Inside Parliament: Bottomley backs defiance of the feminists: Branson urges greater competition between Radio 1 and Virgin station - Private member's births and deaths Bill aims a blow at bureaucracy

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Indy Politics
Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, yesterday gave full backing to her junior minister, Tom Sackville, over his criticism of feminists for encouraging women to have children outside marriage.

'Children need mothers as well as fathers,' Mrs Bottomley told the Commons, though in the context of the debate on single mothers and the Government's desire to cut the pounds 6bn lone parent budget, she probably meant it the other way round.

Raising the issue at Question Time, David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, asked: 'Given the Secretary of State's special understanding of the feelings and emotions of unmarried mothers, would she denounce as insensitive and hypocritical, the comments made by Mr Sackville?' He accused the Government of cutting family planning resources, reducing school health services and failing to tackle teenage pregnancies.

Mrs Bottomley said she was 'a little surprised' by Mr Blunkett's approach. 'I believe very strongly indeed that children need families.' Mr Sackville had been 'pointing out that rabid ideas of feminism are not the best approach to bringing up children.' She congratulated Mr Sackville for talking about the importance of sex education in schools and the need for children 'to be prepared for the world in which we live'. He favours the installation of contraceptive machines in sixth form colleges and universities.

The main Commons business was the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, which allocates six more Strasbourg seats to Britain. Only the Scots have got excited about it, as on population numbers they do not qualify for more MEPs.

Earlier, MPs on the National Heritage select committee were urged by Richard Branson, head of the Virgin empire, to press the Government to allow more competition against BBC Radio 1. Mr Branson said his radio station, Virgin 1215, specialising in pop albums for a 20-45 age group, was limited to the AM waveband, but he wanted to expand the audience to more than 10 million listeners by being allowed access to the FM band.

John Gorst, Tory MP for Hendon North, compared it to attempts by ITV broadcasters to change the timing of News At Ten. It was 'foot-in- the-door broadcasting; you get your licence then seek to change it . . .'

Mr Branson said the FM waveband could be offered to independent broadcasters by taking it from Radio 4. Another option would be to create a new FM frequency by improving reception with dishes for small communities, such as 1,600 homes in Caterham.

But there was little enthusiasm for the idea around the committee. Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, told Mr Branson: 'There is more money in pushing your records than in boring old farts talking about Maastricht on Radio 4.' Mr Branson replied: 'I like Radio 4. Maybe I am coming into the category of boring old fart.'

Any MP introducing a Births and Deaths Registration (Amendment) Bill who was also three-times holder of the world's longest after- dinner speech (longest 12 hours 30 minutes) might be reckoned to be firmly in the said category. But Gyles Brandreth, Conservative MP for Chester, introduced his private member's Bill with the light touch of the professional humorist that he was.

'You might have thought that a death could be registered with any recognised registrar,' Mr Brandreth began. 'Not so, as I discovered from an elderly constituent of mine, a lady in her seventies living in Chester, whose 95-year old mother died in a nursing home in Kent.' She was obliged to travel hundreds of miles at a time of great personal sadness to complete a bureaucratic formality. Mr Brandreth's Bill would enable a death to be registered anywhere in England and Wales, not simply in the district where it occurred. Commending it as a modest measure from someone who believed in less bureaucracy, Mr Brandreth said that having only been an MP for 15 months, he liked to think he was 'still loosely in touch with reality'.

'Unjust as it may seem to us here, there are some in the real world who look on our proceedings with a mixture of scorn and incredulity. They partially understand our role in the constituency, as that odd amalgam of Citizens' Advice Bureau, untrained Relate counsellor, housing officer, doormat, punchbag and inveterate function attender with an insatiable appetite for finger food and raffle tickets.

'But to many of them our purpose at Westminster seems less clear. This weekend one of my constituents said to me, 'What do you MPs do?' Before I had a chance to offer a dignified reply he went on, 'Whatever it is, I wish you'd do less of it'.'