The move, denounced by critics as a 'stitch-up' by a government afraid of its own backbenchers, comes after the furore triggered by the ousting of one its most outspoken critics, Nicholas Winterton, from the health committee. Mr Winterton, whose fate was finally sealed in last night's debate, lambasted the Government for abusing the Commons and 'annexing' the select committees.
The Government's defensive stance on office costs comes in the wake of the Cabinet's rejection of the Review Body on Top Salaries' recommendations for improving the lot of MPs' staff.
Both issues concern the House of Commons, and MPs are allowed a free vote, meaning that party business managers can only impose single-line whips requesting the presence of MPs. But, in a confidential note, Richard Ryder, the Tory Chief Whip, instructed all ministers and parliamentary private secretaries to attend the debates.
Outraged Labour MPs yesterday intensified efforts to mobilise support for an amendment to the motion tabled by Tony Newton, Leader of the House, which would peg the office costs increase to 9.8 per cent.
They are counting on support by most Labour members and votes or abstentions from some Tories. One intending rebel, Michael Fabricant, the new Conservative MP for Mid-Staffordshire, said: 'I can perfectly well defend to my constituents what I spend the money on. It is not salary and it is far below the rest of Europe.'
Edwina Currie, the former minister, said she was unhappy about the Government's stance, adding many MPs topped up staff salaries from their own pockets. 'It is not good for the country to have either well-off MPs or those who take money from outside, which can be corrupting.'
Chris Smith, a sponsor of Labour's amendment, said: 'It is surely outrageous that the Government should be dictating the level of resources available to MPs to carry out their job of scrutinising that self-same
Some Tory MPs were content to observe that the payroll vote had been regularly rolled out since the Reform Bill. But others, including those who are not fans of Mr Winterton, were privately critical of its invocation after what one called the select committee 'cock-up' - involving a last- minute rule change to ensure the former health chairman was excluded.
'There is considerable unease right across the party,' one said.
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