chris Barnett

A. I think that if you were ever to restore capital punishment, and that's extremely unlikely I have to say, then you would have to build in a lot of safeguards. For example, I think you would have to have a unanimous verdict, I don't think you could apply it to a majority verdict. I think you would also have to protect people from fabrication of evidence, making fabrication of evidence perhaps a capital offence where it led to implementation of the death penalty.

But essentially I believe the death penalty is a deterrent, I think the statistics clearly show that, I think you have a moral responsibility to the innocent to have it available to the courts.

Q. Following the Select Committee of the 25th Nov and the scathing comment by the chair of that committee that he admired the efficiency of the department but not its effectiveness do you think that more can be done to rid this country of the increasing effects of illegal drugs

Kind regards

Bill Johnston

A. I think you have to tackle this both at the demand and the supply end. The demand end you can only tackle through education and making people understand. But at the supply end you can do what we did which was introduce a mandatory penalty of seven year's imprisonment for the third offence of trafficking in hard drugs. And indeed because we had also implemented honesty in sentencing that seven years would have meant seven years and I regret this government has dropped honesty in sentencing.

Q. Is it possible for the NHS to remain a public service without private investment? Did the Tories start privatising the NHS?

Sanja Punawalla

A. We didn't in any way privatise the NHS that is a complete myth. However I do believe the NHS cannot do it all and has never done it all. The situation at the moment is creating a dispossessed - people who simply cannot get treatment. I think therefore they have to share the strain with the private sector in order that the NHS can be free to do more itself. That does mean partnership with the private sector, it doesn't mean privatising the NHS.

Q. Should people who've done nothing wrong be locked up to protect the public. Also, you said Michael Howard has something of the night about him. What would you say Frank Dobson had about him?

A. I think there has for some time been increasingly identified a gap between those who've committed a crime and should therefore go to prison, those who although they have committed a crime are deemed mentally ill and therefore go to a mental hospital and those who are a clear danger to the public but have not committed a crime and are not furthermore treatable so they cannot go to a hospital because there's nothing the hospitals can do. So, I think that gap has been increasingly causing concern and therefore I think Jack Straw was right to address the issue. I think however once you get to the point of locking people up who have done no wrong you have got to have a really robust set of safeguards. We don't know yet this time and that is what has to be tested properly.

Frank Dobson never looks me in the eyes. Why can't he look me in the eyes if he believes what he says?

Q. Dear Miss. Widdecombe,

I believe in the United States approach to health-care, where people are required to take out private medical insurance and where there is no National Health Service. The benefit of this is that the average person is taxed less by central government because they do not have to contribute to a service which everybody does not use. A similar system could also be used for tolling on motorways. Why should 'everybody' pay for using highways, when, say, they do not even own a car?

Do you believe, and does the Conservative Party believe, that a privately-managed health system would be fairer to the British people, and only those who really need medical help should pay for it. It seems ludicrous that everybody pays for a system, which only a handful of people use regularly.

Yours sincerely,

Harpreet Garcha

A. I am not suggesting for one moment that you should replace the NHS with a privately-managed system, what I want to do is add on to the existing system. I have committed the Conservative Party to spending more in real terms year on year on the NHS, as we did throughout the last government. But it's what you do on top of that which matters. I want to add on a huge extra area of spending, not replace one with the other.

Q. Dear Dr Widdecombe,

Do you agree that the Tory party it is too early and should refrain from establishing any base line policy on key issues?

Good luck

Buddhdev Pandya MBE

A. It is certainly to early to make detailed policy announcement. If you remember Neil Kinnock, he made a policy announcement almost every fortnight. He ended up locked into an entirely inappropriate agenda, which rebounded against him heavily when it came to the election. I don't think we should do that. Our agenda has got to be relevant to the time the election is fought. But that doesn't mean we can't make some policy pronouncements and doesn't mean we can't be working on policy and we are working very hard.

