Inside Parliament: PM certain of his scepticism: Ashdown exploits Tory divisions on referendum - Peers reject benefit-savings move - MPs back Sunday betting

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John Major was dubbed the 'maybe man' yesterday as he spent Question Time trying to square his distaste for a referendum on the future shape of the European Union with the possibility of holding one if that is what it takes to keep the Tory party together.

Delivering the jibe must have been particularly sweet for Paddy Ashdown, whose Liberal Democrats are regularly accused by the Tories of saying different things on different doorsteps. Mr Major had managed to wrap contrary messages into single answers.

John Smith, the Labour leader, began the assault, claiming that the cry for a referendum was 'further and compelling evidence that Mr Major's Cabinet and party were hopelessly divided'.

His answer prepared, Mr Major said: 'As I have made clear to the House on many occasions in the past, I am sceptical about referendums. I made that clear during the Maastricht debate and I haven't changed my mind about that.'

But he went on: 'So far as the inter-governmental conference (on Europe in 1996) is concerned, there's not even a specific agenda yet. I don't believe that the question of a referendum arises now and it certainly doesn't need to be decided now.

'It is not yet possible to say what the outcome of the conference will be. And I can assure Mr Smith I do not intend to come back to this House with a package that this House will find unacceptable.'

Mr Smith reminded MPs of Mr Major's words on 6 May last year: 'We are a parliamentary democracy and I am not in favour of referendums.' Was the movement from opposition to scepticism because Mr Major was 'running in front of the anti-Europeans'?

Mr Major repeated that he had not changed his mind. Above mounting noise, he said decisions on a single European currency were a long way off. 'It isn't going to be determined in 1996. No one expects that this Parliament is going to be asked to decide on a single European currency.

'That would be a matter for the future in circumstances no one can predict.' It was his negotiation at Maastricht that made clear Parliament's right to decide the issue, the Prime Minister said. 'Even if I wished to, I could not bind a future Parliament.'

Mr Smith came back: 'If that answer is to be construed as ruling out a referendum in the future, can we be assured that every member of his government will be asked to support it or asked to resign?' But Mr Major was not giving any such assurances.

With the Liberal Democrats hopeful of winning their first European Parliament seats in the 9 June elections, Mr Ashdown was intent on exploiting the Tories' Euro-crisis to the full. Mr Major's answers had 'only served to confirm his reputation as the 'maybe man' ', he said.

'How can the British people be asked to vote on the question of Europe for a government that is so divided on this issue and a prime minister whose answer on the key questions cannot get further than 'perhaps'?'

Mr Major did at least have a definite view on Mr Ashdown: 'The right honourable gentleman is at his own game as a veritable opportunist for all seasons.'

The senior Conservative Sir Terence Higgins entered the fray with a swipe at the Euro- critics. A referendum was 'an alien concept inconsistent with our system of representative parliamentary democracy', he said. 'It is absurd for those who argue that the authority of this House is being usurped by Brussels to advocate the use of a device which would undermine the authority of this House.'

In a reply which gave some reassurance to pro-Europeans on his backbenches, Mr Major said Sir Terence's remarks were 'undeniable' and he agreed with them.

Question Time was followed by a potentially fatal admission by Nicholas Scott, Minister for the Disabled, that he gave a 'misleading' answer to the Commons last Friday as he tried to distance the Government from tactics used to wreck a backbench Bill on rights for disabled people.

There was further woe for the Government, and indeed for Mr Scott's department, as plans to save pounds 5m by delaying the payment of extra incapacity benefit for claimants with dependent children were rejected by the House of Lords.

By 133 votes to 127, peers backed an all-party amendment to the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Bill to enable extra benefit to continue to be paid after 28 weeks of sickness rather than after a year. The National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, which drafted the amendment, said families with two children had stood to lose pounds 498 and those with three children would have lost pounds 760.

Lord Swinfen, a Tory and a promoter of the amendment, rejected the Government argument that the poorest familes would be covered by income support during their first year on incapacity benefit. 'Just because someone doesn't qualify for income support doesn't mean that they won't be in hardship. It is extremely important that families with children should have income assistance during this period because they are extremely vulnerable when someone is incapable of work.'

Temptations to spend money were meanwhile being extended by the Commons, which voted by 290 votes to 189 to allow horse racing, with on- and off-course betting, on Sunday.

The change was made on a free vote during the report stage of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill.

Among opponents of the measure, the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, said gambling was already responsible for enough 'heartache and heartbreak in decent working-class homes'. But Neil Hamilton, Under-Secretary for Trade and Industry, in a personal view, said any 'innocuous activity' could be abused if it was indulged in to excess. He did not think the nation would be 'plunged into a hell- hole of gambling'.

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