Humphrys bullied again in playground

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Indy Politics
The lesson of "losing gracefully and winning modestly" was drawn to the attention of MPs at Question Time yesterday. But while the junior heritage minister Iain Sproat paraded it as one of the virtues of team sports at school, his chief, Stephen Dorrell, was not going to extend the lesson to the political arena.

Mr Dorrell unhesitatingly lined up with Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, over his attack on John Humphrys, a presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage, whose responsibilities include broadcasting policy, had come to the Commons ready to defend Mr Aitken during the department's Question Time slot.

Seizing the opportunity, Chris Smith, Labour's heritage spokesman, said an independent-minded BBC was crucial. "Tough, vigorous, probing questioning of us politicians by BBC journalists is an essential part of the democratic process." The minister should tell the Chief Secretary "that the BBC are doing their proper questioning job, must carry on doing it, and must not be allowed to cave in to spurious Tory pressure". But Mr Dorrell dismissed that as "pretty rich ... we have heard 15 years of complaints from Labour about how the broadcasters and the media are allegedly biased against them.

"We have all, as practising politicians, had the experience of a questioner or a journalist, we thought, going beyond the bounds of the task they have been given. The important thing, as Mr Aitken was absolutely right to point out, is that when people transgress, they learn by their mistakes and seek better in the future to deliver the obligation that is imposed upon them by the legislation."

Robert Maclennan, for the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Dorrell had a "prime responsibility" to ensure freedom of expression even if individual ministers and MPs might get irritated from time to time. However, the minister retorted: "Is it really Mr Maclennan's case that all human kind is fallible except BBC interviewers?"

Later, Nick Hawkins, Conservative MP for Blackpool S, suggested that Mr Humphrys should be referred to the Nolan committee on standards in public life for chairing a discussion at last week's rally against education cuts. On a point of order, Mr Hawkins asked the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, if the rules requiring MPs to make a declaration of "any payment on a matter that might affect his judgement" shouldn't also apply to political journalists. He said Mr Humphrys "failed to disclose during his interviews on Today that he was going to be receiving payment for his involvement in the overtly anti-Government education rally".

This was the classic use of a point of order by a backbencher to pursue a political vendetta. Mr Humphrys is not a political journalist by any conventional definition and declarations on television interviews are nothing to do with the Speaker, who said that if Mr Hawkins believed it was a matter he could refer to Nolan, he was free to do so.

An attempt to extend the benefits of the Disability Discrimination Bill to firms employing less than 20 people was defeated last night by 297 votes to 267 - a Government majority of 30. As MPs on both sides of the chamber pointed out, it will be illegal for small firms to discriminate on grounds of race or gender, but not against someone who is disabled.The Bill is due to complete its Commons passage today. Meanwhile the radical, and potentially expensive, backbench Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill which prompted it faces extinction in the legislative machine.

The Government Bill makes it unlawful to discriminate in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services. It also sets up a National Disability Council to advise ministers. But there are significant exemptons.

As the Report Stage began, Robin Corbett, for Labour, said it was difficult to understand why the Government was telling 96 firms in every 100 that it was legal to discriminate. It did not use that argument to exempt firms from tax, National Insurance, or health and safety regulations.

The Government majority later slipped to 13 as MPs on both sides argued for a much tougher body than the disability council to enforce the new rights. Tom Clarke, for Labour, said that without statutory powers, the Bill would have no teeth. But his party's proposal for a Disability Rights Commission was defeated by 299 votes to 286.

Alan Howarth, Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon, urged the Government to think again. Without a Commission or a strengthened disability council, "there will remain a hole in the heart of this legislation", he said.

But William Hague, the minister for disabled people, maintained the Bill would provide the assistance disabled people needed without setting up the "centralised, bureaucratic" policing body.

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