MPs press Blair for `Old Labour' Queen's Speech

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR faced calls for an "Old Labour" Queen's Speech - including a demand for the Government to revive the Bill to ban fox-hunting - at a private meeting with Labour MPs at the Commons.

The Prime Minister assured backbenchers at a packed meeting that he recognised that there had to be a "balance between New and Old" Labour, but he gave little ground to the old Labour left.

Some MPs voiced concern that in last week's local elections voters failed to turn out in Labour's traditional heartlands, in spite of the claims by ministers that the low poll showed there was little unrest. There were warnings that it could lead to bigger defeats for Labour in next year's elections.

The meeting was intended to allow the backbenchers to sound off on the issues they wanted raising in the Queen's speech, but those who attended said it showed there was more support for "Old Labour" policies than appeared the case in the Commons chamber, where discipline was strictly adhered to.

Labour MPs said there were at least three calls for legislation to improve the state pension, including one demand to restore the link between pensions and earnings over a 10-year period.

The MPs also called for the Queen's Speech to include Government Bills on: banning fox hunting; human rights, and the protection of immigrants' rights; a rolling programme of updating the local government electoral register; the abolition of the Child Support Agency; and free television licences for pensioners.

Mr Blair is unlikely to take up many of the ideas, which smack of old- style Labour. The Government has made it clear there will be no attempt to restore the link between earnings and pensions, and ministers are wary of becoming embroiled in the controversy over fox-hunting caused by the private members' Bill by Michael Foster (which has in effect been killed by Tory opponents through lack of time).

At the meeting Mr Blair was challenged by the veteranleft-winger Dennis Skinner to abandon the Tory spending targets. Mr Blair insisted there had been more spent on education and the health service than by the Tories. But Mr Skinner, MP for Bolsover, said he wanted wealth redistribution from rich to poor by increasing the total spending beyond the sums previously agreed under the Tories.

The only item on the Labour backbenchers' shopping list for the next Queen's Speech which seemed to gain acceptance from Mr Blair was a call for a Bill on rights for the disabled.

Ministers also at the meeting privately gave assurances that although the CSA will not be abolished, it will be reformed, by taking a fixed percentage of salary from errant fathers. This would be simpler than the present system of taking decisions on each individual case, which has led to massive backlogs and anger over claims.