Parliament: They've left the gate open again and Widdecombe's on the loose

The Sketch
Click to follow
MENTAL HEALTH was something of a theme in health questions, first arising after a question on the com- pulsory use of electro-convulsive therapy in National Health hospitals. Alan Milburn adopted a suitably solemn expression as he rose to answer: "Electro-convulsive therapy is well-established as a life-saving treatment in cases of psychotic depression" and could not be dispensed with in the treatment of the mentally ill.

Besides, he might have added, it's proved absolutely invaluable in dealing with behaviourally disturbed Labour backbenchers. One quick jolt from the Millbank pager and, after a brief muscular spasm, they're as docile and biddable as ever. They don't like it, but it works.

A little later Liam Fox got up with another anxiety about treatment protocols. Was it true that the last secretary of state for health had guaranteed that "no one will be denied the drugs they need"? If so, what about the new anti-psychotic drugs, which psychiatrists had been complaining were unavailable because of cost. Mr Milburn sighed heavily and explained that the anti-psychotics in question had all been referred to Nice the twee acronym for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. Nice would sort it all out in time, and until then it was very nasty of Dr Fox to fuss about the matter. For some reason the provision of anti-psychotic drugs came to mind when Ann Widdecombe rose to open the debate on the Home Office elements in the Queen's Speech. It's mostly the voice, I think - the kind of screech you can easily imagine echoing off the walls of a Victorian asylum. It sounds like someone cutting corrugated iron with a rusty saw - just as you've steeled yourself against one rasping note the blade jams and it leaps an octave. But what she says can be unnerving too. "They don't like hearing it but they're going to hear it again and again and again and again," Miss Widdecombe shrieked at one point, seeming to confirm that she is suffering from some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, the symptoms of which include repeatedly washing her hands of the Tories' political record and an unhealthy fixation with policemen.

Presumably it won't be long before she arrives on the Shadow Front Bench with an assortment of unwieldy placards, filled with crabbed handwriting that outlines various dark conspiracies on the part of the Government. For the moment, though, she was preoccupied with her correspondence. As Jack Straw replied to her speech she busied herself with a series of brown envelopes, cocking one ear for Labour porkies while scribbling a series of notes. Off went a message to the Queen Mother, informing her that resentful MI5 officers were planning to bug the royal corgis; off went a warning note to the Archbishop of Canterbury, pointing out that the letters in Tony Blair's name could be added up to make 666.

Mr Straw, who should know that the post of Home Secretary pretty much guarantees unwanted attention from monomaniacs, made a foolish error. Rather than crossing to the other side of the street and adopting an expression of lofty indifference, he began talking to Miss Widdecombe, hoping to persuade her of the illogicality of her position. Worse, he actually criticised her past behaviour in office, rhetorically asking who was the Home Office minister who had been responsible for shackling pregnant female prisoners to their maternity ward beds. Abandoning a letter to Mohamed Al Fayed, explaining that the EgyptAir plane had been downed by an aircraft of the Royal Flight, personally piloted by Prince Philip, Miss Widdecombe leapt to the dispatch box to defend her reputation. Mr Straw was clearly left rattled by the energy and volume of her self- defence and the violence of her arm-waving.

It was a useful lesson to him - never engage a shouter in conversation and never make direct eye-contact with them. They only find it provocative.