Inside Parliament: Epigone days confuse the House

Speaker seeks clarification over ILO qWaldegrave meets crate expectatio ns qMinister is sized up
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Speaker Betty Boothroyd yesterday ordered ministers to clear up growing confusion over Britain's continued membership of the International Labour Organisation.

Claims of "open warfare" between the Foreign Office and Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment, over whether to quit the ILO if it censures the Government for its ban on unions at GCHQ were strenously denied by Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons.

But when Labour pursued the issue with Miss Boothroyd, she agreed MPs may have been misled earlier this week when an apparent commitment to membership by Douglas Hogg, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, was subsequently undermined by a batch of written answers.

The answers by Mr Portillo, an ILO-sceptic, made no reference to membership, though Tony Lloyd, the Labour employment spokesman who raised the issue with the Speaker, acknowledged this may not have been the case with the draft replies Mr Hogg had relied on.

Miss Boothroyd was sure Mr Lloyd was not saying the House had been "deliberately misled" but took his point. Turning to the Government front bench, she said she hoped ministers would "take an earlier opportunity of clearing up this matter so we can all understand what the position is."

Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, had earlier called for a debate to enable MPs to express support for continued membership of the Geneva- based body.

"This week there has been open warfare between the Foreign Office seeking to safeguard our integrity as an ILO member and the Employment Secretary and his Gayfere Street epigone who are going to try and pull us out," Mr MacShane said during exchanges on Commons business.

Replying, Mr Newton said Mr Portillo and Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, were "in entire agreement that it is right that our membership of the ILO is carefully evaluated. But no decision has been taken to withdraw". Mr MacShane took comfort from the reply but the man he had called an "epigone" - a follower of lesser distinction - still wanted out.

Alan Duncan, Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton and resident of fashionable Gayfere St, Westminster, said the ILO had a budget of pounds 171m of which Britain contributed pounds 8m.

"Its only achievement seems to be as an international quango which allows trade unionists, at the taxpayers' expense, to go off on freebies supported by the Labour Party," Mr Duncan said. "It's high time we withdrew from this organisation."

Agriculture Questions seemed better attended than usual yesterday with MPs' curiosity extending beyond the price of fish and the nitrate content of lettuces to the nerve and demeanour of William Waldegrave, the minister fingered in the leak of the arms-to-Iraq report.

It was the Minister of Agriculture's first appearance at the despatch box since the disclosure on Tuesday that Lord Justice Scott's draft accuses him of giving MPs "untrue" information when a Foreign Office minister in the late 1980s.

Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, was the first to find a way of raising Mr Waldegrave's plight - in a question on legal opinion obtained by the RSPCA contradicting the Government line that a ban on the export of veal calves would be contrary to EU law.

The minister had had "a bit of rough time" recently, sympathised Mr Mullin. "One way of cleaning up his image a bit might be to be more open about the export of calves to countries that operate the odious veal crate system. Playing the game perfectly, Mr Waldegrave expressed his gratitude to Mr Mullin for his "solicitude" and moved on to dismiss his call for a unilateral ban on the export of calves destined for crates.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Dennis Skinner used exchanges on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, pointing out that a long-term review might not be in Mr Waldegrave's best interests. "If he wants to get anything done about the CAP and get his name in the history books, he'd better do it sharpish before he gets sacked."

"I'm very grateful again for the all-party support that is being offered to me," Mr Waldegrave replied, the general laughter marking a small test passed.

Agriculture Questions is a mine of little-known facts. The Fisheries minister, Michael Jack, discounting predictions of cod disappearing from the North Sea in five years, said there were "something like 500 million cod" there at the moment; MPs on both sides of the House were angry that British taxpayers are subsidising the rearing of bulls for Spanish bullfights; and it was revealed that becoming Food minister can be fattening.

Angela Browning admitted that her enthusiasm for the job had taken a toll. "I can confirm to the House that since I was appointed Minister of Food a year ago I have done my best to eat British food and I have gone up one dress size as a result."