Votes reversing defeats inflicted in the Lords on Michael Howard's Criminal Justice Bill proceeded without any significant fall in the number of MPs reaching the lobbies. But gradually the 'Kill the Bill' demonstration beyond the gates frayed their nerves.
'This House is under siege,' Sir James Spicer, Conservative MP for Dorest West, protested. 'There are 2,000 police who could be going round protecting all their communities. Instead they are hemmed in by a bunch of thugs who are intent on causing disruption to the proceedings of this House.
'The time has come when this must not be allowed to happen under any circumstances,' Sir James said. Another Tory, Sir Michael Grylls, MP for Surrey NW, said the demonstration had prevented people leaving the nearby Norman Shaw Building where many MPs have offices.
But Deputy Speaker Michael Morris remained insouciant. 'It is my intention that this House should proceed normally,' he said, with a word of praise for MPs' 'ingenuity' in getting to votes.
Mr Howard began proceedings with a tacit admission that the private-sector jails he plans for 12- to 15-year-olds will not be viable unless the courts send them enough customers. Market economics, it seems, will take precedence over the flexibility of the courts in dealing with persistent child offenders.
By 298 votes to 272, the Government overturned an amendment which would have given the courts the choice of sending persistent young villains either to Mr Howard's 'secure training centres' or to local authority secure units.
Though dubbed 'child jails', the Home Secretary said the centres would be designed to address the problems of young offenders, providing education and training.
'These amendments would undermine our ability to respond specifically to that serious problem and would make the operation of the new provisions haphazard, inefficient and less effective.'
Intervening, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said Mr Howard was really saying that he needed to provide guaranteed numbers in order to encourage the private sector to bid to provide the centres. The Home Secretary as good as agreed, saying that if the Lords' amendments stood, his measures 'would be rendered unnecessarily expensive and wasteful of resources'.
In a classic Howardian peroration, he said Labour and the Liberal Democrats had 'scaled new heights of double-dealing'. They both abstained on Third Reading 'to avoid the public opprobrium they richly deserved' and had sought to wreck the detailed proposals at every stage.
'Labour in particular voted against giving the courts power to lock up persistent young offenders. These are young people who have been given every possible chance to reform and have refused. The public must be protected from them. Labour would leave the courts with no power whatever to do so. By their action on this part of the Bill they stand condemned as totally out of touch with public feeling and we shall make sure the public never forget it.'
Mr Howard seemed conveniently to have forgotten that it was not a Labour amendment he was reversing but one moved by the Conservative, Lord Carr of Hadley, a former Home Secretary.
Alun Michael, stand-in shadow Home Secretary since Tony Blair's elevation, said Mr Howard was creating 'colleges of crime'. The Lords had given the courts discretion to deal with youngsters. 'The Home Secretary is about taking discretion away from the courts. He doesn't trust the magistrates.'
For all his setbacks, Mr Howard will at least have got most of his original Bill on the statute book by early next month. Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, stands no chance with his Maximum Wage Bill to stop the bosses of private jails, and every other company head, paying themselves more than 20 times the average pay of their workers.
Introducing the Bill, Mr MacShane said it was not aimed at entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick, who only pays herself pounds 138,000. It was mainly aimed at people like the chief executive of British Steel who got 33 times the pay of a Rotherham steel worker.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content