Parliament & Politics: Hard time at Committee on Soft Furnishings self-destruction

The Week In Westminster
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A BATTLE royal looms next week between two of Parliament's most formidable women over proposals from the Modernisation Committee to begin Commons business on Thursday mornings and to introduce a one-week recess, to coincide with school half-term in February.

Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons, favours the change but the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is unhappy.

Although there will be a free vote, the Conservatives' deputy Leader of the Commons, Sir Patrick Cormack, fears there will be a de facto "whipped" vote on Labour's payroll of ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. The previous government used to enclose voting instructions inside the weekly whip, sent to the payroll, whenever it wanted to get its way on a free vote. MPs fear this same trick will be pulled.

Most "parliamentarians", led by Tory Eric Forth and Labour's Dennis Skinner, regard "modernisation" as a code for reducing the hours available to make trouble for the Government.

Jack Cunningham appeared before the Public Administration Committee, chaired by Rhodri Morgan, to give evidence on his work as Minister for the Cabinet Office.

In attempts to be matey, Mr Cunningham dispensed with civil servants to sit alongside and assistant him and called everyone on the committee by their first names, as is now the practice in Cabinet.

But his smooth charm cut no ice with the new Tory rottweiler, David Ruffley, who is shaping up as the rudest member of Parliament. Saying Mr Cunningham was as "potent as a politically neutered tom" he made heavy weather of allegations regarding office refurbishments and a proposal to take over Admiralty Arch. "You've got a bit of previous," he told the minister when he pored over the entrails of Mr Cunningham's move, as Minister of Agriculture, to a new expensive office building.

Mr Cunningham's charm deserted him as he retorted: "I thought I was coming to a Select Committee, not a political kindergarten." When the minister explained that the expenditure was to bring together 650 staff, spread over eight buildings, under one roof in Admiralty Arch, which is a Grade I listed building in need of restoration, most members appeared satisfied. But Mr Ruffley persisted with questions on office furniture. Mr Cunningham revealed that he had bought "a new carpet and a couple of settees from Marks & Spencer", causing Labour's Peter Bradley to begin his cross- examination with the words: "Welcome to the Select Committee on Soft Furnishings".

Hero of the week was Jack Straw, who united Labour MPs with his decision to allow extradition proceedings to begin against General Pinochet. They were bleeped by the Whips' office on their pagers with the glad tidings and were dancing jigs of delight. Mr Straw has got his own back on Robin Cook, who failed to inform him of the general's red carpet arrival in September and who will now have to face the diplomatic fall-out from the Chileans.

The Ministry of Defence will also have an awkward time retaining dry- dock facilities in Chile for Royal Navy vessels in South America. Questioned by Tory MP Tim Loughton about such arrangements, the Defence minister John Spellar said: "The good relations we have (Loughton: `had') with our Chilean counterparts will continue." Mr Spellar ought to reappraise the situation quickly.

Geoffrey Robinson, Paymaster-General, looked even more embattled than usual during Treasury questions as he sat glumly alongside Stephen Byers, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, while deputising for Gordon Brown, who was attending his father's funeral. Challenged by Francis Maude, the Conservatives' frontbench spokes-man, that Mr Robinson should be sacked, Mr Byers predicted that he would be working with the Paymaster-General in the months" (note: not years) ahead.

But the words from Tony Blair in answer to Tory MP Edward Garnier were more evasive. Mr Garnier asked the Prime Minister for "three good reasons why Mr Robinson should remain in office". Caught off guard by the brevity of the question, there was no attempt by Mr Blair to give a specific endorsement to Mr Robinson.

Instead, he said any minister "who is guilty of serious wrong- doing would be dismissed". Presumably Mr Robinson's wrong- doing is not yet regarded as "serious" but the omens do not look good for his long-term survival. Mr Robinson appears to have been stripped of most of his ministerial responsibilities and he now answers virtually no oral questions or debates.

The Government got its comeuppance over its vacillation and delay on its election manifesto commitment to introduce a "right to roam" bill. Legislation has failed to materialise and Labour backbenchers are losing patience with the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, who is trying to do a cosy deal with landowners.

Gordon Prentice, the splendidly off-message left-wing MP for Pendle, drew fifth place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills and has decided to introduce a Bill on the right to roam. Party managers are furious but powerless to prevent a debate in the new year. The Bill is likely to receive a second reading but Labour whips will be encouraging loyal robots and Tory MPs to filibuster against Mr Prentice.