Inside Parliament: Hurd defends contacts with neo-fascists: Foreign Secretary angered by attacks from Labour - MP's Bill to remove hereditary peers from Lords

Douglas Hurd's legendary sang-froid deserted him temporarily yesterday as he defended his contacts with neo-fascists in the new Italian coalition government. The five ministers from the fascist-led National Alliance were democratically elected, the Foreign Secretary told the Commons - only to be reminded that so were Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.

Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, declared Labour wanted 'nothing to do with neo-fascists', Italian or otherwise, while his backbench colleague Greville Janner, a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, voiced concern at resurgence of fascism not just in Italy but many parts of Europe.

The National Alliance, part of the right- wing coalition formed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, has been the target of repeated protests by Labour MPs. But yesterday's Question Time exchanges were particularly heated and Mr Cunningham's refusal to work with ministers in another European Union government raised eyebrows. Mr Hurd's sensitivity on the issue may have been heightened by the imminent visit to London of the Italian foreign minister Antonio Martino - not one of the neo-fascists, only a Thatcherite.

Opening the exchanges, the Foreign Secretary said relations with the new government were 'excellent' and agreed with Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton, that it showed every sign of being a strong ally in the 'crusade' to fashion an EU that was not a superstate but a family of independent nations trading and working together.

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, saw it differently. 'What has happened in Italy makes a mockery of all the efforts by allied troops to liberate Rome 50 years ago this month. Instead of appeasing these fascists why doesn't the Foreign Secretary see that so many people in this country, the large majority, view with disgust that such fascist swine are now included in the Italian government.'

Mr Hurd dismissed that as 'patronising and offensive nonsense'. The ministers had been democratically elected and properly appointed. 'We believe it is right having looked at the individuals, at the programme on which they were elected, the posts they occupy, to co-operate in a friendly way with the new democratic Italian government, as with the last, and I am ashamed of Mr Winnick's intervention.'

The Foreign Secretary wondered at the attitude of the Labour front bench, and Mr Cunningham responded with vigour. 'We want nothing to do with neo-fascists, whether they are in Italy or whether they are the neo-fascists of France who are the the only supporters of Mr Hurd's opposition to the Social Chapter. I hope Mr Hurd feels comfortable in the company of neo- fascists. We certainly do not.' The Foreign Secretary said that before Mr Cunningham went 'further down the foolish path' of his backbenchers he should look at what the National Alliance stood for.

Later George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, returned to the issue, saying that while the fascists in Italy were democratically elected so were 'Signor Mussolini and Herr Hitler before them.

'Can the Government not see at least some sense of unease in this country when we celebrate the anniversaries that we are currently celebrating, that British men left their bones in the soil of Europe liberating this continent from fascism, and fascism is back in the elected government of Italy?'

But as Foreign Office minister David Heathcoat-Amory pointed out: 'The honourable gentleman's record of support for non-elected dictators is not altogether an honourable one.' The last time Mr Galloway was in the limelight he was on Iraqi TV ostensibly praising Saddam Hussein.

Mr Heathcoat-Amory said the new ministers had made clear their support for the 1948 Italian constitution. It was precisely because he was assured about its democratic credentials and aims that Mr Hurd had met the new Italian government.

If democracy, like charity, should be begin at home, then Bruce Grocott's Hereditary Peers (Democratic Rights) Bill, introduced yesterday under the 10-minute rule procedure, should sail through.

Mr Grocott, Labour MP for The Wrekin, said the Bill would enable hereditary peers to vote and stand in Westminster elections while removing their right to sit in the House of Lords. Of its 1,200 members, 759 were there simply 'because they were born in the right bed at the right time'.

He went on: 'The House of Lords has the most bizarre and indefensible composition of any parliamentary chamber in any country in the world.' For example, four of the dukes - Buccleuch, Grafton, Richmond and St Albans - were descendants of Charles II's mistresses.

'I have absolutely nothing against Charles II's mistresses nor their descendants, but I can't for the life of me see why they should inherit the right to legislate.'

The Bill is doomed, not least because of the 364 hereditary peers actually listed as supporting a political party, 12 are Labour, 24 Liberal Democrat and 328 Conservative. Of the 759, some 70 per cent attended fewer than 5 per cent of sittings and 44 per cent - 333 peers - did not attend at all. Yet on crucial votes, such as that carrying the poll tax, the Conservatives had been saved by their hereditary supporters.

By coincidence, along the parliamentary corridor one of the descendants of Charles II's mistresses was exercising his rights - the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury was speaking out for the red squirrel as peers of all parties lamented its threatened extinction in competition with its grey cousin.

The Duke, a Conservative and landowner, suggested the use of 'some form of birth control substance' in areas frequented by grey squirrels but inaccessible to reds. Had such 'substances' been around in Charles II's time part of Bruce Grocott's case against hereditary Lords might have evaporated.

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