Q. Is a two-tier health service inevitable? Did the Conservatives make it so? If people live to 130, how do you propose the UK health service copes with the increased demand? Can the NHS offer care to everyone who needs it?

Richard Garner

A. Look, we have a three-tier health system in this country at the moment. The first tier are those who can either get NHS treatment or choose quite voluntarily to go to the private sector. They're on the top tier. On the second tier are those who are denied NHS treatment, either because of successive delay or because it's just not available, and they can go private but sometimes at immense cost. We've had examples of people selling their houses to buy beta-interferon, but nevertheless they find a way. But on the third tier, are the totally dispossessed people who are denied NHS treatment - even if they gave up eating they wouldn't be able to afford any alternative. So the idea that we are moving towards a two-tier NHS is nonsense. We have a three-tier one already operating and presided over by this government.

Q. Dear Ms Widdecombe

I am writing to seek your party's views on gulf war syndrome. I have returned from the AGM of the gulf war vets at Portsmouth, after being very much enlightened from a talk from a nuclear biologist by the name of DR Durokovic. The gentleman in question has tested 21 gulf war vets for depleted uranium poisoning. All 21 vets have returned positive results. The doctor has himself worked for the US government and was told to cease his research into depleted uranium, he refused and was then dismissed. Since then he has been conducting his own research into the matter, with as stated positive results. He has also been dropped from speaking at the world C.D.C conference in Atlanta U.S.A .

It would appear certain agencies would like him to be quiet. I strongly admire you and the conviction you have in something you believe RIGHT. PLEASE HELP OUR CAUSE ... and please would you raise the issue in the Commons

Yours sincerely

C.L. Coombs

National Gulf Veterans & Families Assoc

A. My view is that this is something that has to be established by the medical profession. It isn't for the government to say, there is or there isn't Gulf War syndrome. It is for it to be established and for a government to then decide what it should do.

What will the Conservatives do about preventing future food health scares - I am particularly concerned about the safety of genetically modified foods.

Sarah Williams

Denbigh, North Wales

A. On genetically-modified food we have an extremely strong stand and William Hague has made this a big issue at Prime Minister's Questions. As far as we're concerned, the recommendation of English Nature, which is the government's own advisory body on the subject, is that there should a moratorium of several years while we see exactly what genetically-modified foods are leading to and what the effects will be. I think it is profoundly ill-advised to rush in and I don't understand why the prime minister is rushing in.

I'm glad William Hague was ahead of everybody else - it was happening without everybody else being aware of it. It's certainly is something, among many other things, we are taking a lead on.

Q. Will the Tories support legislation allowing Health Authorities to invest money in keeping vulnerable people warm in their homes, so that they do not fall ill during the cold winter months.

Martyn Williams


A. We always did throughout our time in office, so there's nothing new about that.

Q. How can anyone take the Tories seriously on health? having caused the crisis in nursing recruitment, they criticise the Government for not increasing their pay by enough? It takes three years to train a nurse so any current crisis in nurses recruitment HAS to have been caused by the last Government?

Adam Higgitt

A. That's absolute and utter nonsense and it really worries me when the debate gets down to that level. 'Ann, it's all your fault,' like kids in the playground. The truth is that we increased nurses by over 55,000 during our term in office. This government reduced the nurses in training by 3% when they came in - those are the facts. This government came in promising another 15,000 nurses and suddenly found there isn't a magic wand. Until we have a rational debate about the fact we have a service where demand has gone well ahead of supply, where expectation is dragging that demand ahead of supply - until we start having an intelligent debate we will never make progress.

Q. Dear Anne

Two of my friends live in the flat beneath yours (number 8). Have you ever met them? If not, you should go and say hello, particularly as one is a nurse with a new baby. Could be useful for a health spokesperson.

