Framework casts a long shadow over Commons

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Indy Politics
The Commons yesterday had a sense of marking time in advance of today's publication of the framework document on Northern Ireland's political future and a statement by John Major.

MPs went through the routine of Education Questions, focusing on increases in class sizes, and completed work on the Bill abolishing regional health authorities. But the Anglo-Irish document and its likely ramifications loomed over all.

Unionist sensitivities surfaced briefly but forcefully during Prime Minister's Questions when Sir James Kilfedder, leader and sole Popular Unionist MP, complained he had not been consulted during the drafting of the document.

It was "manifestly unfair and totally undemocratic", said the North Down MP. The nationalist SDLP had been involved through Dublin, and Government representatives had been "talking to the political wing of the terrorists" - a reference to Sinn Fein.

"This is a contemptuous way to treat Unionists and surely when the Prime Minister speaks to the people of Northern Ireland they will remember this."

But Mr Major said other parties had not been involved in drafting the document. "What we are seeking to do, as we were asked to do by the political parties, is to set down some ideas for consideration, discussion and negotiation between the political parties. When and if they are able to reach agreement, we will then carry the matter forward. The objective I have is to ensure that what has been thus far a ceasefire is able to be turned into a permanent peace for the well being of all the people in Northern Ireland."

Ken Maginnis, Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, urged the Prime Minister to read the UU's document A Practical Approach to Problem- Solving in Northern Ireland, with "a view to arriving at a solution and not continuing this theoretical, futile debate for yet another 10 years".

Mr Major said he shared the wish not to have a futile debate. He had read the Ulster Unionist document during the morning and had no doubt others would be produced. One had already been provided by Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists.

With an edge of passion, the Prime Minister told the House his mind was open on the right mechanism to achieve permanent peace. "But what I am determined is that we do seek to move forward to try and ensure that the chance of peace that is in our hands - we may not be able to hold it - but the chance that is in our hands should not slip away because we are not prepared to examine the matter, to talk about the matter, to consider it and reach the conclusions that Mr Maginnis wishes to see reached."

Tony Blair followed up a morning visit to Guy's Hospital in south London, where most services are due to transferred to St Thomas's, by tackling the Prime Minister on the burgeoning cost of health service administration. It was an inconclusive exchange with the Labour leader's claims about the public experience of the NHS being met with a barrage of statistics.

Mr Blair said that since the internal market changes, administration costs had risen by more than £1bn. "When people see wards, and indeed sometimes whole hospitals, facing merger or closure, they would prefer to see the £1bn spent not on more accountants and company cars but on beds and nurses and patient care."

However, Mr Major said nine out of 10 people thought the service was satisfactory or better. Each year 8 million patients were treated, 119,000 cataract operations performed and 333 million prescriptions issued.

MPs gave a First Reading to a private member's Bill aimed at ensuring that big football matches, Wimbledon finals, the Olympics, the Derby, the Grand National and Test matches remain on terrestrial channels and are not shown exclusively on cable and satellite TV.

Introducing the Bill more in protest than with a hope of it becoming law, Bruce Grocott, Labour MP for the Wrekin, said audiences for Sky football fixtures were generally under 1 million as opposed to between 7.5 and 8m for terrestrial channels.

"In far too many areas of our national life, good things that we have grown up with have been steadily eroded and we are poorer as a result," he said.

With Mr Major attempting to get Cabinet members to stop airing their different opinions on Europe and a single currency, some useful advice on discipline was offered by Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education.

He told MPs at Question Time that teachers could not be expected to do everything on disciplining pupils and parents must play their full part. But he was drawn on to the behaviour of his superiors by David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman.

"Given the importance of a learning environment," Mr Blunkett began, "what advice would ministers give a teacher managing a class of over 40, and would they give the same advice to the Prime Minister who cannot manage a class of 22?"

To general mirth, Mr Forth replied: "The list of measures and sanctions available to anyone who is having difficulty with disciplining a group of people includes interruption of break or lunchtime privileges, detention, withholding privileges such as participation in trips, completion of assignments, additional written work and carrying out a useful task.

"I hope that anyone involved in bringing discipline to bear will find my list helpful," he concluded.

Mr Forth seems destined to become Chief Whip.