Inside Parliament: A question what to ask: Speaker keeps MPs on course - 'Scandal' of unpaid compensation for crimes

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Indy Politics
Balancing good humour with rebuke, Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, yesterday stepped up her personal campaign to refocus Question Time on its proper purpose of 'seeking information on government policy and pressing for action'.

A week ago, with John Major at the despatch box, Miss Boothroyd pointed out to one Tory backbencher intent on ridiculing Labour tax policy, that it was the Executive's job to answer questions, not the Opposition's.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, either was not present or is keener to curry favour with the Government whips than with Madam Speaker. Yesterday he asked Tony Newton, deputising for the Prime Minister, if he recalled 'whether at any time over the last 15 years any front-bench spokesman for the Opposition has condemned any public strike'?

Intervening, Miss Boothroyd said she had given 'a little homily' on this sort of thing only a few days earlier. 'I think I am going to have to ask the whips' office to have weekend seminars in order to instruct members what Question Time is all about.'

Mr Clifton-Brown hacked his way through a slightly amended version of his question and Mr Newton, Leader of the Commons, managed a swipe at Margaret Beckett in his reply. The acting Labour leader is in Corfu, at 'some kind of fringe meeting', in Mr Newton's words, while the Prime Minister is there attending the European Union summit.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock, asked a model question by Miss Boothroyd's standards, and drew widespread support from the Conservative benches.

Criminals ordered to compensate their victims were refusing to pay in something like two-thirds of cases, Mr Mackinlay said, picking up a 'scandal' reported by local victim support units. Though important to the victims, the sums involved are relatively small ones.

'Isn't it time the Government was no longer mealy- mouthed about this, but took action to ensure the victims get compensation from the courts and the courts pursue the criminal?'

Mr Newton's briefing notes did not cover this, so with Tory MPs in vocal agreement with Mr Mackinlay, he gave the only appropriate answer: The Home Secretary would be asked to examine the matter and respond.

Government plans for the National Health Service were the chosen battleground of Labour's Nick Brown as he emerged from the obscurity of Commons affairs and late-night Treasury matters to Question Time stardom.

Mr Brown appeared as the deputy's deputy, standing in for Mrs Beckett who has been fronting for Labour in the twice-weekly joust since John Smith's death. Rising to cheers from both sides of the chamber, he asked if it could really be that with 1 million people on NHS waiting lists, the 'vision for the future' from Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, was to get rid of 50,000 hospital beds: 'Wouldn't it be better to get rid of the waiting lists?' The cuts were driven by the Government's failure to properly manage the public finances, he said.

Mr Newton said NHS hospitals now treated 121 patients for every 100 treated before. 'These changes are driven by the Government's determination to get more patients treated more effectively with shorter waiting times.'

But Mr Brown, taking up the leader's customary three Question Time shots, said that would not do. The cuts in services followed massive tax increases. 'Why is it in Tory Britain we have to pay a lot more to get a lot less?'

Mrs Bottomley predicted on Wednesday that the loss of beds could follow from advances in medicine.

An identity problem during an attempt to introduce a Bill for a national identity card scheme resulted in John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, who opposed the measure, being wrongly described as John Heppell, Labour MP for Nottingham East, in this column yesterday. Mr Heppell's name had appeared on the Commons annunciator. Apologies to both.