Best wishes

Andy Bruce

A. If they're the girls in Number 8 I already have.

Q. Ms Widdecombe,

How do you, and others in parliament, justify attempting to enforce your religious & moral beliefs on others by voting against & generally opposing abortion. Surely the right and decision of a women to decide what happens to her body is hers and hers alone.

Joseph Cooper, Hampshire.

A. Abortion is not just a religious belief. Some of my best work against abortion was done when I was an agnostic. It is not moral issue - if I come up and kill you, you do not say it's a moral, individual issue. We are talking about taking life in the womb. Our laws now permit abortion up to birth itself. That means you can have two children in the womb, one of whom is protected and born with every civil liberty that there is and the other of whom is not wanted and can actually be aborted at the same age and gestation as the other child. That is profoundly wrong and it has nothing to do with sexual morality, or religion, or anything else.

Q. Dear Sir or Madam,

Here is my questions to Ann Widdecombe: What is your point of view as far as the House Of Lords reform is concerned ?

A. I think that what is happening at the moment is utterly irresponsible. We have a situation where the government is abolishing one part of the House of Lords without telling us what they are going to put in its place. Now I think that is unacceptable. If you're going to reform the House of Lords that is perfectly valid, but you must say what you're going to do.

Q. Dear Sir or Madam,

I shall be grateful if you could ask Ann Widdecombe whether she seriously believes that the Conservative Party stand the slightest chance of winning general elections in the next ten to 15 years.

Thank you!

Christian Thode, Oldenburg, Germany

A. Yes, I think we can win the election in two years time. There is some profound misconception around that they got a record number of votes in 1997. They didn't - they got fewer votes than we got in 1992. A lot of those majorities that they have in the House of Commons are very fragile and will go in the first whiff of adverse wind.

Q. Should the Government not be pressed to answer the infamous "West Lothian question", before the opening of the Scottish Parliament later this year? Many Unionists, myself included, fear that Labour's short sighted devolution policy is likely to lead to Scottish independence - and the end of the Union, and our country as we know it!

2nd year Politics Student

University of Aberdeen

A. I think the government is ducking and dodging and diving and weaving on the West Lothian question, but eventually they will have to face it.

Q. Who does your hair?

Mark Drury

A. Stage Door at Strutton Ground. Why do you wish to avoid them in future.

Q. Do you not feel that it is too easy for someone of your beliefs and, shall we say, limited experience to damn young girls who choose to have abortions? While abortion is a horrible and regrettable thing, I could not bring myself to condemn girls that I know (and those that I don't) for having taken what must be an awful decision.

Yours, David Szachno-Hodgkinson

A. As I've never condemned anybody it's an irrelevant question.

Q. Dear Ann,

I would like to ask you where you stand on the Age of Consent for homosexuals. It has become a hot topic, and the Common's is littered with both supporters and objectors. I would like to hear what your opinion is, and why you feel your stand is so important, whatever your view.


Simon Gray

A. I believe it should remain at 18. It's a free vote and I do differ from William Hague on that point.

Q. Having listened to your Conference speech in Bournemouth last year, as well a talking to other members of the Party, you are a favourite to be a future leader of the Party and even PM.

Do you have any ambitions to be PM and what Cabinet post would you like to have most ?

John Jenkins

A. I think that pretty well everyone in the House of Commons at times nurtures ambitions to be prime minister but there is such a thing as reality and I just live for each day. I don't worry about the future, I do have colleagues who are so, so worried about each next reshuffle that they don't actually enjoy the year in between them. I've never been in that category.

Q. Dear Ann,

I'm finding it difficult to see your reasoning why it is wrong to have abortion yet right to have capital punishment. Regarding the latter one can sight passages in The Bible - eye for an eye? - and yet that could be balanced by He who has not sinned cast the first stone. Anti-Abortion and capital punishment run counter to each other, don't they?

