Inside Parliament: Parachuting Tories land Commons in a tangle: Newton denounces non-co-operation campaign - SNP leads sit-in on council reform Bill - Labour attacks Major over sale of Rover

Click to follow
Indy Politics
Tactical manoeuvring tied the Commons in knots yesterday as Alex Salmond, the Scottish Nationalist leader, staged a sit-in and the Government wheeled out the guillotine to limit debate on the largest Finance Bill in memory.

Mr Salmond's antic in bringing the Committee on the Scottish Local Government Bill to a grinding halt was described as 'a self-indulgent opportunistic stunt' by George Robertson, Labour's Scottish affairs spokesman.

And the Opposition's campaign of parliamentary non-co-operation was in turn denounced by Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, as he tried to justify the timetabling of the Finance Bill, implementing the November Budget.

The guillotine ensured sections of the Bill dealing with the new insurance premium tax, the freezing of personal allowances and reductions in mortgage tax relief were wrapped up by 10 o'clock last night, completing two days of committee debate by the whole House.

The remainder of the Committee Stage on 240 clauses and 23 schedules of the 417-page Bill must be completed 'upstairs' by 29 March, with the Report and Third Reading on two days after Easter.

Labour withdrew co-operation with the Government on parliamentary business in protest at two earlier guillotines severely curbing debate on the rise in National Insurance contributions and the halving to six months of the period of entitlement for unemployment benefit.

Margaret Beckett, shadow Leader of the Commons, said the timetable motion was a classic example of why people were cynical about Parliament. It took control away from Parliament and handed it to the Government for debate on the biggest tax hike in British history. A typical family faced an extra bill of pounds 1,330 over two years, she said. 'The Government thinks that if it hides debate away, people won't notice the extra they are paying.'

Mr Newton said he had provided for about 100 hours of debate in Committee compared with 70 hours taken last year - when the Bill ran to 296 pages. He blamed the guillotine on a 'transparent exercise' by Labour on Monday to spin out debate on air passenger duty. Calum MacDonald, MP for the Western Isles, protested. He had spoken for 50 minutes - the longest speech - on behalf of constituents who face a tax of pounds 5 each time they fly in an aircraft with more than 20 seats. As a precedent, Mr Newton offered a Labour guillotine on the Finance Bill of 1975. But that fell rather flat when it was pointed out there had been 160 hours of debate in committee before the 1975 Bill was timetabled, not just five hours.

The committee on the controversial Bill introducing unitary councils in Scotland did not last even that long before an 'illegal' sit-in by Mr Salmond brought it to a halt. The SNP leader, who is not a member of the committee, was protesting that five English Tories had been 'parachuted' in to make up Government numbers.

Michael Martin, Labour chairman of the committee, formally reported the impasse to the House. After an angry debate MPs passed by 491 votes to 10 a motion from Mr Newton empowering Mr Martin to order non-members to withdraw immediately from the committee room - and to call for assistance from the Sergeant at Arms.

Mr Salmond asked how the five English Tories could be considered 'qualified' to serve on the committee when they had no constituency interest whatsoever. Yet SNP members were being excluded from making their case against the 'gerrymandering' of local government in Scotland. Mr Robertson said the SNP's 'self-indulgent stand' had only served to help a government in deep trouble. 'This was a counter-productive stunt designed to get some cheap publicity for the nationalist party.

A Labour backbench Bill to 'lift a corner slightly on the dark sleazy world of Tory party finance' was given an unopposed first reading - but will progress no further. Introduced by John Spellar, MP for Warley West, under the 10-minute rule procedure, the Regulation of Political Funding Bill would prohibit donations from overseas and ensure publication of all donations over pounds 1,000.

Picking up John Major's claim that the Tory party had 'a great many sources - and they are all wine and cheese parties', Mr Spellar went on: ' pounds 440,000 from Asil Nadir? Hundreds of thousands, if not millions from Greek shipowner John Latsis, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and fugitive from justice, ex-Nissan boss Octav Botnar? That's a lot of big cheeses, let alone glasses of wine.'

Earlier, at Question Time, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, had led political point-scoring in the opposite direction with a personal attack on Ann Taylor, his Labour shadow, who claimed financial rewards of grant maintained status were running out.

'The Labour Party has not had an original idea for 15 wasted years in opposition . . . If Ms Taylor was subject to an educational brain scan there would not be a flicker on the screen,' Mr Patten said and sat down looking even more than usually pleased with himself. He went to emphasise the 'critical importance' of a daily act of worship in schools.

John Smith tackled the Prime Minister over BMW's pounds 800m takeover of the Rover group, asking: 'Is it now the Government's definition of success for a British company that it is taken over by a foreign competitor?' But Mr Major said the Labour leader should 'catch up with the modern world. The fact is that he simply does not understand how free markets work'. Companies now traded across national boundaries.

Paddy Ashdown briefly raised MPs' sights above the domestic or positively internal with a reminder that three weeks ago Mr Major told the Commons of his personal determination, 'as soon as possible', to open Tuzla airport for humanitarian aid to Bosnia. What steps had the Prime Minister taken to fulfil that assurance and in what time frame might it be expected to happen?

The reply: 'I also told Mr Ashdown at the time we would take the advice of commanders on the ground. That is most certainly what we will do and Mr Ashdown will learn what is happening when we have had that advice and we have taken the action that is appropriate.'

It was classic Major-ese, though of doubtful comfort to hungry Bosnians.