Inside Parliament: Patten rebuked for jibe at Labour frontbencher: Education Secretary's comments 'scandalous' - 'Questions for cash' debate granted

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Indy Politics
John Patten's chances of hanging on to his Cabinet post were not enhanced yesterday when he was rebuked by the Speaker of the Commons, Betty Boothroyd, for using the child of a Labour frontbencher as ammunition in an education row.

Miss Boothroyd told MPs: 'I really do think it is totally outrageous that members' children from whatever side it may be, should be used in politics.'

The Secretary of State for Education committed his offence during run-of-the-mill Question Time exchanges. To the pleasure of Tory backbenchers, who thought a smart point had been scored, he noted that Harriet Harman, the shadow chief secretary, was sending her son to a London school this September that had opted for grant maintained status.

How could Ms Harman do this when her colleague, Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, was opposed to schools opting out of local government control, Mr Patten wondered. 'This must make for very interesting discussions in the shadow cabinet where of course Mrs Taylor sits in firm favour of abolishing such schools altogether.'

Derek Enright, Labour MP for Hemsworth and a former schoolmaster, thought Mr Patten's behaviour 'scandalous'. Securing Miss Boothroyd's rebuke of the secretary of state on a point of order, he said GM schools were state schools. 'What is more that child (young Harman) is going to the school his father attended - the local state school.'

Mr Patten has been tipped for the chop in the imminent Cabinet reshuffle. But during Prime Minister's Questions, John Major became an accessory to Mr Patten's offence. Attacking Labour over choice in education, he said it had opposed policies such as the Assisted Places Scheme, City Technology Colleges, and 'A' levels.

'And I had thought until a few moments ago (it opposed) grant maintained schools, but I understand a number of prominent members of the Labour Party now seem to favour them for their own families.'

Miss Boothroyd's main performance of the day was her statement granting a debate today on the 'questions for cash' affair arising from newspaper allegations that two Tory MPs were ready to accept pounds 1,000 each in return for tabling parliamentary questions to ministers.

The debate, on a Labour motion, will go wider than the conduct of Graham Riddick, MP for Colne Valley, and David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, to take in that of the Sunday Times, whose reporter posed as a businessman in approaches to MPs, and the issue of MPs acting as consultants.

The Speaker reminded the House of a paragraph in the first report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests of session 1991-92: ' 'There is a danger that some Members may make the mistake of believing that correct registration and declaration adequately discharged their public responsibilities in respect of their private interests. Such a mistake could have serious consequences, both for the Member concerned and ultimately for the House.'

'As the Speaker (Bernard Weatherill) reminded the committee, 'a Member must be vigilant that his actions do not tend to bring the House into disrepute, and in particular Members who hold consultancy and similar positions must ensure that they do not use their position as Members improperly. A financial inducement to take a particular course of action in Parliament may constitute a bribe and thus be an offence against the law of Parliament.' '

MPs gasped at the reminder of Speaker (now Lord) Weatherill's stern warning. Miss Boothroyd said it was because she considered that there was 'an urgent need to clarify the law of Parliament in this area' that she was agreeing to an emergency debate.

She said the conduct of the Sunday Times also merited further examination and quoted the parliamentary rule book, Erskine May: 'The offering to a Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as a Member, or of any fee or reward in connection with the promotion of any matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House, has been treated as a breach of privilege.'

Given the parliamentary climate, Tim Sainsbury, Minister of State for Trade and Industry, was rightly scrupulous in declaring his interest in the family supermarket chain, J Sainsbury plc, during a debate on the future of the Post Office.

Responding to Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, who said privatisation was only wanted by 'dogmatists and ideologues', Mr Sainsbury began by explaining that recently the PO had transferred a number of its crown offices to agency or franchise status.

'These franchise arrangements are made with a number of stores including those of the Co-operative movement and I understand that five of them have been established in Sainsbury's. I should make clear . . . that the choice of private sector franchisees in individual cases is wholly an operational matter for Post Office Counters. DTI officials and ministers are neither involved in, nor informed about such decisions.'

The minister was promptly informed of one 'strongly resented' franchise. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, complained that despite public opposition, the post office in Nantwich had been closed and put into a supermarket somewhere else.

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