Simon Coppin

A. I believe that there is only ever one circumstance when it is right to take life and that is to save life. I explained earlier that capital punishment is a deterrent and therefore it saves lives. The one occasion where I would not outlaw abortion is where the mother's life in danger because then you have a choice between lives. Similarly I'm not a pacifist, I think every country has a choice to kill in its own defence.

Q. Your views on morality are a long way out of line with those of your deputy, Alan Duncan. How do the two of you work together, and what do you argue about?

Mark Crail

A. We work together very well because we're grown-ups.

Q. Would you say our society has entered an 'information age'? If so, in what areas, and to what extent, do you think it is changing the way we live?

Thank You, Marc Latham.

A. Yes, I think we are very much so and the changes are both for the good and the bad. On the one hand the information age is wonderful, you touch a button on the Internet and you get all the information you could require on the most obscure subject if you know where to go.

On the other hand, I think the technology that goes with it is a two-edged sword in many ways. First of all I think there is a diminution of reading. I am quite alarmed by the number of tiny tots coming into surgeries with no conversational skills but very good with the screens. And that's even happening in my leafy prosperous part of the world, you know, it's by no means something that just happens where people don't have parenting skills.

But on the whole I think most of us would have to say the new technology is a great thing for the world.

Q. Miss Widdecombe,

I read that on Christmas day you visited a number of hospitals and also a shelter for the homeless. How do you reconcile your religious beliefs and your care for those less fortunate than yourself, particularly the homeless, with the fact that you are a prominent member of a party which oversaw a three fold increase in the number of homeless people at the same time as we become on of the worlds largest exports of oil , or the fact that we have less doctors (per head) than almost any other country in Europe ?

Steven Blunt.

A. There was a large increase in the number of homeless throughout Europe. It goes back to my point about childish politics. The British Conservative Party did not create rising homelessness but there it was. We were always very concerned about homelessness. One of the schemes that we backed was the new Foyers, which combined tackling homelessness and employment combined.

Q. Ann,

How ambitious are you?

Ian McLaughlin

A. I'm moderately ambitious but I don't get hung up about the next reshuffle. My line is that I shall get as far as God decides, no farther.

Q. Ms. Widdecombe

Do you think that the gay community should enjoy the same rights and privileges as the rest of society? If their are limitations on their citizenship, should they then be expected to contribute as much in taxes as a heterosexual?

Andrew Smith

University of Aberystwyth.

A. I certainly think that there should not be the situation there was before the '68 that merely to be homosexual exposed you to blackmail. I think it wrong that there should be overt discrimination. Where I differ is that I do not think that it can be promoted as an equally valid lifestyle to marriage, but I would say the same about irregular heterosexual arrangements.

Q. I know this isn't really a terribly political question but it's something I've often wondered...

You stand out from the rest of the Conservative Party partly by virtue of your excellent sense of humour.

1) Who writes the one-liners that go into your speeches?

2) Who are your favourite comedians?


Robert, Tynemouth

A. Rory Bremner is certainly my favourite comedian and I still roar with laughter at 'Allo 'Allo. But as far as the one-liners in my speech go, some of them just come off the cuff, some I've thought up and some are suggested to me by assistants, by friends by others, sometimes I hear them used in a different context and straightforwardly pinch them.

Q. Section 28 prevents local authorities from raising awareness of gay health issues in the community, but does not apply to colleges of further education (who of course are outside the administrative and financial control of LAs). Despite this, many FE colleges prevent their welfare services/students' unions from running gay-health campaigns, citing Section 28 as their reason. Do you agree that FEs that do use Section 28 are wrong (both legally and morally) and do you think that MPs should repeal the legislation for the sake of public health.

Stephen Brooks

SE Wales National Union of Students

A. No I don't think it should be repealed at all. I think it is wrong to promote those sort of lifestyles and the accent is on promote. I think you have to have a preferred model.

