Inside Parliament: Peers ponder their TV image: Disrespect for authority condemned - Benefits of 'warts and all' coverage proclaimed - Major riled by Ashdown's attack on waste

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Indy Politics
Strained tempers at Question Time, with John Major thumping his notes down on the Despatch Box, coincided neatly with exchanges in the Lords on the effect of televising Parliament on the behaviour of the public outside.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, concerned about the example being set, asked whether the Government thought the televising of proceedings contributed to its campaign on law and order. He, plainly, did not.

The behaviour of MPs and peers had not been sufficiently considered before the cameras were invited into the two chambers, suggested the 14th Lord Clifford, a 45-year-old ex-Guards officer who lists in Who's Who, where most people put their occupation, his inherited title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire.

'Criticism and condemnation of certain of the electorate's behaviour' had, he said, to be considered alongside the 'obvious public disrespect shown to authority by certain members in Parliament'.

Earl Ferrers, the Home Office minister, thought that television had increased the Lords' standing. 'The purpose of televising the proceedings of Parliament is so that the public may be better informed of parliamentary opinion. There is no evidence that it has had, nor that it was intended to have, any particular effect on law and order.'

The advantages and disadvantages had been gone into in great depth before the cameras were admitted, he said. 'Of course it is up to everyone in this House or Another Place to conduct themselves with great decorum.' Their lordships generally do, though Lord Stoddart of Swindon was driven to tell the former Tory Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, to 'shut up' as his own doubts about televising were lost in banter.

Keen to accentuate ministerial splits, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for Labour, expressed gratitude to Lord Ferrers for distancing himself from Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said in a recent 'notorious' speech that the televising of Parliament was ill-advised. 'Parliament is an institution which has to deserve respect rather than assuming respect as of right, which Mr Portillo seems to think is the case,' Lord McIntosh said.

Lord Marsh, a former Labour minister long since turned crossbencher, said that far from being a criticism of television, 'anything that demonstrates that parliamentarians are ordinary human beings, warts and all, must be good for democracy'.

'It depends upon the size and nature of the warts,' Lord Ferrers replied.

In the Commons, John Smith and Paddy Ashdown homed in on the warts in the conduct of public business highlighted by the Commons Public Accounts Committee in a report published yesterday.

The Labour leader asked how Mr Major explained the 'devastating catalogue of incompetence, mismanagement and waste of public money' by the Government and its agencies. But the Prime Minister said he welcomed the report. It 'provides a useful check-list, which suggests there has been no decline in standards and says, quite rightly, that improving the efficiency of the public sector is not inconsistent with propriety.'

Mr Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said there was understandable anger among people who were being asked to pay unprecedented levels of taxation 'only to see the Government hand that money over to quangos and executive agencies, to throw away on waste, corruption and fraud'.

The Prime Minister thumped his file down on the Despatch Box. He seemed angry, but whether it was the substance of the question or questioner that riled him was not clear. The prime ministerial nostrils nearly always flare when Mr Ashdown asks a question.

'I hope the Right Honourable Gentleman can substantiate what he has just said and will be prepared to do it. It is his party's stated position to increase taxation.' (An extra 1p in the pound for education.)

Conservative backbenchers cheered Mr Major and shouted at his opponent. The cameras captured it all, but had the public been influenced or even informed?