Inside Parliament: MPs fixated by prospect of a Maastricht defeat

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Indy Politics
The ruling by Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the Commons, opening the way to a potentially lethal vote on the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty, eclipsed all other business in the House yesterday.

Though health ministers tried hard at Question Time to win votes in the Newbury by-election and county council elections, and John Major reaffirmed his faith in pupil testing, MPs were fixated by the prospect of the Government being defeated, or forced to retreat, over the social chapter opt-out - paraded by Mr Major as one of his central achievements at Maastricht.

Even Dame Janet Fookes, a usually unemotional deputy speaker, seemed to be wishing the intervening hours away. As the report stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill got under way, she told George Robertson, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, that his speech was 'not only irrelevant but tediously repetitious'.

Mr Robertson was arguing about the composition of the Committee of the Regions which will advise on the distribution of EC aid, but he too was far more interested in Miss Boothroyd's ruling than in her deputy's rebuke.

The ruling opened the possibility of a vote on an amendment signed by John Smith, Paddy Ashdown and minor party leaders, which would remove the Protocol on Social Policy from the scope of the Bill. The protocol embodies the agreement by the other 11 EC states on the social chapter, guaranteeing minimum rights at work, and Britain's opt-out.

Mr Ashdown, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, challenged Mr Major on the issue at Question Time, asking if he would refuse to ratify the treaty if the Commons voted to end the opt-out. The Prime Minister said it was a 'hypothetical question' but during other exchanges he warned that the social chapter would 'keep people unemployed for a long time'.

John Smith again focused on the Government's dispute with the teacher unions over tests for 7- and 14-year-olds under the national curriculum. There was now 'overwhelming opposition' from parents, teachers, governors and experts to the Government insistence on imposing the tests on schools, the Labour leader said. 'Why does the Prime Minister not for once admit that he is wrong, do the sensible thing and withdraw the tests for this year?'

Mr Major said it was important to proceed, not least so that Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the curriculum and testing authorities, could draw on the experience and improve the tests. Mr Smith had called on many occasions for the workforce to be better trained, he added. 'Why does he consistently oppose measures that are designed to bring this about?'

Mr Smith accused the Government of going 'well beyond the limits of reason and commonsense' to impose the tests on schools, and he asked why private schools, 'to which so many of the Government send their children', were exempt.

'We have a direct responsibility for making sure in the public sector that pupils are taught properly and well,' the Prime Minister replied.

'The tests, for example, of sevenyear-olds have been successful. They have been good for pupils, good for teachers, good for schools. Mr Smith would join forces with those who want industrial militancy to end the tests irrespective of what he has said in the past about having a well- trained workforce - words only from Mr Smith that he will not back up with action when necessary.'

Mr Major was caught much more unprepared by John McWilliam, Labour MP for Blaydon, who simply asked: 'Will the Prime Minister tell the House if he is aware of any group of teachers who have said they will not either teach or assess their pupils?' After a pause, Mr Major replied: 'I that that is a question better directed at my Right Honourable Friend (John Patten, Secretary of State for Education).' Opposition MPs howled derision at this evasion, clearly angering Mr Major who retorted: 'I am aware of teachers' leaders . . . who seem to be encouraging their members to take industrial action against the interests of pupils of those schools, and that I regret.'

One of Mr Major's regular themes has been the need to free businesses from 'red tape', but an attempt to further this deregulatory drive came to grief yesterday when a Conservative backbench Bill was defeated by 166 votes to 116.

Anthony Steen, MP for South Hams, said his Deregulation Bill would 'turn the clock back' by giving ministers power to repeal rules from Brussels and Whitehall which unnecessarily restricted business profits and competition. He claimed that MPs' staff should not use Tipp- Ex to hide typing errors. 'Together with plutonium and sulphuric acid, it is a dangerous substance under the Control of Substances (Hazards to Health) regulations and must be locked away at all times, preferably in an underground bunker.'

Opposing the Bill, mainly because it threatened health and safety standards, Bob Cryer, Labour MP for Bradford South, said he had no doubt Mr Steen was complaining about regulations that flowed from Acts of Parliament that he had 'trooped through the lobby, time after time, in favour of at the behest of the Government whips'.

More and tighter regulation was demanded by Ann Winterton, Conservative MP for Congleton, to stem the availability of explicit and violent pornography on video and via satellite television, computers and the telephone.

Mrs Winterton is one of the leaders of a group of MPs campaigning for a review of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. In February, with Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad, they mounted an exhibition at the Commons of material from pornographic magazines and videos and screened excerpts from Red Hot Television. Some 300 MPs and peers attended the exhibition over two days, Mrs Winterton told the Commons in an adjournment debate. 'Members were not attending out of some prurient interest, but to satisfy themselves as to whether the concerns others were expressing were based on fact or fiction.'

Mrs Winterton was particular worried about developments in 'virtual reality' in which 3-D images were created by computer and projected through a special headset. 'What pornographer would pass up the opportunity to make money from marketing interactive sexual acts, including those against children?'

With the Newbury by-election and county council elections tomorrow, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, led her ministers in a bout of Question Time vote gathering.

'According to a recent patient survey in Newbury, well over 90 per cent of patients are very satisfied with the health care they receive,' she said. Demonstrating the political truism that the closer the poll the wilder the claims, she said contracts for general practitioners had 'saved tens of thousands of children's lives'. She even hinted at revival of the dead, with NHS care so improved 'Nye Bevan would be cheering in his grave'.