Q. Dear Ms Widdecombe,

I know it's not your shadow job. However, I am concerned at the new law Mr Straw wishes to bring in, ie, curbing the press when there is an incident involving a minor. It is not the fact that the victim will remain anonymous (I think it is a good idea), it is the fact that the perpetrator or criminal will also go un-named when it is in the public interest. Am I right in thinking this will be the case? If so I think the Govt. is inadvertently protecting the criminal. What are your thoughts?

Yours Faithfully

Paul Jardine

A. I think the minor should remain anonymous but I think there are arguments for and against actual curbs on the press rather than trying to do this through ad hoc court rulings. I think the devil is very much in the detail.

Q. Miss Widdecombe I have the greatest respect for your battle over abortion not only on behalf of the unborn, but also for the Doctors and Nurses who feel called into medicine as a vocation but not its moral maze.

Only a small percentage must train with any moral or religious backing these days to cope with not only practice , but the inevitable tragedies. I cannot help feeling politicians would do well to serve in a hospital for a week and grasp the manning problems not just the figures - and of course some patient s will be more gracious than others.

Mr. Dobson is now currying electoral favour over fertility - this too is fundamentally wrong - babies have a way of coming when they are meant to, not on demand or in bottles. I am sorry that it was during the Conservative period in power hospital training went down hill so badly, there was too much theory and not enough hands on training, plus the standard of general education had slowly gone down hill. I recall cautioning one trainee Doctor with the warning that 4 patients would present the same problem, with one it could be a generational thing, with another their time to be healed, one would have a wrong attitude and she could lose one, she was a Doctor not God.

YOU OF ALL PEOPLE MUST UNDERSTAND the relationship between spiritual health and physical well being. As one of the same generation as yourself, I feel the whole ethos of public life has slipped and will not now lend itself to trite political posturing, nor can some of your colleagues claim any moral high ground. If Politicians will not roll their sleeves up on the ground floor how on earth do they expect to be taken seriously, and as for writing books of questionable literary merit to get a footing in parliament. If the literature is not elevating I doubt the man or woman who wrote it is, so why should they expect to be allowed to govern.

Valerie Watkins

A. We had an examination into this some time ago when I sat on the Select Committee on health and social services in about 1990. We found as a committee that it was very difficult to implement the conscience clause. Theoretically under the '67 act, if you have a conscientious objection to abortion you don't have to carry it out. In practice, it is almost impossible to be a consultant and refuse to carry our abortions and all health authorities now provide abortion automatically.

This is why I'm so afraid of any extension into voluntary euthanasia. You'd put in a conscience clause and in 10 years time you wouldn't be able to get into geriatrics unless you believed in it.

Q. Who do you think will be the next Conservative Prime Minister?

Phil Rodgers, Cambridge

William Hague.

Q. Hi Ann,

What are your views on the opinion that some of us are tired of politicians, past and presents, taking the stance that whenever the then government proposes something (presumably for the benefit of society as a whole) the role of opposition politicians is to rubbish what has been announced and complain about how it should be done. Surely politicians in government make a few good decisions that opposition should applaud.


Mike Sweetman

A. I think this goes back to much of what I've been saying. I am tired of the sort of politics that simply trades blame and statistics rather than tries to address questions. It is however the role of an opposition party to test everything the government is doing to destruction. That therefore means that you do have to look for the fault, you do have to magnify the fault in order to have it debate and that is a valid role of opposition and I never objected to it when we were in government.

After all let us consider this - when there has been the greatest consensus among politicians there has also been the greatest disaster. In recent memory, we can all remember the collapse of the ERM, the devastating effect that had on the British economy and individual lives, causing people to lose their business, their houses and goodness knows what else. And yet the ERM was agreed by all three major political parties. That should warn us that opposition has a very valuable democratic function to perform.

It does have its advantages. When you're in government you spend a lot of time managing today's crisis, firefighting. When your in opposition you can go back to the drawing board and you can work out where you'd like to be and how on earth you get there from where you are at the moment, which is the real challenge.

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