Inside Parliament: Arafat treated to a Commons sandstorm: Smith rounds on out-of-control NHS - MP's 'Imelda Marcos of Downing St' jibe - Major makes use of guillotine Footnote

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The Independent Online
WAS IT just a gauche attempt to make his guest feel at home? As Yasser Arafat settled into his seat in the Commons gallery yesterday, the Prime Minister accused John Smith of trying to throw sand in people's eyes?

It is not a phrase John Major is given to using at Question Time. Yet it must have been one of the few in the 12 minutes of intensely domestic parliamentary knockabout he witnessed that Mr Arafat could have made any sense of.

The very idea of the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation sitting in the section of the gallery reserved for diplomats - or any part of the Commons - would have been preposterous only months ago. To the assorted members of the public sitting only feet away it seemed special enough as they craned their necks to get a glimpse of the little man in the battledress and keffiyeh.

But, by convention the 'strangers' in the gallery - public, press, peers and PLO chairmen - are not acknowledged by MPs below. So not the slightest allusion was made to Mr Arafat and no questions were framed with special relevance. Someone with a sense of timing might have asked the Prime Minister to urge the Israelis to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Jericho - a process that should have begun only hours earlier on Mr Arafat's 'sacred day', 13 December.

And for the first time in weeks there was no mention of the Northern Ireland peace initiative - the main issue beyond the chamber. After Mr Arafat's historic handshake with Yitzhak Rabin, some MPs had looked forward to a similar rapprochement between Mr Major and Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein.

Instead, the PLO chairman was treated to some close combat between Mr Major and the Labour leader over NHS bureaucracy, and an exchange on renovations at 10 Downing Street. The only departure from the domestic agenda was a post-election warning that the sovereignty of Russia's neighbours must be respected.

John Smith said that the sums of money being spent on increased NHS bureaucracy, on 'huge salaries and perks for managers' and on glossy public relations, was totally out of control. The NHS supplies authority had wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds changing a single word in its name - including pounds 5,500 for a new logo, pounds 61,000 for artwork, pounds 67,000 on publications, pounds 40,000 to replace signs and pounds 20,000 to repaint vans.

Cheered on by his backbenchers, Mr Smith asked if the Prime Minister was reluctant to condemn the supplies authority because its chairman was Sir Robin Buchanan, a former Tory councillor and, until recently, chairman of the Wessex Regional Health Authority 'whose grotesque mismanagement of public funds was exposed by the Public Accounts Committee'.

Mr Major said the Labour leader had 'utterly neglected' to mention that there was more money in the NHS and more patients were being treated than ever before. 'Mr Smith may seek to throw sand in the eyes on other matters - that is the reality of the health reforms and no sensible person would wish to reverse them.'

The PLO leader's broad public smile faded as the proceedings became ever more in-House. Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North-West, following up an admission in a written parliamentary answer, asked 'why Mr Major spent pounds 292,000 on decorating Downing Street and improving catering facilities? We thought he had an outside caterer.'

Labour MPs fell about with laughter while Tory MPs chanted 'cheap, cheap'. Mr Arafat must have wondered what on earth that last aside was all about.

Mr Banks went on: 'Doesn't the Prime Minister think it's obscene that he should be spending this amount of taxpayers' money when, within yards of Downing Street, there are thousands of people living in cardboard boxes and in doorways. Isn't it rather strange that a simple Brixton boy has now become the Imelda Marcos of Downing Street?'

Mr Major hit back in kind, although harking back to an era when Mr Arafat was a terrorist leader and Mr Banks enjoyed a similar place in Tory demonology as chairman of the Greater London Council. He recalled Mr Banks arriving at the House of Commons in a chauffeur-driven car paid for by the ratepayers.

'I also seem to remember that that south London boy over there is the man who blew ratepayers' money on a giant binge to celebrate the end of the GLC, on parties, on fireworks, on river trips and even on silver medallions for his colleagues on the GLC.' The pounds 292,000 had been spent on repair of the kitchens and other public parts of 10 Downing Street, he added.

Mr Arafat's PLO colleagues are reportedly worried about his psychological health. But the chairman must have begun to wonder about the minds of those below him as Mr Major moved on to berate Labour about a man called Michael Foot, who had introduced five guillotines in one day.

The Prime Minister was getting in an early strike before MPs debated a motion limiting to one day each, the time for two Bills raising employees' National Insurance Contributions by 1 per cent and transferring sick pay costs from the state to employers.

Labour has broken off the 'usual channels' of co-operation with the Government on parliamentary business because of the guillotines. But Mr Major agreed with Tory backbencher Graham Riddick that this threat of disruption was a 'hypocritical sham'. Mr Riddick said published figures showed that, out of the 200 MPs with the best voting records, 191 were Conservative and only six were Labour.

Had Mr Arafat stayed on he would have seen the guillotine motion carried later by a comfortable 307 votes to 266 (majority of 41). Where were the guerrillas? he might have asked.

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