It was the last Environment Questions before the local government elections on 6 May, and ministers and the Opposition had come armed with sheaves of statistics. Labour MPs believed they could prove it was cheaper to live in an area controlled by their party, while ministers had copious evidence that Labour councils cost more.
Roland Boyes, Labour MP for Houghton and Washington, recalled that John Major had 'boasted' that council tax bills in Labour areas would be pounds 100 higher than in Tory areas. But a 'further working of the figures' had established that bills in Labour areas would be pounds 14 less than in Tory ones, he said. In Labour-controlled Sunderland, the average was pounds 376 - pounds 65 lower than in Folkestone, the constituency of Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment.
'Absolute poppycock,' shouted Conservative backbenchers. John Redwood, Minister for Local Government, said that on average Labour bills were pounds 107 more for every band C tax. He suggested Mr Boyes compare Sunderland with Mole Valley in Surrey. Sunderland had a band C tax of pounds 534 and Mole Valley one of pounds 461. 'Labour gets more grant and imposes higher taxes.'
Jack Straw, Labour's local government spokesman, repeated his colleague's ' pounds 14 less' figure. He said the Institute for Fiscal Studies had blown apart Mr Redwood's use of band C for comparisons and quoted the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy as saying: 'What will exercise people most is the bill they get through the door'.
Labour councils provided 'far better services' than Tory ones, and in Labour counties rises in crime and unemployment had been less, Mr Straw said. 'In Labour counties the price of meals on wheels is about 50 per cent less than in Tory counties, and . . . you have three times the chance of nursery education.'
The exchanges ended in pantomime style as Mr Redwood listed the 10 local authorities with the highest level of council tax - topped by Harlow with a band C tax of pounds 878 - and Tory backbenchers chanted 'Labour' after each. Labour backbenchers appeared less well drilled when Mr Straw countered with a string of 'expensive' Tory councils.
Mr Howard remained on the sidelines for the electioneering. His most selfless Question Time contribution was to hope for a visit to Cleethorpes. The town's Conservative MP, Michael Brown, wanted its bathing beach brought up to EC standards, but Clare Short, a Labour environment spokeswoman, told the Secretary of State: 'It isn't so much whether he is willing to visit Cleethorpes, but whether he is willing to swim in Cleethorpes . . . He might be swimming in sewage.'
Big numbers were being bandied about again as the Government's National Lottery Bill completed its remaining stages. The measure now goes to the House of Lords. Supporters of a lottery believe it could raise pounds 2bn- pounds 3bn a year, with weekly pounds 1m jackpots and 30 per cent of the takings going to the arts, sport, heritage projects and historic buildings, but there are fears of thousands of job losses in football pools companies.
Peter Lloyd, Minister of State at the Home Office, announced that the Bill would be amended in the Lords to allow pools companies to 'roll-up' prize money in the same limited way as the lottery. Lottery money will be 'rolled-up' when no winning ticket is drawn, but Mr Lloyd envisaged this would be rare, possibly only once or twice a year.
Tom Pendry, a Labour heritage spokesman, suggested some lottery cash should be targeted on low-
income groups through access programmes to the arts and sport. Research showed the skilled working-
class and the unemployed spent more on tickets than did the middle class.
While the Commons was arguing over figures, in the Defence Select Committee the former Tory law officer Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who accounts himself a poet and author, was quarrelling over words.
Told by a senior civil servant that the Royal Navy retired ships 'as appropriate', Sir Nicholas demanded: 'What do you mean by 'appropriate'? As a man of letters I should like to know what it means. Does it mean when they fall to bits or when the Navy can no longer afford them?'
'Appropriate can mean a number of things, I'm afraid,' confessed Roger Jackling, Deputy Under Secretary (Resources, Programmes and Finance). He settled on 'convenient'.
When Rear-Admiral Peter Abbott explained there was a problem with 'gapping', the man of letters exploded again: 'Gapping'? Sorry sir, it doesn't appear in any dictionary.' The Admiral explained it was naval jargon. When a ship did not have its full complement of crew members there were 'gaps'.
Evidence to the committee does not suggest any 'gapping' among the men with scrambled egg on their hats. The Navy has no less than 42 admirals of various grades.
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