Inside Parliament: Labour's railway guerrillas investigated

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Indy Politics
The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is to conduct an inquiry into events in the House of Commons late on Wednesday night as Labour MPs resorted to guerrilla tactics to delay the Railways Bill.

'I happen to think there was disgraceful behaviour on the part of many members in the House . . . in an attempt to disrupt our procedures,' Miss Boothroyd said.

The privatisation Bill itself, meanwhile, was returned from the House of Lords, peers having bowed to the Government's will and not insisted for a third time on their amendments to give British Rail greater freedom to bid to run train services.

Lord Peyton, the former Conservative transport minister who had led the revolt, said it would be 'unwise' to persist. 'We would be moving the argument to an altogether different level,' he told peers, suggesting a threat to their continued existence.

'Instead of merely talking about what was likely to be good or bad for our railway system, we would be talking about other matters and we might well be embarking on a discussion process to which we would not find it easy to put a full stop.'

Lord Tordoff, the Liberal whip, seemed intent on pressing one of the three amendments returned by the Commons. It would have enabled BR to run services providing it appeared its costs would be significantly cheaper than those of would-be private operators.

No reason had been given by the Commons for refusing the amendment, which was 'simply to save the taxpayer the possibility of wasteful expenditure' Lord Tordoff said. But after less than an hour's debate, he relented and withdrew it. However many amendments peers made they could not improve the Bill all that much, he lamented. 'It is a ghastly Bill and it will bring disaster in its train.'

The Earl of Caithness, Minister of State for Transport, maintained the amendment would hit competition for franchises. 'At the point of inviting bids, the Franchising Director could only have a very hazy picture of private sector versus BR's costs for the services in question.'

It made sense to consider the relative cost of awarding franchises, but not at the point of inviting tenders as proposed.

Unable to resist the railway metaphor, Lord Caithness concluded: 'The delayed 11 o'clock from last night has now arrived at the station. I invite your lordships to climb aboard.'

At least they did not block the track, though Earl Russell, a Liberal Democrat, suggested that that would have been the more honourable course. He agreed that the Lords walked a tightrope on constitutional issues, but said there were two sides on which one could fall.

'We may show too little respect, but if we show too much we do not justify our existence,' Lord Russell said. He offered a 300-year-old quotation from the first Earl of Shaftesbury: 'My lords, if you grow useless, you will soon grow burdensome.'

Acquiescence by the Lords meant the Bill did not go before the Commons again and will have Royal Assent by the time Parliament prorogues today. But the legislation and the shenanigans of the night before were still uppermost in the minds of many MPs.

Stephen Milligan, Tory member for Eastleigh, complained during Prime Minister's Questions that Labour's 'lavatorial antics' had distracted attention from the real issues the House should have been considering, in particular the future of the BR pension fund.

'It is not surprising football hooliganism is so prevalent in this country when the Labour benches set a role model as they did in the debate last night,' Mr Milligan said.

To mounting protests from the same benches, Mr Major replied: 'I think there were some unusual scenes last night, but perhaps best not to dwell on that too carefully - not least because I would wish to spare the embarrassment of the Opposition chief whip and his colleagues.' The Government had secured comfortable majorities of more than 40 in a series of divisions.

The Prime Minister stepped on the outrage pedal when Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, pursued the matter, asking how the Government had got itself into such a 'shambolic mess' when there were non-sitting days next week and one after which could have been used for the Bill.

Mr Major snapped back: 'I don't know where Mr Barron was last night because he clearly wasn't in the real world in here.' He said John Smith, the Labour leader, spoke 'fine words' about the need to improve standards in public life. 'Yet he let some of his colleagues below the gangway behave in a way that is a disgrace to Parliament.'

Miss Boothroyd announced her own inquiry in response to a request by Sir Giles Shaw, Conservative MP for Pudsey. One was needed, he said, 'in view of the scale of the problem and the possibility that tellers switched, votes were spuriously challenged, and there was some difficulty for the Serjeant at Arms obtaining access to the lobbies'.

Promising to begin her investigation as soon as she left the chair, Miss Boothroyd stamped firmly on attempts to prolong the controversy with further points of order. 'I am not seeking to have an inquest at this stage across the floor.'

After the longest parliamentary session for 26 years - it began in May 1992 after the general election - it is perhaps not surprising that MPs, and government whips in particular, are feeling a bit ragged. Not only is there the strain of a fragile 17-vote majority, but the hothouse atmosphere is literally that, as Tony Marlow, MP for Northampton North, pointed out. Appealing to Miss Boothroyd to do something about the ventilation, he said the whole Palace of Westminster was 'hot, sweaty, stuffy, stinking and insufferable'. But like the rest of them, he will be back on 18 November.

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