Miss Ann Widdecombe PC, MP Meets the FIEC Citizenship Committee - June 2000

In recent years the voice and views of evangelical churches have been too little heard and registered in the ‘corridors of power’.  As society becomes more overtly godless, it is not surprising that there are issues of a moral nature, upon which the Biblical principles are clear, and about which evangelicals feel compelled to express themselves to ‘all those in authority’.

To enlarge and inform its thinking, the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, was invited to meet the Committee for a question-and-answer session.  One of his aides said that he was too busy.  Miss Ann Widdecombe, MP for Maidstone and The Weald and the shadow Home Secretary was therefore invited.  On 9 June she spent about 35 minutes with the Committee - she was typically forthright, articulate and well-informed.  The following is an edited version of our exchanges.

Targeting of Evangelicals.
Did William Hague's visit to Spring Harvest at Minehead in April 2000 indicate that the Conservative Party was particularly targeting evangelicals?

AW:    The Conservative Party was not currently targeting evangelicals but wanted more contact with the broadest possible range of churches and church associations, believing that this sector had a significant part to play in national life.

Abortion Legislation.
What was the current view of the Conservative Party on abortion legislation? 

AW:    Her own position was well-known, and William Hague's voting record on the abortion issue was exemplary.  One of his recent speeches had highlighted his personal belief that the time limit for abortions should be reduced.  Miss Widdecombe confirmed that she could never be a minister in the Department of Health in view of the close relationship between that Department and the practice of abortion.

Strengthening Marriage and Family Life.
What was the family policy of the Conservative Party, and what actions, including fiscal measures, would it take to strengthen marriage and the family?

AW:    Marriage was at the centre of Conservative Party family policy.  Tax breaks were more important as signals rather than as remedial measures.  People did not enter marriage, or stay married, because of the tax advantages, and it would not therefore strengthen marriage to adopt such measures.  However, such measures did give signals with regard to the suppositions and values of a strong society, and were significant in that respect.  Along with other elements of changing social patterns and structures, stronger marriage and family life cannot be achieved by measures enacted by politicians and Parliaments.  The change must come from within.  It was for the church to change hearts and minds.

The Committee would have its own views about how to interpret in its own context Miss Widdecombe's assertion that it was for the church to change hearts and minds, but what in her view were the possible ways in which the church could achieve this?

AW:    Keep on bringing views on issues to the notice of MPs and others involved in the democratic process and in positions of influence.  Many are the occasions when confronting issues when MPs will say to themselves: ‘I received something in my postbag about that the other day.’  It may seem insignificant, but it all helps.

The importance of role models cannot be over-emphasised in the battle for hearts and minds.  In connection with family values, the church has got to show that family life ‘works’ and this can only be accomplished by demonstrating example after example of families who have found a successful and secure way of life which others can see clearly to be a genuine reality.

What needed to be demonstrated was that this liberal society has failed, and we needed to move on (not back) to where we were 40 years ago.

In viewing trends in society, Miss Widdecombe felt that there was a cyclical element to the pattern of public attitudes.  This cycle was not inevitable, as the changes which occurred always had immediate causes, but cyclical change had always been the nature of history.  In the light of this, as she viewed the present state of society, she described herself as ‘a long-term optimist, though a short-term pessimist’.

Employment Discrimination.
Concern was being expressed by churches about the implications of the forthcoming human rights legislation, based on a European Union directive, which would outlaw employment discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or religious belief.  This legislation would have a direct impact on Christian organisations whose workforce was currently entirely Christian.  What could be done about this?

AW:    Churches had only themselves to blame.  Some two or three years ago, when this issue was first being raised for discussion, I and a number of other politicians were highlighting the difficulties which this legislation was likely to throw up, but the churches gave no support at that time.  There had been an instinct among churches as a whole to go along with this legislation, rather than to oppose it, as human rights for minorities sounded like a good thing.

Section 28.

What was the Conservative Party's current stance over Section 28?

AW:    The Conservative Party's view on Section 28 was unambiguous and had always been consistent.  It was the Conservative Government which introduced this legislation, and it was committed to its retention and had always opposed repeal, to the extent of a three-line whip.  Though shaken by the Scottish experience, the Labour Government was committed to repeal, was ‘in the grip’ of the homosexual lobby, and had a big Parliamentary majority.  The Government had publicly expressed a commitment to use the Parliament Act to get the repeal legislation through Parliament, and this could happen very quickly.

Caring for the Elderly.

What could be done to enhance the role of carers in society, particularly in relation to the nation's elderly?  Would one of the answers be to improve the conditions of care assistants in residential establishments, thus attracting a higher quality of carer?

AW:    The decline of the family and a sense of family responsibility had led to the increasing demands upon the public services in connection with the elderly.  I look after my aged mother, but I don't think of myself as her 'carer' - I'm her daughter after all!  It would not be practicable to raise the profile of carers through salaries offered, as there were so many of them and the cost would be enormous.  But more could be done to assist family ‘carers’ and this was an area which was currently being examined.

Reacting to Misrepresentation.
What had been Miss Widdecombe's reaction to hostility and misrepresentation in the course of her political life?

AW:    The over-riding aim of a politician should be to put across what he or she sincerely believes.  This would at times inevitably lead to criticism.  She knew what it was like to be anti-hunting in a Party which was pro-hunting, almost to a man.  She had even been described as being in favour of women prisoners giving birth in chains.  Those in the public spotlight could not seek to put right every occurrence of misrepresentation, but they should not all be ignored.  In making a stand against misrepresentation, it was important to select those occasions where a crucial principle was at stake.  Opposition and misrepresentation ‘went with the territory’ of being a politician.

In reflecting on the exchanges with Miss Widdecombe, the Committee felt that she had shown herself to be genuinely among the more morally-sensitive of politicians, sharing with equal conviction the views of evangelicals on many issues, though from her stance as a convert to Roman Catholicism.  For anyone interested in finding out more about Ann Widdecombe's political activity, she has one of the most-visited web sites on the net - the famous Widdy Web - and this can be viewed at www.annwiddecombemp.com

Ann Widdecombe gained honours degrees in Latin and in Politics and Economics, including an MA from Oxford University, and while still in her twenties became a member of Runnymede District Council.  Her early employment career was in health service and university administration, but in 1987 she became MP for Maidstone.  Over succeeding years she has held a number of junior government appointments, the last being Minister of State at the Home Office from 1995-97.  Her decision, in the early 1990s, to convert from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England to Roman Catholicism, at the time of the ordination of women to the Anglican ministry, was widely-publicised.  [This report was co-authored by Rod Badams].