Parliament: The Sketch - An unhealthy dose of bile from ratty Frank Dobson

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE way into Health Questions Shona McIsaac enquired about the levels of teenage conception and pregnancy in the South Humber Health Authority Area. Her concern was that the current provision of "emergency contraception" wasn't quite matching the reckless fornication of Humberside teenagers, a problem that was particularly bad at weekends.

I must say I rather liked the idea of "emergency contraception" - a service which could perhaps be operated by young health-workers on pizza-delivery mopeds, complete with flashing orange lights and sirens as they speed around town on their counter-emission missions. Dial 0800-OH-SHIT for free home delivery. Complimentary coleslaw for all under-16s.

Mr Dobson, the Labour Party's very own Morning After Pill, passed over the opportunity to add "emergency contraception" to the new measures he unveiled in his statement on the Public Health White Paper, but then he was in a ratty and distracted mood yesterday, possibly peeved about his well-publicised monstering by the chairman of the British Medical Association the day before.

Dr Bogle had said that doctors didn't want "spin with a grin" and it's only fair to say that Mr Dobson obliged, opting instead for bile with a smile, the rictus in question being one of those tense grimaces with which ministers try to pretend that opposition attacks are risibly predictable.

First, newspapers got it in the neck, then the BBC (Today having given Mr Dobson a bracing wake-up call yesterday morning), then Simon Hughes, and then the entire Conservative Party - whom the Health minister caricatured as cold-hearted bourgeois, ignoring the tubercular hackings of the poor in the knowledge that their middle-class voters were all with Bupa anyway. This made Tory backbenchers very cross, but Mr Dobson didn't care - "we want to end the divisions which mar our society" he said, having done his very best in the preceding two sentences to crowbar the division a little further apart.

Dr Liam Fox, rising for his first session as shadow Health Minister, saw an opening of a different kind. "Is he actually saying that there's regional inequality in NHS funding?" he asked pointedly, after lambasting Mr Dobson for his "class warfare rhetoric". Dr Fox wasn't bad, even if he made less use of that BMA speech than expected, but I can't have been the only one who hankered a little after Anne Widdecombe's arpeggios of scorn.

Simon Hughes wasn't bad either - noting that it was admirable to want to improve the health of the worst-off in society, but distinctly counter- productive to then reduce the incomes of asylum seekers.

Mr Dobson had set the government some "ambitious targets" at the beginning of his statement, an increasingly popular pastime with Labour ministers since it operates as a kind of Hire Purchase arrangement for future achievements.

In the past, politicians would have to first take a series of actions and only when the task had actually been satisfactorily completed would they be able to go back to the voters and exchange it for political credit. Now they can take the pain of waiting out of the process, slowly morphing from the future tense into the past, as projected deeds almost imperceptibly become realised ones. "Three hundred thousand lives saved - 300,000 reasons for action," said Mr Dobson, rounding off his statement.

Just two sentences before he had been talking about the benefits of the government's "action zones" lying at least a decade in the future, but here the comforting implication was that the saving had already been completed. What tense would a grammarian ascribe to the verb in that phrase, I wonder? Future Optimistic or Political Indefinite?

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