Inside Parliament: Major exercises very considerable caution: Prime Minister refuses to extend commitment to Bosnia - Labour questions Brandreth loan - Straw says Westminster council auditor was 'bullied'

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Indy Politics
John Major yesterday refused to extend the commitment of British troops to help with humanitarian aid in Bosnia. Reporting to the Commons on the Nato summit, the Prime Minister parried repeated demands for air strikes, maintaining he had the political will to order an attack if commanders near at hand deemed it wise.

Displaying his customary contempt for the interventionist approach of Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, and agreeing with Tory backbenchers who urged caution, Mr Major said it was easy to say 'all you have to do is unleash an aircraft or two and all is well'.

'It may well not be a wise policy. It may be necessary at some stage, but it is a policy that should be entered into with very considerable caution.'

The 16 Nato leaders reaffirmed a readiness to carry out air strikes to prevent the strangulation of Sarajevo. They threatened force to break the Serb siege of Srebrenica - so that a contingent of Dutch troops can relieve the Canadians - and to open Tuzla airport for aid flights.

Mr Major made plain a growing impatience with the warring factions. Co-operation with Serb, Croat and Muslim commanders on the ground was 'very patchy indeed', he said. 'There is great frustration building up amongst governments, particularly who have troops on the ground, at what does seem to be a complete double standard, with the participants saying they want peace in Geneva and acting in a fashion which denies every single word they utter in the peace negotiations.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, said it was 'intolerable' that a defenceless population in Sarajevo should be shelled so relentlessly. 'Repeated declarations which are not followed through risk undermining the credibility of Nato and the UN operation and strengthen the hands of the those who have become adept at defying the wishes of the international community.'

Mr Smith urged the Prime Minister to put an end to suggestions that British forces might be withdrawn from Bosnia when the winter was over. 'Don't we need a commitment to increase ground forces, as requested by the UN to make a greater effort to bring some peace to Bosnia?'

But Mr Major replied: 'We have committed ourselves to assist with humanitarian aid. I have to say that is not a commitment I am at this stage prepared to extend until I am certain of the security of the British troops working for the UN there.'

Mr Ashdown said the Prime Minsiter had been warned on many occasions that the 'bottom-line credibility' of the UN was at risk on Bosnia and cited President Clinton's words: 'If we cannot show the determination to deliver our promises, then don't make promises.'

Biting back, Mr Major said that unlike Mr Ashdown, he had been careful about making promises. He has shifted and manoeuvered through this whole operation from everything to all-out war to apparently pulling out immediately.' Labour MP Andrew Faulds, decried the 'mumblings and bumblings' of Douglas Hurd and other EU foreign ministers and asked if Mr Major personally had the will to take military action.

'Yes, every head of government had the will,' the Prime Minister replied. 'What we need to be sure of is that it is wise to do so.' Practical decisions on air strikes were best made not by politicians but by commanders near at hand - and on the sanction of the UN secretary general.

The statement was Mr Major's first Commons appearance of 1994, but the issues of Bosnia and how to respond to the new democracies of eastern Europe knocking on Nato's door offered no scope for MPs to pursue him over 'back to basics'.

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, had tried during Industry Questions, to raise the Treasury scrubbing of a pounds 200,000 debt owed by Unicorn Heritage Plc, run by Gyles Brandreth, Tory MP for Chester and a parliamentary aide to a Treasury minister.

Mr Flynn warned the corporate affairs minister, Neil Hamilton, to beware of the danger of supporting any business that sought to build on the popularity of the Royal Family - as Unicorn had done. 'Keep in mind the failure of that enterprise and the loss of pounds 7m, including a loss of pounds 200,000 of taxpayers' money.'

But Mr Hamilton feigned ignorance and brushed the question aside. 'I don't know if it was clear to my honourable friends what Mr Flynn was rambling on about, but it wasn't to me.'

There was no room for doubt as Jack Straw, Labour's local government spokesman, later set about the decision by the District Auditor to withhold his report into allegations of gerrymandering by Westminster council. Mr Straw said he understood it was a consequence of 'constant bullying' of the auditor by lawyers acting for Dame Shirley Porter, a former Tory leader of the council. Then, as the Non-Domestic Rating Bill was given a Second Reading, Mr Straw turned from city hall to fashionable Gayfere Street, Westminster, and stoked the row over the council house bought there by Alan Duncan, a ministerial aide until the deal was disclosed.

The House of Lords has traditionally been less shy of moral issues and the Earl of Halsbury, a fundamentalist friend of Mary Whitehouse, was certainly getting back to basics when he opened a debate thus: 'Man, in a state of nature, untaught, undisciplined, has two characteristics which in principle debar him from ever becoming civilised - violence and sexual promiscuity.'

Rendering sensitive expressions into Latin, Lord Halsbury attacked pornography and violence on television and video, suggesting that unchecked it could lead to a collapse of civilisation.

'The nuclear family and its indoctrination of children in pacific behaviour, good manners and tolerance are civilisation's only defence against collapse,' he said. 'Children cannot learn the 3Rs at school unless the home has prepared them for obedience and attention to teachers.

'The nuclear family employs an embargo on sexual promiscuity. This is in some senses a sacrifice.' Although fewer than 100 per cent were prepared to make it, a sufficient number were 'so disposed as to stabilise the system'. But he sensed society might be at a parting of the ways 'where one regime could pass to another'.

Peers objected to being turned into 'voyeurs' by television and to the way in which it could 'play heavily on the feelings of the young and the vulnerable', but were inconsistent on how levels of screen violence and sex could be curbed.

Lord Barnett, a former vice-chairman of the BBC, hoped nobody would propose censorship. But with no apparent regard for the beam in Parliament's own eye it seemed that would go down quite nicely with some of their lordships.

One noble exception was the Tory Earl of Stockton, grandson of Harold Macmillan, who said television should 'not be made the scapegoat for our unease about any malaise in our society. We have the TV programmes we want - I trust we do not get the ones were deserve.'