Inside Parliament: Maastricht rebels reluctant to argue with umpire

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Indy Politics
Sir Russell Johnston, the veteran Liberal Democrat, says parliamentary debate about European Community affairs has become a 'sort of religious disputation in which nobody ever wins'. Yesterday, the Commons bore eloquent testimony to his belief.

With the Committee Stage of the Maastricht treaty Bill drawing to a conclusion - today's 23rd day is due to be the last - some of the protagonists turned on the man who has chaired the proceedings, the Deputy Speaker, Michael Morris.

In the first motion of its kind debated for over 20 years, Tony Benn, the former Labour Cabinet minister, challenged Mr Morris's judgement in refusing a key vote on the Government's opt-out from the Social Chapter. It was a 'profoundly mistaken ruling' which had 'the most serious implications for the rights of MPs and their constituents'.

The debate was taken by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, with Mr Morris returning to the chair after the motion was defeated and the committee on the European Community (Amendment) Bill resumed.

One thing blended with the next as Richard Shepherd, Conservative MP for Aldridge Brownhills, launched backbench demands for a referendum. Outside Parliament there was a 'drip, drip, drip that something ain't right about these arrangements', he claimed.

Mr Benn's motion, calling on Mr Morris to reconsider his decision not to allow a vote on amendment 27 though it had been debated at length, was signed by 80 MPs including at least three Tories.

For most of the 20-plus regular Tory rebels, the motion posed a dilemma since they did not want to be seen attacking the chair. It would be like arguing with the umpire. Mr Morris is respected by pro and anti-Maastricht MPs alike, and though as Chairman of Ways and Means he is impartial - as Mr Benn acknowledged - he is, after all, a Conservative.

The Labour front bench and the Liberal Democrats opposed the motion, though both had argued strongly for a vote on amendment 27 and Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, had said many people would feel the Commons had been 'cheated'.

Mr Benn said the ruling would damage public understanding of parliamentary procedures. 'I cannot explain to people outside who want the Social Chapter to apply in Britain, why one MP, the Chairman of Ways and Means, can say it (the amendment) was 'not workable or understandable'.'

Mr Morris's ruling was fiercely defended by Tony Newton, to whom, as Leader of the House, it must have been a profound relief. The central issue was simple and clear. 'It is the issue of the authority of the chair.' Mr Benn's intention was to cause delay.' The exercise of the chairman's discretion in respect of amendment 27 has been entirely in accordance with the practice of the House and his ruling has no long-term significance of the kind Mr Benn suggests.'

Mr Newton said Mr Morris had exercised his responsibilities 'with great diligence and with great courtesy. . . It is a job in which you cannot please anyone all of the time.'

Labour is pinning its hopes on winning a similar Social Chapter amendment during the Bill's report stage. But Margaret Beckett, its deputy leader, drew gasps of surprise when she reheated the allegation of 'cheating' with the aside: 'We know there's a majority in the House because otherwise we wouldn't be having all this difficulty.' Sir Russell offered his weary judgement on the sectarian nature of Euro-debates, based on two decades of attendance, but dismissed thoughts of 'collusion' between the Government and the chair.

Far more agitated was Sir Peter Emery, Conservative chairman of the Commons Procedure Committee, who claimed that if the motion was passed, Mr Morris 'being a man of honour', would have no alternative but to resign. Mr Benn pointed out that judges did not resign when their decisions were overturned on appeal, but Sir Peter snapped back: 'You may not understand what honour is all about. . .'

Honour, or rather 'honours' had already excited the House during questions to trade and industry ministers when Neil Hamilton, an Under-Secretary, turned down a call from Labour's David Winnick for legislation to compel companies to ballot shareholders before contributing to political parties.

Mr Winnick railed against the 'sheer hypocrisy' of the Tory party, but Mr Hamilton said it was very easy for a shareholder who was dissatisfied to sell his shares. 'It is not quite so easy to change their union.'

Derek Fatchett, a Labour trade and industry spokesman, referred him to a Sunday Times survey which 'showed that of those companies that donated to the Conservative Party, their chairmen had a 50 per cent better chance of receiving a knighthood. It is about time shareholders had real rights and they were consulted before companies donate to the Tory party - a party which has done so much damage to the prospects of Britain's manufacturing industry.'

The source of Tory funds is a taboo subject and Mr Hamilton had every intention of being as forthcoming as a Lichtenstein banker. But Mr Fatchett had provided a perfect escape route. 'I can remember a time when not so long ago it was a hanging offence in the Labour Party to read the Murdoch press,' the minister replied. 'I'm glad to see the Labour Party has changed in some respects.'

(Photograph omitted)