Inside Parliament: High dudgeon turns to low farce

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Indy Politics
Amass walk-out by Scottish opposition MPs yesterday demonstrated once again that such Commons protests seldom have the impact of dignified high dudgeon that the instigators intend.

Parliamentary old hands among the Labour Scots must have known that however sincere their anger at the plans for the reorganisation of local government north of the border - accusations of 'gerrymandering' and 'corruption' were standard fare - the walk-out would not be watched in shocked silence.

Tory MPs jeered and waved bye-bye as Tom Clarke, the shadow Scottish secretary, led two score of his MPs out of the chamber. The Conservative Party may have only a handful of backbenchers with Scottish constituencies but the bawling laughter of just one of them, Raymond Robertson, MP for Aberdeen South, could have filled the ground of his city's football club.

Mr Clarke told Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, that he had betrayed Scotland's interests in a White Paper intended to create 'safe havens' for beleaguered Tory councillors. Opposition MPs were 'proceeding to Downing Street to ask for the resignation of this pathetic secretary of state'.

They did not wait to hear Mr Lang's reply. He told his still synthetically convulsed supporters that the Labour MPs were 'going to be disappointed. I suppose about 10 minutes from now they will reach Downing Street, but they will find the Prime Minister is not there.

'He is, as most of the rest of the country knows, still in Japan. But the messenger on the door, I am sure, will be happy to take a message.'

The White Paper reorganises Scotland's nine regional and 53 district councils into 25 single-tier authorities. The three island councils continue unchanged. Three water authorities will be created with a duty to maximise the involvement of the private sector.

Ray Michie, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute, told Mr Lang he had no right to introduce single-tier authorities without setting up a Scottish parliament 'to look after the affairs he now holds undemocratically in his hands'.

Andrew Welsh, for the Scottish Nationalists, accused Mr Lang of planning to 'steal Scotland's water through Tory quangos . . . This gerrymandered map is an insult to democracy, an affront to Scotland . . . and must be rejected'.

Mr Welsh, his two SNP colleagues and two Liberal Democrats then mounted the first walk-out, tossing their copies of the White Paper in front of Mr Lang as they went. 'Not only was that an own goal, it also leaves me with an open goal,' the Secretary of State said.

George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, described the new map as 'a kind of electoral cleansing, a desperate effort . . . to sweep together as many Tory voters as can possibly be found'.

But Mr Lang observed that 15 months ago Labour was talking about the Tory party being wiped out in Scotland. 'Now they think simply because we are reforming local government, we are suddenly going to sweep the country. The Tory party has always been a modest participant in local government in Scotland and to suggest we could possibly construct a scenario that would benefit us at the expense of other parties is preposterous.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, was certainly aware of the Prime Minister's whereabouts, basing a Question Time foray on John Major's warning in Tokyo of further 'unpopular but necessary steps' to rein in the social security budget.

Mr Smith said it was 'absolutely clear' from Mr Major's speech and the analysis of the welfare state issued yesterday by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, that the Government had 'embarked on a blatant attempt to soften up the public for cuts in public spending'.

Challenging Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons and Mr Major's stand-in, the Labour leader asked: 'Does Mr Newton not appreciate the justified anger of pensioners who have paid tax and insurance all their lives and who hear these threats to their pensions? It is monstrous that these people should be asked to pay the price of this Government's economic incompetence.'

Mr Newton said Mr Major had been making the point that all Western countries faced rising pressures on their welfare budgets. 'Few would argue that the current DSS budget of almost pounds 80bn is necessarily being spent in the best way possible.'

Noting that Mr Smith had already entered the debate by setting up Labour's social justice commission, Mr Newton added: 'What pensioners have is an absolute guarantee from this Government that we will maintain our commitment to uprate the basic retirement pension in line with prices.'

With a by-election coming up on 29 July in Christchurch where 34 per cent of the population are pensioners, it was a necessary point. The challengers in the Tory-held seat are the Liberal Democrats, but party leader Paddy Ashdown kept out of that fray yesterday, instead expressing impatience at the G7's ineffectual deliberations on Bosnia. 'Does the Government yet understand that typhus and cholera are shortly to be added to shells and bullets as the means by which the people of Sarajevo will be condemned to die?' he asked. 'Does the Leader of the House really believe more words, mere words, from the G7 in Tokyo will be sufficient to save them?'

All Mr Newton could do was to repeat the G7's words. It had reaffirmed Britain and other countries' commitment to the territoral integrity of Bosnia and made clear that any solutions dictated by the Serbs and Croats at the expense of the Muslims would be unacceptable. But Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South, told him: 'Reaffirmation by itself is a cruel hoax unless it is followed by action.'

(Photograph omitted)