Inside Parliament: Smith puts Major to the test on exams question: Ballot demanded on pupil appraisal - Export success claimed - Whitehall's Oxbridge factor examined - Foxes find a friend

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Indy Politics
John Smith, the Labour leader, yesterday challenged the Prime Minister to back his belief that parents want this year's school tests to go ahead by conducting a ballot. The poll of parents could be paid for by the pounds 700,000 of taxpayers' money to be spent by the Government on advertising the testing regime, Mr Smith suggested.

With all six teacher and headteacher organisations now lined up against the tests, John Major's Question Time reply was restrained by comparison with earlier exchanges on the dispute. Instead of the standard attempt to smear Mr Smith as a strikers' friend, the Prime Minister drew a distinction between 'ordinary teachers' who wanted less bureaucracy and the 'militants' of the National Union of Teachers.

Mr Smith urged the Government to listen to the 'considered professional judgement' of the whole profession and suspend the tests for 7- and 14-year-olds under the National Curriculum.

The implication of the question, according to Mr Major, was that the Labour leader now accepted the principle of testing. But Mr Smith retorted: 'Does the Prime Minister not understand that this increasingly bitter dispute is not about the principle of testing, but about the dogmatic insistence of an arrogant Secretary of State (John Patten) that his view must prevail against that of governors, teachers and parents?'

Mr Patten had lost the argument. 'It is an insult to use pounds 700,000 of public money in futile propaganda,' Mr Smith said. 'If the Prime Minister is so confident of the support of parents, why doesn't he use the pounds 700,000 to hold a ballot of parents to find out what they really think? Why, if the Government is so sincere about parental choice, not let the parents choose?'

The Prime Minister ignored the challenge, just as Mr Smith had when asked to condemn a call by the president of the NUT to 'annihilate' tests in the National Curriculum.

'I do not think it is appropriate for teachers to take industrial action at the expense of these tests,' Mr Major said. 'There are two agendas in play - that of the ordinary teacher who wants less bureaucracy, which we are considering and responding to, and the militant opposition to any sort of testing or appraisal and to all our reforms. I note Mr Smith implies he's in favour of tests, but he has not the courage to denounce the NUT and their comments about industrial action.'

Tory backbenchers were keen to underline the economic good cheer. Tim Rathbone, MP for Lewes, secured prime ministerial approval for his claim that British companies now had the edge to develop export markets everywhere. 'Britain is exporting televisions to Germany, lace to Brussels, cosmetics to France and pizzas to Italy,' Mr Rathbone said.

Earlier, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, reproached Labour MPs for 'pouring scorn' on the good news for the unemployed. Last month the number out of work fell by 26,000.

Greville Janner, Labour chairman of the Employment Select Committee, complained that in manufacturing cities like Leicester, part of which he represents, there had been no decrease in unemployment but a 'vast increase' in the number of young people desperate for work.

Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport East, said there had been a further 200 job losses in his constituency this month. 'Why doesn't this Government try to stop stirring up manic optimism and realise that all that is taking place is a phantom recovery?'

Ever suspicious of the Government for 'fiddling' jobless figures, Frank Dobson, Labour's employment spokesman, pointed out that the Census showed there were 28 per cent more people out of work in Greater London than the figure produced by Department of Employment officials. Which figure was right?

Shouting above the heckling that he would answer the question, Michael Forsyth, Minister of State at the department, replied: 'When the figures were going up, Mr Dobson was happy to accept them. It is only when they are going down that he casts doubt about them.

'The answer is that the Census figure for people who are not working includes people who are ill, it includes people who are not working perhaps because they are going on holiday. Mr Dobson should not try to compare apples with pears, otherwise he ends up with results which are just bananas.'

Statistics are basic ammunition for MPs, and their uses are many and varied. At a hearing of the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee, John Garrett, Labour MP for Norwich South, used figures for recruitment into the 'fast track' for Civil Service high flyers to demonstrate how Whitehall was dominated by an Oxford and Cambridge-educated elite.

Questioning witnesses from the Association of First Division Civil Servants, including general secretary Elizabeth Symons (Girton College, Cambridge), Mr Garrett said that of the 374 fast-track recruits in 1991-92, 67 were from Cambridge and 87 from Oxford. There were only 20 from all the polytechnics.

There was 'very, very little' representation of women or of ethnic minorities, Mr Garrett said, 'and a grotesque over-representation, by comparison with the rest of managerial cadres in this country, of public school and Oxbridge classicists.' The mandarins' union could find no reason to doubt his analysis.

A more robust version of the class war occupied the Commons for 10 minutes as Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North West, introduced a Bill to abolish fox hunting with hounds. It stands no chance of becoming law but gave Mr Banks a splendid opportunity to inveigh against 'yahoos on horseback' and the British Field Sports Society.

He said the society had sent a video to every MP 'as a desperate attempt to vindicate their wretched activities'. But the film, which showed a fox being seized by the stomach, had been reported to the Metropolitan Police for possible offences.

'Anyone who derives pleasure from the pain and suffering experienced by a fox being hunted by a pack of hounds is on a continuum which, like it or not, ends up in its most extreme form with the hideous cruelties of a Bosnian massacre or a Nazi death camp,' Mr Banks said.

The howls of protest from the Tory benches suggested they did not like it at all. A Labour colleague of Mr Banks shouted 'Order'. That brought the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, to her feet to proclaim: 'There's no vacancy here - you seem to have forgotten that it was a year ago that the House elected me.'

Mr Banks said that of the estimated 300,000 foxes killed each year, hunting accounted for 16,000. Public opinion was on the side of the foxes and the 'hunting mob' was running out of time. 'I ken we will shortly welcome the day when we hear the last tally-ho and John Peel will have to find something else to do with his horn in the morning.'