'Doris Karloff' helps homeless

Fellow MPs tremble before Ann Widdecombe's wrath. But to young 'rough sleepers' the Tory battleaxe is a kind friend
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The Independent Online
SHE HAS been dubbed Doris Karloff, and ridiculed for her unbending political views. But privately, Ann Widdecombe, the Tory health spokeswoman, has a softer side; she feeds the homeless near the House of Commons and helps them to leave the streets.

Miss Widdecombe has been secretly taking rough sleepers to McDonald's for Big Macs and coffee after church on Sunday, putting them in touch with night shelters and counsellors and using her knowledge of policy to tell them about their social security entitlement.

The Tory MP, now a cult figure at Westminster for her honesty and plain- speaking, has been secretly helping rough-sleepers around Westminster Cathedral for months. She is particularly worried about young people sleeping on the pavement in the winter and offers extra help to new arrivals on the street. After attending evening Mass at Westminster Cathedral, she asks them if they want to sit in the neighbouring McDonald's for a meal and chat. Churchgoers have often seen her on cold evenings wearing leggings and a casual coat handing out coffee in polystyrene cups to young people bedding down in doorways. She says she never gives them money but will listen to their problems.

"I go up to them and offer help," she told the Independent on Sunday. "I take them to McDonald's from time to time and I occasionally sit down and have a chat with them. Sometimes I go and get them a coffee or food. It's when I see new people: I was last there a couple of weeks ago." But she insisted: "It's a private and personal thing - I don't really want to talk about it."

Some of the homeless around the cathedral, who sleep in shop doorways off Victoria Street, have not eaten properly or washed for days. Many are alcoholics and have sad personal stories of abuse and violent homes. Some may have no idea that the woman handing out coffee and offering advice is a former minister and one of the most outspoken politicians in the country. Neither did staff at McDonald's, next door to the cathedral, notice Miss Widdecombe performing such acts of charity.

One young rough-sleeper said: "Most of them from Westminster Cathedral don't help us. They think we are begging and stay away from us, but we are not. Some people do help and buy us food. That's nice. It's pretty cold here."

Westminster Cathedral, a lavish, Victorian byzantine building minutes from the House of Commons, is where Cardinal Hume, the head of England's Catholic Church, celebrates Mass. The congregation is made up of wealthy Catholics and local families, many of whom are from Ireland. Miss Widdecombe, a recent convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, advises the homeless about a nearby night shelter and drop-in centre where they can get hot food, take a shower, and can do their laundry. The Passage, linked to the Cathedral, also offers counselling on housing, alcoholism, women's issues and drugs, and has a nurse and doctor available.

The MP for Maidstone and The Weald has also secretly helped the day centre raise money in her spare time. Next week she will take time out from front-bench duties to talk to local businesses about the need to help the homeless in Westminster. Staff at The Passage spoke warmly of Miss Widdecombe's help. "She is a great supporter of our work but she does that all very privately," said Sister Bridie Dowd. "Her work is a personal matter. The people here need a listening ear; they need someone to talk to. It's very sobering to sit and talk and listen to people who once did very responsible jobs. It could be any one of us at any time. We have had university lecturers, people from all walks of life." Miss Widdecombe, who, while prisons minister, was caught up in the row over chaining pregnant prisoners to their beds, has a fearsome reputation at Westminster as a sharp-witted debater and formidable political foe. Once derided as "podgy, shrill ... with the looks of an Albanian goalkeeper ... the Thing from the Black Lagoon", she is now a Tory icon and mother figure, a popular social figure who wins standing ovations at party conferences.

Last year it emerged that Miss Widdecombe, who has been known to answer the phone "Karloff here", helped children from a London kebab shop with school work. She became the "secret mum" of teenagers Theodora and Nikos Louridas, taking them to films, museums and the zoo, and playing Scrabble.

She even wrote personal letters of recommendation to help the children gain places at good London schools after they had achieved excellent exam results. To amuse a four-year-old in the shop, she once got down on her knees and pretended to be "a fierce animal".