Inside Parliament: Defeats mark the end of a long, hot summer term: Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is savaged in the Lords - New backbencher has his Education Bill attacked before Assent

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Indy Politics
Weary MPs packed their bags and left Westminster last night after a Commons summer term which seemed to many to have dragged on too long in the sticky heat. Weeks after their counterparts in other European capitals had broken up, MPs were kept hanging on as the Government struggled to complete key legislation.

Peers eventually put paid to that aspiration, inflicting a series of defeats on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill which ministers will now have to respond to in the autumn spill-over session.

The penalty for their diligence on a series of major Bills is that the Lords will sit until next Tuesday and return to Westminster a week earlier than the Commons. MPs are back on 17 October.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had the consolation of seeing the other half of his package, the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act, get Royal Assent, though at a price of a U-turn relaxing his grip on police authorities and courts administration.

On John Patten's first day as a backbencher, his Education Bill also got Royal Assent. It too was taken apart in the Lords, notably over student unions, with Mr Patten having to retreat from promises to Tory conferences to smash an institution demonised as the last union 'closed shop'.

During the Bill's Second Reading, Mr Patten had joked about the pictures of his predecessors adorning his Department of Education offices. 'When eventually I leave the post, in a good number of years' time, I will have a sepia photograph,' he said.

Having, at his own request, vacated the chairmanship of the Conservative Party, Sir Norman Fowler was in the Commons at 9.30am to open his first debate as a backbencher for 20 years. He protested at the lack of school places in his Sutton Coldfield constituency. 'It gives no comfort to anyone to be told that children must travel miles out of their areas to find school places,' he said. The solution was to expand popular schools and build new ones.

The best attended of the backbench debates which traditionally fill the last day of term drew in six Tory Eurosceptics and one Labour sceptic, to deride Europe's Parliament, Commission and Court of Justice.

MEPs' narrow endorsement of Jacques Santer as president of the European Commission was announced to the House by Iain Duncan-Smith, Conservative MP for Chingford. 'It seems rather strange for us to be taken to the brink by a Parliament that is distant and not altogether welcomed by the people of this country, judging by their voting record in the European elections,' he said.

David Davis, new Minister of State at the Foreign Office, confessed to a sense of deja vu. He recalled that as a whip during the passage of the Maastricht treaty legislation he had 'many robust discussions' with the rebels, and looked forward to 'constructive' contact in the run up to the 1996 inter-governmental conference on the shape of the European Union.

Andrew Rowe, Tory MP for Mid Kent, dismissed his sceptic colleagues as 'Canutes, brushing the sand again against the incoming'. It was clear power would move gradually to Europe. 'Our reaction so far has been petulant and ineffective.'

Mr Rowe's main concern was about the Commons, which he said was just 'muddling along'. He recommended that Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, set up a commission to examine the future of the Commons and equip it for the 21st Century, lest it simply 'become a talking shop, with very little effect on how the executive does its business'. But for the next three months even the talking has stopped.

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