Bleeper triggers panic at technological invasion

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The Independent Online
As usual, they were all rushing for the exits after Prime Minister's Questions, when a point of order stopped MPs in their tracks. What followed was truly wonderful.

It was Mr John Greenway, the Conservative MP for Ryedale, who had started it, when he earlier invited the Prime Minister to join him in "congratulating the Chartered Insurance Institute on its centenary year". Didn't the PM agree that "a partnership of insurance companies and the state is the best way of ensuring that future generations can meet their pension needs?"

A quick perusal of the register of members' interests indicated that the enterprising Mr Greenway had not waited for the state to act, but was ensuring his own pension needs through a personal partnership with the industry. He is a remunerated director of the Smart and Cook Group Ltd to the tune of, er, an undisclosed amount; a shareholder in the same company and owner of a "small share" in the property leased by Smart and Cook; he is also parliamentary adviser to the Institute of Insurance Brokers (netting between 10 and 15 big ones), and to General Healthcare Ltd (another 5 to 10).

Clearly, a sleaze-sensor at Rebuttal House (or whatever Labour's media centre is called) had gone off, and someone had taken a quick gander at the register - for the second that Mr Major went out, Labour's Rebutter- in-Chief Brian Wilson (Cunninghame North) was raising the question as a point of order to the Speaker. Was it in order, he asked, for Mr Greenway not to declare his interests when asking such a question?

There was uproar. But not because of Mr Greenway's supposed misdeeds. For Mr Wilson had not taken delivery of this information via scribbled note, or the hurried whisper of an in-rushing colleague. No, he stood at the dispatch box, smoking bleep in hand. He had had mechanical assistance!

Sensitive Tories were horrified. Ian Bruce (Dorset South) condemned Mr Wilson "with his electronic devices", containing "messages from Mr Mandelson". Could Wilson and his infernal machines not be arraigned for witchcraft? Speaker Betty was adamant, "electronic devices that make noises should not be used in this chamber", she declared.

Nicholas Winterton (C, Macclesfield) was not mollified. "Is it appropriate, correct and permissible to use an electronic device in this House?" he demanded. The Speaker had spoken about noise, but "what about those that don't make a noise?" Or (he didn't ask) those discreet personal ones that make just the smallest, buzzing kind of noise?

Up squeaked Harrow West's boy soprano Robert Hughes. "Further to the point of order, relating to the other point of order", he trilled, "was it in order", for a member to be receiving instructions from somebody in the "Labour Party dirty tricks department"? (Let us recall that this particular dirty trick consisted of reading the register of members' interests and then telling Mr Wilson about it.)

Labour's Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull North) requested urgent clarification. A respected former member of this House had used an electronic device, he said mysteriously, so would this have been outlawed? I recalled that Jack Ashley had always used an industrial-strength hearing-aid. But did McNamara really need clarification? Was he genuinely worried that Betty would leave deaf members unaided?

Tewkesbury Tory, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown weighed in. "We on this side of the House clearly heard the bleeper operated", he whined. I doubt it, Geoffrey, since it was almost certainly set to "vibrate". Perhaps it was your voices again.