Inside Parliament: Major tries to limit D-Day damage: Tory mirth at Smith's silence on jobs - Howard in upbeat mood on crime

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Indy Politics
If ever there was a day for damage limitation during Prime Minister's questions, it was yesterday. Even then, some of the terminology struck a jarring note.

John Major told Dame Jill Knight, Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, that after one had 'dealt with' the specific matter of commemorations on D-Day itself there would be millions of people who would give thanks in one form or another, in some form of thanksgiving ceremony, for the freedoms taken for granted today.

Dame Jill had not spoken in quite such unemotional or indeed limited terms - 'it is entirely appropriate that joy should be experienced', she said. Mr Major's prime concern was to 'set the record straight' in reply to the charge by John Smith, the Labour leader, that the Government had not properly consulted D- Day veterans and had got things 'badly wrong'.

First discussions occurred in 1993, Mr Major emphasised. 'The main focus of the programme will be in Portsmouth and Normandy over the weekend 4-6 June', he said as he sought to justify the 'civilian' aspect and the Government's wish to 'involve all generations, including children'.

Later seizing on an unemployment question from Robert Spink, the MP for Castle Point, Mr Major earned some relieved Tory mirth by declaring that Mr Smith had not raised the topic for some time, since shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had predicted that jobless figures would rise 'month after month after month'. But despite a plethora of indicators - inflation under 3 per cent, record exports and a stable exchange rate - Mr Major was only able to declare Britain 'poised' for a long period of sustained economic growth.

Evidently buoyed by this week's slight fall in crime figures, Home Office ministers appeared in more doughty mode during their question session. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, indicated he was in no mood for lectures as he took Labour's Tony Blair to task over crime prevention, complaining that a recent article by the shadow Home Secretary had failed to give the Government credit for helping to fund local schemes he had praised.

That prompted Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, to ask: 'Is the Home Secretary then prepared to withdraw his comment, made on 3 November last on the Today programme, that nobody knows how to prevent crime? And if he is prepared to do that, will he also proceed to increase the budget of his department on specific crime-prevention measures in local areas?'

Mr Howard retorted: 'Of course no one has found the complete answer to the prevention of crime. If the Honourable Gentleman has, then it's about time he let us know what he thought it was.'

The Home Secretary denounced, with satisfaction, Labour's decision to abstain officially on the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill. But it was left to a Tory MP, during exchanges about consultation over police force amalgamations, to highlight an equally pressing concern.

John Greenway, MP for Ryedale and a member of the Commons home affairs select committee, demanded - to no discernible affirmative response from the Home Office minister, Charles Wardle - a guarantee that amalgamations would deliver more officers on the beat. 'It's no good just offering to consult. We want more officers on our streets.'

Sir Ivan Lawrence, the right-wing MP for Burton and the committee's chairman, pursued a familiar theme as he said: 'If you remove the persistent hard core of offenders from the street then the crime wave will fall and prison will be seen to work.' But the Labour MP, Glenda Jackson, (Hampstead & Highgate) raised an altogether more subtle point as she called during business questions for a debate on television programmes that re-enact real-life crimes and 'help to feed and foster fear and perception of crime'. Discussions between the Government and broadcasters are likely next month.

No Prime Minister's questions would be complete these days without a reference to the Tory/Labour dispute about the proper measure of comparison of council tax levels. Yesterday, however, the Liberal Democrats' David Rendel, MP for Newbury, appeared to score a point. He asked Mr Major to confirm that his party believed that band-for-band was the best form of comparison and that (Liberal Democrat-controlled) Hampshire was the most efficient English county council.

Appearing to adopt the much-maligned approach recently employed by Jack Straw, shadow Environment Secretary, Mr Major replied that, from memory, he thought it had had one of the biggest council tax increases.

According to the Local Government Chronicle, however, the fact remains that the Band D tax for the county element (excluding district charges) is pounds 420.84, the lowest of the shire counties.

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