INSIDE PARLIAMENT: Waldegrave throws money at angry fishermen

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Indy Politics
Ministers regularly sneer at Labour spokesman for having only one solution to every problem - to throw money at it. Last night, faced with the problem of looming defeat in the division lobbies, William Waldegrave took a leaf out of this discredite d bookand threw £28m at angry fishermen and their MPs.

It did not prevent a rebellion but with sundry other assurances, particularly to the Ulster Unionists, was sufficient to stave off defeat.

The Government's majority was cut to nine in the narrowest of two votes on a decision by European fisheries ministers to allow Spanish vessels into waters, traditionally the preserve of British fishermen notably off the south-west of England and south ofIreland.

The money will more than double the present £25m available over three years for fishermen to take their boats out of commission. But as Jim Wallace put it for the Liberal Democrats, it amounted to "making money available to lay up British vessels to allow more Spanish vessels into our waters".

In an Opposition day debate, Labour sought to lure aggrieved South-west Tories, whipless Euro-sceptics and Ulster Unionists behind a motion criticising the deal and calling on the Government to reopen the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

Urging his colleagues not to fall for this "old ploy", Mr Waldegrave, who abstained in the Brussels decision, said the extra £28m would help secure a profitable fleet trading at full capacity. Telling MPs that no-one believed the Spanish "played according to the rules" he proferred a review of fishing regulation enforcement with a strengthening of the Royal Navy's role and said there would be a review of the CFP.

But it was not enough for David Harris, Conservative MP for St Ives, who said he would be voting with Labour. "Frankly, we were skewered in Brussels.'' The deal was unfair to British fishermen and the CFP should be recast to return the control of fish stocks around the coast to the British government.

"No one can convince me for one second that somehow there is some means of ensuring that only 40 Spanish vessels will be allowed into some of the waters."

Another Tory rebel, Rupert Allason, MP for Torbay, said the Spanish were going to be plundering British stocks. The net effect would be to remove British vessels and replace them with Spanish ones.

A Labour attempt to stop rail operators cutting back on the number of stations offering through-ticketing after privatisation was rejected by 317 votes to 282.

In a knockabout debate, Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, insisted the option to restrict the sale of through tickets to 294 stations was "unacceptable", while his Labour shadow, Michael Meacher, said the interests of the passenger came "absolutely nowhere" in the privatisation drive.

In full hyperbolic mode, Mr Meacher said proposals like those on through-ticketing were making John Major and his Government "the laughing stock of the western world".

Over and over again ministers had made unequivocal commitments that, following the franchising of passenger services, through-ticketing would continue "on exactly the same basis as it is at present" - at more than 1,300 stations.

But 10 days ago it had been reported that the Rail Regulator was expected to limit the purchase of through-tickets to just 294 "core" stations. Since then ministers' promises had "collapsed ignominiously".

Mr Mawhinney was "powerless" to stop the regulator reducing the number of core stations, said the Labour spokesman. "The Secretary of State, in all his splendid isolation and irrelevance, sits there like a beached whale - a monument to the crass ineptitude of a privatisation that is fast running out of control."

Mr Mawhinney said the consultation document had put forward three options: A requirement to maintain current arrangements; core stations offering a full range of services with others free to decide; and a two-tier approach, with core stations providing afull range of tickets and a less demanding requirement on other stations.

The regulator had said suggestions that through-tickets would only be available from 294 stations was "absurd". He was seeking to establish a minimum to act as a safeguard, "It is self-evidently in the interests of operators to make their tickets widely available," he said.

Tam Dalyell, the iconoclastic MP for Linlithgow, yesterday posed a dilemma to Parliament every bit as troublesome as his hoary West Lothian question - how to deal with seagull mess on the Forth railway bridge?

Tackling the Secretary of State during Environment Questions, Mr Dalyell suggested the Millennium Fund use lottery money to maintain that "great structure of the 19th century''. He and two other Scottish Labour MPs had recently paid a visit to the bridge.

"We were appalled at the flaky paint, the bare steel structure, all the debris of dead birds and, frankly, seagull shit on the bare steel."

Mr Gummer expressed a "considerable interest" in inspecting personally the bridge, then went on to advert to the "West Lothian question", used to effect by Mr Dalyell in his opposition to Labour's devolution plans 20 years ago. Mr Dalyell had just asked a question in the Commons as a Scottish MP, said Mr Gummer. Under Tony Blair's devolution plans he would still be able to do so, but an English MP would not be able to ask a question about Scotland.

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