Inside Parliament: Scots refrain greets Major's poll position: Smith returns to Tories' pre-election 'deception' on tax increases - Rifkind unites MPs by announcing reinforcements for Bosnia

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Indy Politics
John Major stumbled into a charge of misleading the House of Commons yesterday as he tried to distance his own visit to Scotland from the Tory party's record low in public opinion north of the border.

In what seemed just a light interlude in Question Time, David Marshall, Labour MP for Glasgow, Shettleston, said the Prime Minister's recent 'morale boosting' visit to Scotland had resulted in the his party's rating in the polls dropping to 13 per cent.

'Does Mr Major appreciate the fact that Scots are once more offering the refrain 'Will ye nae come back again . . . and again . . . and again?'

As Labour laughter subsided, the Prime Minister replied: 'As it happens, Mr Marshall is typically inaccurate. The data (for the poll) was before I visited Scotland.'

But Mr Marshall was not to be dismissed so easily. In a letter to the Prime Minister calling for a correction, he pointed out that the visit took place on 18 February. The System Three poll was published in the Glasgow Herald on 8 March based on data that was collected between 24 February and 3 March. 'In the circumstances I consider that the House has been misled.'

With MPs consumed by the business of ministerial honesty, Mr Major's reply was ill-timed. This was surely stretching too far the 'exceptional circumstances' in which William Waldegrave, the open government minister, believes it is acceptable to lie to the Commons.

John Smith's charge against the Prime Minister was more one of lying to the electorate. What most undermined the credibility of Mr Major's administration was the 'blatant deception' practised at the last election, the Labour leader said. 'The Conservative Party promised to cut taxes and have since then imposed the largest tax increases in British peacetime history.' Mr Smith's week-by-week persistence on tax pledges seemed to be getting at the Prime Minister. 'I am extremely surprised that Mr Smith pursued that on the day after the mortar attack on Heathrow airport and on the very day that the Cabinet are considering sending more troops to Bosnia . . . He seems to think these things do not matter. I think people up and down the country will take a different view.'

As Speaker Betty Boothroyd stilled the protests, Mr Major went on: 'Taxation rose precisely because we kept our promises to protect the elderly, the vulnerable and the sick through the long recession. The recession lasted longer than we or other forecasters imagined and in order to sustain policy and bring down interest rates, it was necessary to close borrowing.'

Mr Major said the Labour leader did not understand the first thing about economics and invited him to comment on council tax figures showing 'how much more expensive' were Labour and Liberal authorities. Mr Smith judged these 'feeble excuses' for breaking election campaign promises.

The House was at its most united over the announcement by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, that a second British battalion - some 900 troops from the 1st Duke of Wellington's Regiment - was on its way to Bosnia as part of a 6,300- strong reinforcement of the UN peacekeeping effort.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Menzies Campbell both welcomed the move, though Mr Clark said the lives of Britain's 'overstretched troops' had been put at risk by the delay.

Several MPs wanted the US to send ground troops while Tony Benn, Labour MP for Chesterfield, warned that to deploy Turkish troops would be 'historically illiterate and intensely dangerous'.

Mr Benn's 'unease' about Britain's deepening involvement was underlined from the opposite side by Sir Peter Tapsell, MP for East Lindsey, who spoke of a 'sickening sense of the inevitable unfolding' in the change from escorting aid convoys to maintaining peace. 'Why are we sending one battalion when five divisions will eventually prove insufficient?' Sir Peter asked.

Twenty years after the passage of the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, Labour front bencher Clare Short launched an attack on the Government for using women as cheap labour in an economic strategy aimed at 'dragging down' the labour market.

Women still earn only 79 per cent of men's hourly earnings, Ms Short said. The Government was out of line with other European countries in extending equality and was using women as a 'battering ram'. Full-time jobs for men were being destroyed and replaced by part-time, low-paid jobs for women. 'The Tories claim to be the party of the family, and they run an economy that is ripping the heart out of many families by using women against men to drag us all down in the labour market.'

The Labour motion for the debate calling for legislation to simplify, strengthen and extend the equality Acts was rejected by 303 votes to 257. David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, rejected what he called the assumptions of 'old-fashioned, highly-regulated labour markets'.

Ray Michie, for the Liberal Democrats, said there was a need for flexibility in women's employment or Britain would have a 'stressed out' female population.

Women were worn out with the struggle of juggling work and home.

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