Backbencher's Bill to ban the noble art is knocked out

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Indy Politics
A backbench Bill to ban boxing was defeated by 120 votes to 60 yesterday, a comfortable win over what opponents regarded as an unacceptable encroachment by the nanny state.

"Boxing is a fine sport. It is one that this House would do ill to contemplate abolishing," declared Harry Greenway, Conservative MP for Ealing North. An MP noted for his readiness to offer an opinion on just about anything, Mr Greenway, a former deputy headmaster, said he had been a helper in east London boxing clubs.

The Boxing Bill, proposed by Jim Callaghan, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, would have had no chance of reaching statute book, but its attempted introduction gave Mr Callaghan 10 minutes of prime time to argue that "boxing damages your brain" and to test how much that troubled Parliament.

Mr Callaghan said a ban would be "too late" for 361 boxers whose deaths had been recorded worldwide since 1946, and too late for 14 British boxers who had been killed or seriously injured.

He said the Bill offered an opportunity to break the impasse between the British Medical Association, opposed to the business, and the British Board of Boxing Control. At least two former pugilists were listening from the front benches - Labour's sports spokesman Tom Pendry, a successful middleweight, and old Etonian David Heathcoat-Amory, the Paymaster General, whose past as an Oxford Blue was a bit of a surprise.

Mr Greenway said boxing kept "lads" off the street, taught them discipline and gave them life. "Boxing would not be stopped. It would go underground. You would have people fighting with bare fists; no licences and without medical supervision."

Boxing was very dangerous, he acknowledged. But so was his own sport of horse-riding, or ski-ing, rugby and motorcar racing. Worst of all, he suggested, was mountaineering.

While he was prepared to accept that "14 boxers have been killed since 1946, during this very winter alone, many more than that have died on the Cairngorm mountains". Yet no MP had said mountaineering should be made illegal.

"People can choose whether or not they will box or not just as they can choose whether to go mountaineering or not, with all the known and attendant dangers."

Too much political knockabout seems to have left Mr Greenway fuzzy with his facts. Mr Callaghan did not say 14 [British] boxers had been "killed". As for mountaineering, 15 climbers have died in the whole of Scotland this winter, less than one-third of them in the Cairngorms, and none as a result of deliberately thumping each other about the head.

Ritual blows were traded between John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, and Tony Newton, Leader of the House, as they stood in for their chiefs at Question Time.

Mr Prescott asked: "If the economy is so strong that the Prime Minister can offer tax cuts this November and next November - why are taxes going up again on Thursday?"

Mr Newton said taxes had to be raised as part of a number of difficult decisions to bring about recovery and sustain economic growth.

"As John Major said once again at the weekend, `as those policies pay off we will seek to reduce taxes as soon as it is prudent'."

But Mr Prescott said the Government was taking £800 a year in new taxes "so that at the next general election the Tories can bribe us with our own money". Didn't Mr Newton understand "that the British people now know that when it comes to tax, you can never trust a Tory".

The Leader of the House urged Mr Prescott to reflect on two facts: on average, households were expected to be about £250 better off this year than last, even after tax and inflation, and if the Government had maintained the tax regime it inherited from Labour, more than 1 million more people would be paying tax next year. Over the whole 15 minutes of Question Time, Mr Newton's combative performance drew favourable comparisons with the usual incumbent, but he was caught off guard by Ian Pearson, Labour winner of the recent Dudley West by-election. "Now the Prime Minister has promised tax cuts in November," Mr Pearson began, "will Mr Newton tell us whether this a real promise or the kind of promise the Chancellor makes on a wet night in Dudley?"

Kenneth Clarke's slight on the people of Dudley, where he suggested politicians' promises did not matter, had rebounded again.

Mr Newton had no sharp riposte, and resorted to flanneling about one in five taxpayers paying at the lower rate of 20p in the pound, compared to 33p under Labour, and last year's allowances taking 190,000 pensioners out of tax.

MPs later gave a Third Reading to the Finance Bill, implementing last November's Budget. John Townend, chairman of the Tory backbench finance committee, hoped it would be the last "for many, many years" in which the burden of taxation was increased.

Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, hinted it might be, saying that the Chancellor had made clear "the time when we can start cutting taxes again is coming closer ... the Government recognises the cardinal importance of low rates of income tax to preserve work incentives".

But Andrew Smith, for Labour, said the talk of tax cuts "comes a bit rich from a party that hasn't yet finished driving through all its 20 tax increases we have seen since the last general election".