Hague enters the valleys to face Labour `boyo-cott'

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The Independent Online
Labour MPs with Welsh constituencies yesterday boycotted the first Commons appearance of the youthful Yorkshireman William Hague as Secretary of State for Wales. The "boyo-cott", as one fulminating Tory called it, reduced the 40 minutes of Welsh Questions to an even lower level of party point- scoring than normal.

"Typically, the Labour Party in Wales, when they don't like the game, seek to take their ball home with them," said Under-Secretary Gwilym Jones as ministers were fed by Conservatives from places like Sutton and Cheam and Hendon. Mr Hague described the MPs' absence as "a great shame". He has already inherited the unofficial title of "Governor General" held by John Redwood. But Labour's objection is not so much that the 34-year- old appointee is English, but that since becoming an MP in 1989 he has never taken any interest in Wales in 72 appearances in debates, and has asked just one question relating to Wales.

Explaining the boycott at a press conference only yards from the chamber, Ron Davies, Labour's Welsh affairs spokesman, said the appointment of Mr Hague was "a contemptuous insult to the people of Wales". Of the 38 MPs representing Welsh constituencies, only six are Tores. The 27 Labour MPs were joined in the boycott by the four nationalists and one Liberal Democrat.

There were also protests by Labour MPs at the boarding by French commandos of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II off the Mururoa Atoll nuclear test site. Jeremy Corbyn accused France of threatening peace in the Pacific region by its "blatant attack on an unarmed civilian ship", while Dennis Skinner claimed the Prime Minister had given President Chirac "the nod and the wink" at the recent Cannes summit for the "dastardly action".

An Opposition-initiated debate on low pay and poverty provided an opportunity for Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, to rerun criticisms of a national minimum wage as a job destroyer and accuse Labour of planning to "soak the middle classes" with tax hikes. Donald Dewar, his Labour shadow, stirred deeper waters with a warning that the widening gap between rich and poor was nearing the point where "social cohesion" was at risk. "Low pay, social division and growing inequality are a scourge and an offence," he said, adding that 14 million people lived on incomes below half of average earnings, compared to 5 million in 1979.

But Mr Dewar made most impact not with statistics but a rehearsal of R H Tawney's "tadpole theory". It was possible, speculated the socialist thinker, that intelligent tadpoles accepted most of them would live and die as tadpoles while the more fortunate shed their tails, distended their mouths and stomachs and hop on to dry land, lecturing their friends on "the virtues by which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs".

It was a very dangerous theory for a society to embrace, Mr Dewar said. "We are very near that situation where if you are outstandingly able or unusually lucky then you can escape from the social evils that surround too many of our citizens. But if you are not exceptional in one of these two ways, then you are lost, trapped and remaindered." Some, at least, of Mr Dewar's concern was shared by Alan Howarth, Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon, who urged ministers to review the evidence for a minimum wage. "It is far too important an issue to be appropriate for sloganising."

Mr Lilley said that while it was true that the top 10 per cent had seen a more rapid increase in their incomes than the national average, they were not all Cedric Browns. In the middle of the top tenth in the Rowntree report's Income Parade was a 57-year old journalist on pounds 30,000 a year gross, whose wife worked part-time for pounds 115 a week. "Wouldn't it be poetic justice if he writes for the Guardian, denouncing the widening social divide and damaging inequality, without realising he has been selected by Rowntree to typify the stinking rich?"

Goading Labour over its refusal to put a figure on the minimum wage, Mr Lilley said no one was better placed to persuade the party to set one than Jack Dromey, failed contender for the TGWU leadership, who is married to employment spokeswoman Harriet Harman.

"One can imagine the pillow talk in the Harman household. After a hard day's campaigning he says to his spouse: `Couldn't we be united for pounds 4 or pounds 5 an hour?' At which Mrs Dromey turns away with a sigh saying: `These numbers give me a headache - you'll have to wait till after the election."

Mr Lilley's joke was topped by a spot of conjuring from Greville Janner, Labour MP for Leicester West and a member of the Magic Circle, who produced a small ball from behind his ear and then made it disappear. The Government were "a bunch of political conjurors" but they could not vanish unemployment by removing the Department of Employment, he said. It might, however, cause the disappearance of the Employment Select Committee - chaired by Mr Janner.