Hypocrisy jibe paid back with interest

Labour attacks Heseltine over late payment of debts Bottomley says Lottery has created 150 millionaires
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The Tories' favourite Commons jibe of last week - "Saying one thing and doing another" - turned into a boomerang yesterday as Labour MPs made hay with Michael Heseltine's relaxed attitude to paying business bills.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage, found herself manoeuvred into defending the Deputy Prime Minister during Question Time exchanges on the tourist industry, though she stopped short of endorsing his past debt management.

Meanwhile, outside the chamber, Labour gleefully issued a reminder of Kenneth Clarke's view, expressed in the 1993 Budget statement, that: "Late payments wreak havoc with cash flow and for many small firms they can make the difference between survival and failure."

Spotting the chance to make trouble at Question Time while keeping within the rules of order, Dennis Skinner said one of the biggest threats to small businesses involved in tourism was late payment. "It's even worse when Mr Heseltine makes a statement that brags about not paying his debts, and managing to put other businesses into bankruptcy."

The Deputy Prime Minister told a private dinner last week that late payment was part of the culture of British business and that as a small businessman himself he had been "quite skillful at stringing along the creditors".

A former partner, Ian Josephs, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph yesterday saying that they kept creditors waiting by sending cheques with only one signature when two were needed, or ensuring the words and figures did not match.

Last Friday, the Government published legislation to encourage prompt payment in the building industry. Ministers are also understood to be sympathetic to a Private Member's Bill sponsored by Jon Owen Jones, Labour MP for Cardiff Central, to give a legal right to interest on commercial debt.

But Mrs Bottomley appeared unaware of these moves as she dismissed Mr Skinner's "windy rhetoric" with some of her own. Employment in the tourist industry had increased by one-fifth in the last 10 years, she said. "And in the last 10 years Mr Heseltine has played a crucial role in making our country more competitive and fighting the corner of industry."

Later, on a point of order, George Foulkes, Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon, noted the Government's support for the commercial debt Bill. "If we have now got this admission for the Deputy Prime Minister that he held off paying his creditors as long as possible, is this not an example of hypocrisy - of 'saying one thing and doing another'?"

Speaker Betty Boothroyd rebuked Mr Foulkes for abusing the House's time, but his colleagues cheered his twisting of the soundbite used to effect by the Tories against Labour in the Harriet Harman schools row.

Heritage Question Time has become so dominated by the National Lottery that no harm would be done to the serious content of the exchanges if Mrs Bottomley was substituted by Anthea Turner, who hosts the weekly draw.

Mrs Bottomley yesterday capped her litany of statistics, including more than 150 millionaires so far and pounds 1.5bn for good causes, with the depressing assertion that the lottery has become the nation's favourite topic of conversation. She was replying to Peter Brooke, a former heritage secretary, who asked if she felt pleasure or concern at the fact that more than half of the questions put down for the 15-minute session were about the lottery.

Mr Brooke's implied qualms were plainly not shared by Mrs Bottomley. "The lottery has taken over as the great conversation piece," she declared.

Speaker Boothroyd offered blunt advice to an MP who complained that Edwina Currie's latest novel - A Woman's Place - portrayed MPs as "drinking themselves into oblivion and bonking their eyeballs out".

"Unfortunately this isn't the case," said Labour's Tony Banks. How could Members be protected? "Don't buy it, don't read it," Miss Boothroyd replied.

TODAY'S BUSINESS - Commons: Defence questions; Prime Minister's Questions; Debate on future of GP fundholders; Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations; Backbench debate on proposed closure of Frances Withers Home, Sutton Coldfield. Lords: Broadcasting Bill, Committee; Debate on farms' health and safety.