Ballistic anger puts Skinner in the ejector seat

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High drama from the Opposition benches during yesterday's exchanges on the nuclear sell-off White Paper was largely confined to the not unprecedented ejection of the left-winger Dennis Skinner, after he accused ministers of a "crooked deal" over the sale of the coal industry.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, eschewed quite such a full frontal approach, telling Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, that his statement on the privatisation of the modern bits of the industry - minus the expensive-to-decommission Magnox reactors - could be summed up as "the private sector gets a cut-price bargain, the taxpayer gets the bill".

It had nothing to do with long-term energy policy or how best to introduce competition, Dr Cunningham declared. It would create a nuclear generator bigger than National Power and PowerGen, at a time when the industry regulator was insisting that those companies divest themselves of generating capacity. Mr Heseltine had told MPs that ending the fossil fuel levy currently collected to finance the decommissioning would see the average annual household electricity bill fall by as much as £20. But Dr Cunningham claimed that consumer watchdogs agreed that consumers had been "massively overcharged for their electricity since privatisation".

Ending the levy would be a welcome but "tiny" benefit to consumers, he insisted. "But the decommissioning and waste management costs left to the taxpayer for decades to come will far outweigh that benefit."

Pouring scorn on the Government's attempt to present the £3bn sale as a gain for the taxpayer, Dr Cunningham said the taxpayer had paid £3bn to build Sizewell B [the pressurised water reactor in Suffolk]; the new shareholders would get an additional seven AGRs [advanced gas-cooled reactors} at a "knockdown price".

He demanded a Commons vote on the package (primary legislation is not needed), but a pledge, as heard last week, that Labour would fight the privatisation tooth and nail was not forthcoming, still less one that Labour would take the industry back into public ownership.

Needless to say, Mr Heseltine picked up on that lacuna. After mocking Labour for viewing an 8 per cent electricity price cut as an "undesirable step", he spotlighted the absence of undertakings to renationalisation of a single industry. For Labour the "whole intellectual case against privatisation is bankrupt," a relaxed-looking Mr Heseltine declared, later adding: "What I find extraordinary is that when we offer to return to people the money they themselves have earned, it is regarded as a bribe."

It was as the Tory side was reflecting it had had a marginally better afternoon than usual that Mr Skinner, the MP for Bolsover, was banned from the Commons for the rest of the day for his accusations against Richard Budge, the man who bought most of Britain's working coal mines.

Mr Skinner had reached the door long before Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, had finished spelling out her ruling of unparliamentary language and the punishment. The Sergeant-at-Arms' office reacted with equal alacrity, according to reports afterwards, warning Mr Skinner to leave the precincts immediately. That is in some contrast to the suspended "cash for questions" Tory MPs, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick, who have been allowed access to their offices provided they use the shortest possible routes to get there.

Tory MPs had to endure another local elections drubbing - this time from John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, who forcibly recalled last week's results. Earlier, at Employment questions, they clearly thought they had been handed a gift by the news that Labour will not specify a national minimum wage.

Replying to John Austin-Walker, the Labour MP for Woolwich, who suggested a minimum wage would help to promote equal pay, Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State, declared: "Such topsy-turvy reasoning can only have possibly come about because the Honourable Gentleman is dizzy from watching the policy summersaults of his leader."

Miss Widdecombe and Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, have long argued that many hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost if Labour adopted the formula favoured by many unions. Forced to change tack yesterday, they declared Labour guilty of "deceit" in promising a minimum wage but not saying what it would be worth.

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