Fury in Commons as amendment vote denied: Inside Parliament

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The Deputy Speaker, Michael Morris, brought the business of the Commons to a shuddering halt just after 4pm yesterday with an announcement that MPs were to be denied a vote on a crucial amendment to the Maastricht treaty legislation.

Accusations of cheating and a 'stitch-up' flew around the chamber as MPs of all parties argued with Mr Morris about the absurdity of telling their constituents that having debated the Social Chapter for hour upon hour, there was to be no vote upon it.

'What is the meaning of this place as the fulcrum of democracy if you deny us the right to vote on those motions and those amendments which we seek to vote on?' Richard Shepherd, Conservative MP for Aldridge Brownhills, demanded of Mr Morris. 'What is the purpose of this House of Commons if it cannot determine the constitution of this country?'

The 20th day of the Committee Stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill descended into three hours of confusion and chaos and was then abandoned at Labour's instigation. Three days have been set aside for the Bill next week.

Tension mounted when Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, disclosed the Government would not oppose a new clause allowing for a debate, after the Bill is passed, on John Major's opt-out from the Social Chapter, and exploded as Mr Morris confirmed there would be no vote on Labour's amendment 27 which would remove the opt-out from the Bill. For Tory opponents of Maastricht, such as Mr Shepherd, it was the very constitution that was at stake in Mr Morris's ruling, since amendment 27 represented their best hope of fouling up a Bill they believe relegates Parliament to the level of a county council subordinate to Brussels. For Labour, it meant goodbye to its chance of defeating the Government and, possibly, forcing acceptance of the Social Chapter. Leading the storm of protests on points of order, Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said Mr Morris's decision was without precedent and 'highly dangerous'. 'I think many people far beyond the confines of the chamber will feel that the House of Commons has been cheated of a legitimate opportunity to have a vote.'

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, was less restrained. 'They call this place the Mother of Parliaments. We've got the whole united Labour Party in favour of amendment 27; we've got the Liberal Democrats for what it's worth; we've got the other minority parties, and there are about 26 rebels who want to vote for it. And yet in this tinpot little arena we get a chairman of ways and means (Mr Morris) come along and say to us that we can't have a vote. My view is that this is a stitch-up and has been from the beginning, and this is a conspiracy with the government of the day. This was the only real chance we had of defeating Maastricht and the chairman has not given us a chance of carrying out a proper democratic vote.' Under Commons rules, Mr Morris is not required to give any reasons for his decision. Resisting MPs' appeals, he acknowledged he would be 'a hero' to some if he had taken 'the easy decision' and allowed a vote. 'Yes, I get advice, but I don't shirk from making a decision. The decision rests on my shoulders and my shoulders alone.'

Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister in charge of the Bill, provoked derisive laughter when he declared: 'Whether there is or is not a majority, I find it an extraordinary proposition for Her Majesty's Opposition to be putting forward that it should be a majority that decides whether there is or is not a vote.' But Mr Garel-Jones and his colleagues backed off opposing Labour's motion to 'report progress' on the Bill - causing the adjournment of the committee just after 7pm. MPs who had faced the prospect of sitting late into the night were thus able to get home before the trains stopped.

At Question Time, John Major condemned today's rail unions' strike as 'utterly pointless' and a throwback to the 1960s.

The stoppage would clearly cause further hardship to the travelling public and would damage British Rail's finances, the Prime Minister said. 'That does not safeguard jobs in rail or elsewhere. It actually puts jobs in rail and elsewhere at risk.'

Mr Major said he hoped John Smith, the Labour leader, would take 'appropriate action' against John Prescott, his transport spokesman, for supporting the strike. Mr Smith got to his feet immediately afterwards but ignored Tory shouts of 'answer, answer' and focused instead on Bosnia.

Earlier, during Home Office questions, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, mocked the performance of the Group 4 security service which has taken over some prison escort duties. Not only had four prisoners 'gone missing', but at Leicester prison they had turned up with the wrong van. In Nottingham, court hearings had been postponed because Group 4 had 'got lost' in the one- way traffic system.

On Wednesday, Mr Blair went on, 'A Group 4 van carrying prisoners crashes into a police car outside a police station.' It was time Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, took a grip and 'started running the prison escort service with some regard to public safety rather than like something out of an Ealing comedy'.

Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk West, suggested it was part of the Government's plan to reduce the prison population. But Mr Clarke said escapes between prison and the courts were frequent.

In Group 4's contract area alone, last year, more than 50 prisoners had escaped, he said. 'But the Labour Party took no interest in that whatever. They could not care less so long as they are escaping from public sector workers . . . the Labour Party are obsessed with whether the driver belongs to the right trade union.'

For Gerald Kaufman, Labour chairman of the National Heritage Select Committee and a classical music lover, the early night offered a chance to put on a favourite compact disc and reflect on why they are so expensive. The committee has begun an investigation into the price of CDs, and yesterday took evidence from the managers of Dire Straits and Simply Red. Both groups are taking on their record companies demanding lower CD prices.

Mr Kaufman said he had recently paid 'preposterous prices' for four CDs in London. 'The paramount factor that emerges is that in the US the customer is king . . . in Britain, a customer will accept it and not say 'No chum, I'm not buying it'.' It was a riposte Mr Morris might have used as he made plain to angry MPs who was king in his committee, though some, like Mr Skinner, suspected something murky behind the throne.