Inside Parliament: Loyalties of mutineers' descendants questioned: Pitcairn query alarms viscount - Tebbit renews Brussels assault - Labour argues for right to a rest day

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Indy Politics
A government minister confessed yesterday that he was cut to his 'chauvinistic heart' at a suggestion that the Pitcairn islanders - descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers - are toying with the idea of transferring their allegiance from Britain to France.

Viscount Cranborne, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, said he was 'horrified'. The idyllic South Pacific refuge of Fletcher Christian and the crew who rebelled against Captain Bligh in the 18th century is Britain's most far-flung colony.

But the islanders - all 55 of them - have reportedly been less than impressed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's stewardship in recent times and have compared it unfavourably with that of France, another South Seas power.

Raising the issue during a Lords debate on the UK's dependent territories, Baroness Blackstone, for Labour, painted a doleful picture of the Pitcairn's twin-track economy - postage stamps and curios for tourists. Unfortunately fewer ships are dropping anchor at Pitcairn - only 1,400 miles from Tahiti - and philately is getting them nowhere.

Lady Blackstone said the last time the governor - the somewhat-distant High Commissioner for New Zealand - called, he was presented with a petition raising the possibility of a transfer of allegiance to France. What did the minister know of this?

Clearly not much. A minion was sent with a request to the corner bench where civil servants sit in readiness with sheafs of documents. But maybe not the Pitcairn mutiny file. An official scuttled out of the chamber.

By the time Lord Cranborne had toured the red dots on the globe in his reply to the debate - with assurances that the Falklands and Gibraltar will remain British as long as their peoples wish - a denial had been received.

'We are not aware of any request by the residents of Pitcairn to transfer to France,' the minister said. 'No such request was received by the governor on his last visit. I am wholly confident that such a request will not be presented to him on the next one.' It sounded as if a ship bearing more than the usual barrels of fuel oil was about to set sail.

Before setting off for Bermuda, Pitcairn, St Helena and the Turks and Caicos islands, peers visited Brussels in the company of the Europhobic Lord Tebbit. Following up Monday's speech to the Bruges Group, when he attacked the 'wicked and corrupting' Common Agricultural Policy, the former Tory party chairman suggested ministers believed taxpayers got better value from Brussels commissioners than they did from the Government itself.

Lord Tebbit was taking issue with Lord Henley, a junior minister, who said at Question Time that though CAP expenditure was too high, all agreed that Britain got considerable benefit from EU membership. 'It is important we pay our fair share.'

But Lord Tebbit said: 'The policy of the Government appears to be to hold down spending at home, but to allow substantial increases of spending of British taxpayers' money through Brussels.'

The Commons kept their feet firmly in the native clay, dealing with protection for shopworkers under the Sunday Trading Bill - which will allow small shops to open all day on the Sabbath but 'restrict' large stores to six hours. In a series of committee stage votes, Labour sought to ensure double payments for Sunday working - defeated by 299 votes to 269 - and extend rights on not working on Sunday to job seekers - defeated by 302 to 274.

Joan Ruddock, a Labour home affairs spokeswoman, said the majority of workers would not choose to work on Sunday. 'It is only fair that those who forgo the vital opportunity for sharing with friends and families the social pursuits of Sunday should get double-time payments.'

But Peter Lloyd, Minister of State at the Home Office, said double payments would eventually lessen the number of shops opening on Sunday, denying customers a greater choice. 'Some large retailers would be able to pay it, but often small shop owners will not be able to do so.'

John Hutton, Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, said without protection for jobseekers - barring employers from telling applicants they would have to work Sundays - an applicant might be encouraged to lie, saying he would work Sundays to get the job. If he later refused, he could be sacked and would have no case at an industrial tribunal.

Signalling rebellion, Dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman, Tory MP for Lancaster, said: 'All those who value family life and the principle of Sunday should vote for this amendment, and I will most emphatically do so.'

Mr Lloyd, however, considered it unreasonable and impractical to oblige an employer to recruit someone knowing they were not willing to do the job or at least part of it. 'It would mean the employer would have to choose between his duty to his business . . . and trying to obey the letter of the law.'

If current practice on Sunday is any guide, the law would be the loser.